Autor foto: AFP/AP

Beware The Dragon: The People’s Republic of China in 2024 and Beyond

Beware The Dragon: The People’s Republic of China in 2024 and Beyond

29 kwietnia, 2024

Beware The Dragon: The People’s Republic of China in 2024 and Beyond


Autor foto: AFP/AP

Beware The Dragon: The People’s Republic of China in 2024 and Beyond

Autor: Reuben F. Johnson

Opublikowano: 29 kwietnia, 2024

Deng Xiaoping has gone down in history as the man who was responsible for the rise of his nation – economically, militarily and politically. When he died in February 1997, he was euologised[1] in a letter from the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) central apparatus to the Party, the Army and the People as the man who had changed the People’s Republic of China (PRC) forever. He was described as a master builder who had brought about the opening up of China externally and had reformed the economic and political system internally.

However, there are two popular myths about Deng. One is that he constructed a PRC based on Mao’s principles. The other is that from Day One, he had an elaborate plan for transforming the country from one of the poorest nations in the world into the manufacturing and export trade powerhouse it has become. As more than one biographer has noted, what Deng actually did was to destroy the Maoist political and economic system – moving the country away from the Soviet model of centralised planning that had proven to be such a disastrous failure.

Deng also had no such developed plan for creating a liberalised economic sphere that provided for building “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Although this system he instituted was labelled socialism, it reflected those principles in little more than name. His plan for the CCP adopted various elements of market economics so as to promote growth and attract foreign direct investment. Most importantly, Deng’s system focused on harnessing the power of the peasantry – increasing productivity in the rural areas where 80 per cent of the PRC’s population resided at the time.

The rest is history. Many of those in the countryside and in the poorer regions became employed in the factories and assembly lines that began sprouting all over the PRC. Deng’s exhortation of “to get rich is glorious” is regarded as being symbolic of how his leadership unlocked the potential of the nation’s workforce and produced year after year of double-digit economic growth. For the first time since the Communist movement took root in China, concepts such as profit-making were no longer denounced as craven exploitation but as a vehicle for modernising the nation.

Less mentioned, however, is how Deng remodelled the political system to suppress any future repeat of a cult of personality and a supreme leader-for-life that existed under Mao Zedong. It seems almost unthinkable today, given the continually increasing totalitarian nature of the PRC under the current CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping. But in 1981, under Deng, an official party document called for putting “an end to the virtually lifelong tenure of leading cadres, [and] change the over-concentration of power.”[2]


Xi Who Must Be Obeyed

Today, this current arrangement is being turned upside down. Xi is attempting to maintain the institutions and practices of a modern economy in the PRC, but he has decidedly turned back the clock in the political sphere. It is hard to believe that this 1981 document was ever written or that there were ever any advocates in the CCP’s Central Committee advocating an elimination of the “rulers-for-life” scenario.

Deng created this leadership system to prevent the upheavals and self-destructive tendencies incumbent in an arrangement with a supreme ruler.  The PRC constitution was modified so that each leader would serve two five-year terms and would be replaced by a successor chosen from the senior leadership. In this way, Deng’s ultimate replacement, Jiang Zemin, was succeeded by Hu Jintao in 2002.  Hu, in turn, handed the mantle over to Xi Jinping a decade later in 2012.

But in 2018 – four years before his second term was to end – Xi engineered a revision of the constitution eliminating term limit provisions.  He was now set to serve an unprecedented third term – and potentially to carry on after that as a ruler for life in a way that Deng had sought to prevent.

This arrangement is currently justified by the CCP’s propagandists as one that “promotes stability” in the upper ranks.  On some level, the continuation of his rule and an increasingly entrenched dictatorship could theoretically be justified.  That is if the continuation of Xi in power had created a progressively more competent and effective cadre of second-tier leaders.  Perhaps even one of them could conceivably be groomed to take over the reins of the Party General Secretary’s position in the future.

However, the entirety of Xi Jinping’s tenure to date demonstrates the complete opposite in results. Witness the less-than-euphoric reaction to the first leadership team nominated to serve with XI on the new Standing Committee of the Politburo (常务委员会 or PSC) when it was presented following the 18th Party Congress in 2012. One political analyst in Hong Kong told the Los Angeles Times that although Hu Jintao had “been talking about democracy within the party, nothing substantial has been achieved in terms of reform. It’s a sad reflection on the state of affairs within the party. It’s still a Leninist structure, and it’s still politics of old men and women.”[3]

Another commentator was even more blunt. “This congress threw cold water on the people who hoped for reform,’’ he told the paper.

I was in Beijing at the time and was preparing to travel to southern Guangdong Province. I rang up an American colleague based in Beijing who had been living and working in the PRC for many years to ask him for his reaction.

“What you see is that the handful of men who have run the country for ten years and have delivered almost nothing in the way of reform are being replaced by another leadership team,” he said. “A new cast of leaders who are even less worldly, less creative, less scientific, and less modern in their outlook than those they replaced.  It is hardly progress – nor is it a cause for optimism.”

His dismal assessment has turned out to accurately forecast the shades of things to come.  Ten years later, the new PSC that would serve in Xi’s third term was one or two orders of magnitude even less inspiring.

Any of Xi’s rivals who could have prompted debate about leadership policy were banished into early retirement>. The single qualification for becoming a member of the new team around Xi was unswerving and unquestioning loyalty.  These currently serving seven PSC members are all his proteges and solid allies and will rarely, if ever, offer dissenting viewpoints.

Xi’s theoretical number two, Li Qiang, was selected to be the next premier without ever having first served as a vice premier – the first time this has happened since 1949. One of the new PSC members, former Beijing Party Secretary Cai Qi, who now serves as the head of the CCP’s Secretariat, even obsequiously refers to the Party General Secretary as “Xi Dada” or “Uncle Xi” – in the same way that Stalin in his time was called “Uncle Joe.”

The message was very clear. The collective leadership model set up by Deng that prevented too much power from being concentrated in the hands of one ruler was now officially dead.


Dictatorship and Total Control

The analogy to this situation I have used for more than a year now is to imagine Donald Trump regaining the US presidency in the 2024 election.  When he appoints his new cabinet not a single secretary has the qualifications to perform the duties of their appointed office.  Instead, they are selected solely due to their personal loyalty or because they are either his golfing buddies or real estate cronies.

This, of course, would never happen in Washington. Cabinet secretary appointees are required to pass through Senate confirmation before being sworn in. One of the self-correcting mechanisms that exist in a democracy.

However, there are no such constraints on Xi’s decision on who his sidemen are going to be.  There are no requirements for those in senior positions regarding experience in a national-level posting. They are under no demands to engage in the give-and-take of any normal political system where there are competing ideas, initiatives, lobbying for funding, etc.

What now seems likely is a regime that – as one Taiwanese colleague told me – “not only has not even the faintest idea of what ‘reform’ means – but there is probably little chance that any of these new PSC members could even spell the word.  They literally typify the regressive nature of the CCP leadership under Xi.”

This dynamic will dictate the behaviour of the CCP leadership going forward. It will act on a decidedly different set of objectives than in previous decades.

Above all considerations, this means that Xi and his counrty will be operating on the basis that adherence to ideology is the top priority.  Pragmatism – even if there is a dire need for it – is now a distant second in the consideration of the leadership.  This bodes ill for the future of the PRC.  This doubling-down on the course Xi pursued for the past ten years is not only a sign of political paralysis, but it takes the strategy that Deng used to modernise the country in the first place and turns it on its head.

Deng understood that the only way to prevent the PRC from becoming a failed state was to set aside the Communist ideological adherence to centralised planning and prohibitions of private enterprise.  He departed 180 degrees from Mao’s failed course for the PRC’s modernisation.  It was a dangerous move and risked being labelled an enemy of the people in the process.

As he states in his book, “Heretics of China: The Psychology of Mao and Deng”, Nabil Alsabah describes Deng as becoming the “heretic-in-chief” of his time.  By completely overhauling the means by which China would be modernised, he “ushered in a cognitive revolution intended to emancipate the mind, reject blind faith in ideology (emphasis added), and embrace pragmatic policymaking.”

But as a by-product of today’s continuing and increasing primacy of ideology, the CCP will now constitute an invasive influence in everyday life.  Party dictates, and “Xi Jinping Thought[4] will rule over a widening programme leading to total control over social, cultural and educational matters.  The preparation for this uptick in repression has been building over the first decade of Xi’s rule.  During this time, his security services markedly expanded their powers and means of censorship and increased party controls on the economy.

Most outside observers credit the proliferation of CCTV cameras, drones, electronic wiretapping and other techno-gadgets that can be seen everywhere in any major Chinese city as the key to the PRC’s success in blanket surveillance of its subjects.  But, recent reports illustrate how most observers overlook “even the most advanced spying technologies have limited reach and coverage.”[5]

“Use of surveillance technologies evidently has enhanced the Chinese party-state’s capabilities to maintain political repression,” says the same report.  But Beijing still relies primarily on old-fashioned networks of informants and secret police gum-shoe surveillance.  Those ignoring their role “are not paying adequate attention to” the functions carried out by the security bureaucracies – “specifically the Ministry of State Security (MSS) and the domestic security units of the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) – in domestic political spying.”[6]

The effects of this increasing totalitarianism have had predictable results.  The number of foreign journalists operating in the PRC is greatly reduced from what it was a decade or more ago.  While there are hundreds of thousands of Chinese students attending university in the US, the number of American students studying in the PRC is no more than 2500.  In a time when global interconnectivity is supposed to be one of the greatest benefits afforded by modern technology, Beijing seems to be determined to re-create the isolation and xenophobia that was the reason for the construction of the Great Wall.


Foreign Adventures

Inside of the PRC is not the only place where the behaviour of Xi’s regime is charting a different course than that of previous leaderships.  In foreign affairs, Beijing will continue its antagonistic “wolf warrior” diplomacy that began in March 2020. This new tack challenges the primacy of the US in the international community and again stands in contrast to the era of Deng, in which diplomats were trying to build bridges with the West.[7]

The practice began when the PRC could no longer hide the source and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.  PRC Foreign Ministry representatives began peddling a conspiracy theory that sought to blame the US for the spread of the pathogen.[8] This is consistent with the manner in which Beijing’s diplomats engage in “diversionary tactics of ’talking tough’ and ‘blaming others’ in times of diplomatic crisis in order to shake off blame, create scapegoats, and instigate nationalistic sentiments.”[9]

Beijing will also continue its more than decade-long Belt and Road Initiative.[10] This programme of building infrastructure projects has been successful in spreading the PRC’s influence across Asia and in other regions of the world as well.  There has been a substantial concern raised by the US over the ability of Xi’s regime to curry favour with other nations in this manner, but in fairness to Beijing, it is not just their largest that is responsible.

One report from the Council on Foreign Relations points out that “US withdrawal [from Asia] helped create the vacuum that China filled with BRI. Although the United States long ago identified an interest in promoting infrastructure, trade, and connectivity throughout Asia and repeatedly invoked the imagery of the Silk Road, it has not met the inherent needs of the region.”[11]


The Perils of Making Decisions in a Vacuum

But by far, the greatest anxiety created by the increasing dictatorial system under Xi Jinping is the increased flexing of the PRC’s military muscle. Harassment flights by the PRC’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and manoeuvres by Navy (PLAN} vessels around the Republic of China (R0C) on Taiwan send a clear signal that the Mainland intends to take the island nation back – and by force if necessary.

The US Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), William Burns, has stated that Xi has commissioned plans by the PLA for the island to be conquered no later than 2027.  What happens with the war in Ukraine creates two important factors in Xi’s calculations on whether invading the ROC is worth the potential risks.[12]

One is just how united the Western anti-Russia coalition continues to be as the war carries on.  It is a grouping of nations that could easily be mobilised to stand against the PRC in the event of an invasion of Taiwan.

A second issue is just how much long-term damage can be done to Russia due to the sanctions the West has imposed on the country.  In the long term, this could irreparably damage Russia’s ability to maintain a modern economic system – or even continue to be a stable nation that does not suffer consequences, leading to breakaway provinces in its Far Eastern regions.  Beijing would not want to fall under a similar set of punishing embargoes.

However, all of these calculations assume that Xi is surrounded by advisors and aides who are capable of delivering an unbiased and independent assessment.  As the Geopolitical Intelligence Services (GiS) report referenced above concludes, one of the real dangers is the “groupthink [among the leadership] that tends to accompany such a concentration of power” as that Xi has amassed to date.[13]

“Mao-era disasters like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution occurred in part because few in senior leadership positions dared oppose Chairman Mao’s ideas. Similar dynamics have already played out under Mr. Xi.,” reads the assessment.

One of the common historical threads involving autocratic political systems is how they sleepwalked into disastrous military conflicts. This was usually due to overconfidence in their own personal “genius” and grossly erroneous assumptions as to how the wars they started would play out.  Russian President Vladimir Putin is but the latest example.

Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler, Italy’s Mussolini – the list goes on – all committed the same erroneous judgements.  The greatest fear today is that Xi will continue down the same path.  Unfortunately, everything about the political order he has created in the PRC makes this outcome more probable than it ever has been since the 1949 birth of his nation.

Author: Reuben F. Johnson, Research Fellow at Casimir Pulaski Foundation



[1] Roderick MacFarquhar, “Demolition Man”, The neww York Review of Books, March 27, 1997 issue, 

[2] Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, “Resolution On Certain Questions In The History Of Our Party Since The Founding Of The People’s Republic Of China,” June 27, 1981,

[3] Barbara Demick, “China Unveils New Leaders,” Los Angeles Times, 14 November 2012,

[4] Mercy A. Kuo, „The Political Aims of ‘Xi Jinping Thought'”, The Diplomat, 21 November 2021,

[5] Minxin Pei, “Piercing the Veil of Secrecy: The Surveillance Role of China’s MSS and MPS,” China Leadership Monitor, 29 February 2024,

[6] Ibid.

[7] Junhua Zhang, “China’s challenge to the West in 2021 and beyond”, Geopolitical Intelligence Services, 28 January 2021,

[8] Steven Lee Myers, „China Spins Tale That the U.S. Army Started the Coronavirus Epidemic”, The New York Times, 13 March 2020,

[9] Duan Xiaolin and Liu Yitong, The Rise and Fall of China’s Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, The Diplomat, 22 September 2023,

[10] James McBride, Noah Berman, and Andrew Chatzky, “China’s Massive Belt and Road Initiative”, Council on Foreign Relations, 2 February 2023,

[11] Jacob J. Lew and Gary Roughead, „China’s Belt and Road:

Implications for the United States”, Council on Foreign Relations, Independent Task Force Report No. 79, March 2021,

[12] Igor Khrestin, The Russo-Ukrainian War: Implications for Taiwan”, Global Taiwan Institute, 28 June 2023,

[13] Michael Cunningham, “Xi Jinping’s new politburo and China’s trajectory,” Geopolitical Intelligence Services, 7 February 2023,