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The one policy Chinese President Xi Jinping has stuck to ferociously during his tenure is to strengthen the rule of the Communist Party so as to avoid the fate of Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet Union. (Nikkei Montage/Source photo by AP) 
China up close

Xi's Gorbachev obsession put China on a Soviet path

Efforts to strengthen Communist Party rule has only backfired

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

TOKYO -- The first pledge Xi Jinping made as leader of the Chinese Communist Party eight years ago was to never allow the party to suffer the same fate of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

"Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse?" he asked his fellow members in December 2012. "An important reason was that their ideals and convictions wavered," he said during an internal speech that was not carried by state media.

"Finally, all it took was one quiet word from Gorbachev to declare the dissolution of the Soviet Communist Party, and a great party was gone," he reportedly said.

Those words -- spoken mere weeks after the dark-horse candidate became general secretary -- foretold of the U.S.-China tensions that years later would relentlessly haunt Xi.

Because establishing absolute party rule -- his prescription to prevent China from following the Soviet Union's path -- has been the one policy Xi has stuck to ferociously during his tenure. It is also the core reason Sino-American relations have sunk to their lowest point since 1972, before then-President Richard Nixon visited Mao Zedong.

It is ironic for Xi that the Trump administration today is treating the Chinese Communist Party as Washington did its Soviet counterpart, trying to push it to its grave.

Mao Zedong welcomed U.S. President Richard Nixon to China in February 1972, a development that in some parts of Asia became known as "the Nixon shock."   © AP

In a blistering speech last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Xi "a true believer in a bankrupt totalitarian ideology." He pulled no punches. "If the free world doesn't change," Pompeo snapped, "Communist China will surely change us."

It was as if the American diplomat was showing Xi the exit, beckoning him to walk the same path as Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union.

To China, the secretary of state's words reek of the dreaded "Peaceful Evolution" theory formulated by John Foster Dulles during the early years of the Cold War. Dulles, who held Pompeo's position from 1953 to 1959, talked of a political transformation of the Chinese socialist system by peaceful means. Beijing has been on alert against such a move for decades.

Pompeo's speech was so provocative it has not been squarely reported inside China. Harsh rebukes of the speech have been carried by Xinhua News Agency, but Pompeo's speech itself has not been.

Troubling for the party, the speech was filled with phrases aimed at driving a wedge between it and the people of China, clearly distinguishing between them.

Symbolically, Pompeo delivered the speech at a museum built in memory of Nixon, whose surprise visit to China paved the way for the normalization of diplomatic ties between the two countries in 1979.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library on July 23, 2020. His speech in Yorba Linda, California, used phrases intended to drive a wedge between the Chinese Communist Party and the people of China.   © Reuters

The establishment of U.S.-China ties changed the course of modern history.

The Chinese Communist Party decided to part ways with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which in many ways it had followed, and instead joined hands with the U.S., which until then it had accused of imperialism.

Nixon himself made the bold choice of teaming with communist China to contain America's No. 1 adversary, the Soviet Union.

The demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 left China as the only remaining major communist power. But the U.S. did not seek to pursue the end of communist rule in China simply because China was no match for the U.S. and not worth the effort.

Today, the situation has changed, and the countries are locking horns over countless issues.

The eight years of Xi's rule are marked by a constant effort to strengthen the party.

One of the first steps Xi took was to set up various "small groups" within the party's Central Committee that would become the country's core policymaking organs. Xi himself became head of the new groups.

These moves concentrated power in Xi's hands while weakening the powers of the State Council, the national government presided over by Premier Li Keqiang, Xi's political rival.

As a result, even macroeconomic policies that were traditionally under the premier's jurisdiction gradually fell under Xi's.

This was evident at a large-scale symposium attended by a group of public and private business leaders held in Beijing on July 21. It was chaired by Xi, who was accompanied by three of the seven Politburo Standing Committee members. Li was not present, despite being known to have been in Beijing that day.

Among those invited to the meeting were representatives of Microsoft and Panasonic's China subsidiary as well as those of Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology, China's top surveillance camera maker, which is facing pressure from the U.S. government.

It is clear that Xi and the party make the policies, not Li and the government.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has moved to weaken the power of Premier Li Keqiang.   © AP

Since taking office, Xi has reversed the clock in three areas. He has put the brakes on the separation of the government and the party, the separation of the government and companies, and on the separation of the military and companies.

As a result of Xi's "reverse reforms," the party is back at the top of every organization.

The slogan "military-civilian integration" offers a prime example.

The word "military" here does not mean an ordinary national military. It means the People's Liberation Army, which falls under the party's absolute command. Military-civilian integration is a framework for private companies to fully cooperate with the PLA.

The objective of companies is to pursue profits. But in China, there are party cells within companies. With the party at the decision-making table, they are significantly different from the international standard of companies.

Furthermore, China's companies and its people are required under the national intelligence and other laws to cooperate with the government -- essentially with the party -- to provide information when necessary.

This unique structure of the communist state has become a major drag on Chinese companies such as telecom equipment giant Huawei Technologies and surveillance camera maker Hikvision, which have operations in the U.S. and other free nations.

"Party, government, military, civilian, and academic; east, west, south, north, and center, the Party leads everything." This was one of the slogans ratified at the party's last national congress, in 2017.

U.S. President Donald Trump attends a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the G-20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan in June 2019.   © Reuters

At the same congress, it was also decided that the target year for realizing "modernization" would be 2035 instead of around 2049, the 100th anniversary of Communist China's founding, as initially planned.

In other words, China would catch up and overtake the U.S. 15 years earlier than planned.

Naturally, the Trump administration has pulled out all the stops to block its rival.

China abruptly put in force the Hong Kong national security law, which erodes the "one country, two systems" principle that has applied to the former British colony since its return to Chinese rule in 1997. It was a decision that, as far as the international community was concerned, strayed far from common sense.

But the party's priority was its own domestic political interests, its survival instinct. The question of how the decision would hit the national economy was put on the back burner.

As expected, the U.S.-China confrontation has escalated, and diplomatic ties have plunged to their lowest point in decades. The Trump administration has begun to target China's communist regime itself, under the premise that many things that have happened during Xi's eight-year tenure have undermined the rules-based world order.

The U.S. is reportedly weighing entry restrictions on members of the Chinese Communist Party and their families. The party has as many as 92 million members, more than Germany's population. The total number of members and their family members is said to be nearly 300 million, closing in on the U.S. population.

If the U.S. severs ties with China's elite, it could, in effect, mean a freeze in diplomatic ties. It would also be highly dangerous.

Xi's obsession with not becoming Gorbachev and his relentless efforts to strengthen the party to that end have now all backfired.

Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He has spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting.

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