Sitting in the hall at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham last week, my mind drifted to another party conference that is about to get under way in Beijing.
The 20th national congress of the Chinese Communist party will be everything that the Tory party conference was not: choreographed, disciplined and united in support for an all-powerful leader. At the congress, Xi Jinping is all but certain to be appointed to a third term as general secretary of the party — potentially laying the ground for him to rule for life. Whatever their private feelings, party delegates and the Chinese media will sing President Xi’s praises.
The contrast with Liz Truss, Britain’s new prime minister, could not be starker. Her party conference was a debacle. Truss’s colleagues were mutinous, the press was contemptuous and the markets were in turmoil. Her big speech was interrupted by hecklers. Delegates travelling to and from the conference were stymied by a train strike. Truss has been in power little more than a month and there is already speculation that she could be forced out by Christmas.
Viewed from Beijing, all of this looks like evidence for an argument that Xi himself frequently makes: “The east is rising and the west is declining.” As the Chinese leader sees it, one of the main reasons for this historic shift is the contrast between the order of the Chinese political system and the chaos of western liberal democracy.
In the pre-Xi era, the Communist party line tended to be that liberal democracy was not appropriate for China and that all societies should be allowed to develop in their own way. But, more recently, Beijing has gone on the ideological offensive. It is pushing the idea of a “China model” that the rest of the world could profitably emulate.
Over the years, I have heard many western executives sigh in envy at China’s ability to plan for the long term. Truss and her Tory colleagues admit that it is a struggle to get new infrastructure built in Britain. But China has constructed thousands of miles of new motorways and high-speed rail over the past 20 years (and, oddly enough, strikes are not a big issue on the Chinese railways).
In Birmingham, Truss stressed that her goal was “growth, growth, growth”. That too is something that China knows a bit about. As the World Bank notes: “Since China began to open up and reform its economy in 1978, GDP growth has averaged over 9 per cent a year, and more than 800mn people have lifted themselves out of poverty.”
The long-term success of the China model should provide the perfect backdrop for Xi to stake his claim to rule far into the future. But, inconveniently for him, this month’s crucial party congress comes at a time when cracks are beginning to show in the China model.
One of the arguments often made for Chinese authoritarianism is that it provides political stability, which allows for long-term planning and a predictable business environment. But, under Xi, policymaking has become much less predictable. His determination that the Communist party must monopolise power has led him to clash with some of China’s most innovative and wealth-creating companies. Xi’s policies have helped to wipe an astonishing $2tn off the value of Chinese tech stocks. Last month it was announced that, for the first time since 1990, the Chinese economy was expected to grow slower than the rest of Asia.
The frequent lockdowns required by Xi’s increasingly controversial zero-Covid policy have heightened social tensions and depressed consumer demand. Meanwhile, Xi’s aggressive security policies — in the South China Sea and over Taiwan — have contributed to a sharp deterioration in relations with the US. That means China is now locked into an intensifying trade war with the US. Xi’s crackdown on Hong Kong has led to the exodus of more than 100,000 residents, many of whom have chosen to live in the hellhole that is modern Britain.
Meanwhile, the long-predicted crash in the Chinese property market is finally happening (while Britain has built too few houses, China has built too many). That threatens corporate and personal wealth and the stability of the Chinese financial system.
In a democratic society, a leader with Xi’s chequered record would be open to challenge and removal. In today’s China, however, it is impossible to have an open debate about what Xi has got right and wrong. His reappointment this week is mainly a sign of his success in centralising power and suppressing opposition. Indeed, just to make sure, there has been an intensification of repression in the run-up to the congress. Unlike Truss, his speech will not be interrupted by people shouting: “Who voted for this?”
Britain’s frequent changes of leader make the country look unstable. A further change of prime minister will confirm that impression and will be no guarantee that better times are around the corner.
The British mess is, however, a lot less frightening and dangerous than the Chinese model. Xi is already the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. He will emerge from the party congress with even more authority. But investing more and more power in the hands of a leader whose judgment has already proved erratic is a formula for disaster. Just ask the Russians.