The obsession with control has moved mountains in China. Control of ideas during the Cultural Revolution. About the size of families, with the one-child policy. About the Internet in the digital age.
Bill Clinton, hoping the Internet would facilitate political openness in China, said it was impossible to control the Internet. It would be like trying to nail gelatin to the wall, he said. I did not count on the stubbornness of the Chinese.
For those who enjoy control, the pandemic offers a rare opportunity to exercise and justify it. Xi Jinping didn’t miss the opportunity – and put it to good use. Despite small sporadic outbreaks, China has succeeded in preventing the spread of Covid-19.
To contain the virus, people are being checked. Mass tests, travel-tracking apps, rigorous quarantines, temperature measurement with facial recognition – to varying degrees, it’s been a part of Chinese life for almost a year.
At the same time, dismayed by the damage caused by the pandemic around the world, the Chinese approve of the approach based on its outcome. They know, however, that the control machine will emerge from the pandemic strengthened and modernized.
In addition to increased control over society, there are signs of a stronger state (and party) presence in the economy. The trend predates Covid-19 and the global recession, but it is gaining strength and legitimacy under current circumstances.
In 2017, for example, Xi Jinping said that Chinese state-owned enterprises should be “stronger, better and bigger.” Party cells in companies are nothing new, but they have become more numerous: 48.3% of private companies were represented by the party in 2018, against 35.6% in 2012, according to the consulting firm MacroPolo .
The issues surrounding Jack Ma fit this scenario. Alibaba – and big Chinese tech – has grown too big. Its founder, too talkative.
It turns out that, against the backdrop of the health crisis, the Chinese economy has performed remarkably well. Global GDP has fallen, but the Chinese economy has grown. Trade has declined, but Chinese exports have soared. International investment has fallen, but the flow to China has increased.
The positive results of these two monumental challenges – pandemic and economy – end up strengthening the Chinese model, including its penchant for control.
Many point to the risk that Beijing will miss the point. Political interference with business can contain the dynamism, innovative capacity and entrepreneurship of the Chinese. Likewise, if viewed as abusive, control over people can generate popular discontent and instability, especially in a context of lower growth.
However, having seen the West err on the side of defeatist predictions about China on several occasions, Chinese officials are now more confident than ever.
In 2019, Qiushi, the Chinese Communist Party magazine, published a speech by Xi Jinping, which was previously secret. “Whenever great powers collapse or decline, the common cause is the loss of central authority,” he said, reflecting on the story.
Meanwhile, liberal democracies are cooling off that the end justifies the means. That dependence on control is legitimized by virtue of the outcome.
The world calls what Xi calls leadership authoritarianism. He doesn’t seem to care. The pandemic and recession create an opportunity that Xi would not let go of.
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