China's President Xi Jinping. Picture: REUTERS
China's President Xi Jinping. Picture: REUTERS

Who will rise and fall at this week’s Communist Party congress in Beijing remains shrouded in the usual thick mist of Chinese politics. But the outcome of the twice-a-decade leadership conference is clear: President Xi Jinping will emerge with an even stronger grip on the nation. The congress will thus move China another step away from the management-by-committee that’s marked its reform period and towards something closer to one-man rule.

For some China watchers, worried about the risks rising in the world’s second-biggest economy, a more powerful Xi may sound like good news. Conventional wisdom holds that only a strong leader will be able to push through contentious economic reforms in the face of China’s entrenched interests. The more control Xi can grasp, the faster reforms will proceed and the better off China — and the world — will be.

China’s own history, however, argues otherwise. Since 1949, the country has progressed faster economically when governed, in effect, by coalitions, not by a single, dominant figure. In fact, it’s arguable that the more power Xi gains, the less likely we are to see real change in China.

Remember that the kind of liberalising reforms we now associate with the Chinese economic miracle arose as a reaction against the tumult created by the most domineering figure in China’s modern history, Mao Zedong. After a quarter century of his arbitrary rule, buffeted by persistent purges and economic and social chaos, China’s top leaders concentrated after Mao’s death on governing with more pragmatism and stability, with a focus on economic development.

Xi and his anti-graft enforcers seem inclined to demand unquestioned loyalty. This has stifled debate within the government

That movement was led by another imposing Communist dignitary, Deng Xiaoping. But the impression that Deng, who maintained influence over the regime even though he did not head either the party or the state, was all-powerful is misguided. While he may have been the motivating spirit behind new technocratic policies, Deng’s real strength was his ability to forge and then manage a wide coalition of political factions — from hard-boiled central planners and communist elders to ambitious up-and-comers out in the provinces.

Deng told party members to "emancipate the mind" and he encouraged the flourishing of policy, if not political ideas. That led to an explosion of tinkering with improving corporate performance, opening to trade and investment and boosting agricultural production, all of which underpinned China’s economic rise. Many of the most critical measures adopted under his watch in the late 1970s and 1980s — including dismantling agricultural communes and the formation of "special economic zones" to woo foreign investment — originated with provincial authorities who had been encouraged to experiment.

China witnessed another striking burst of reform during the period from 1998 to 2003, when Zhu Rongji served as premier. Not only did Zhu usher China into the World Trade Organisation, he oversaw a drastic and painful downsizing of the country’s state-owned enterprises (not unlike what’s needed today). He managed this despite not being the top dog in Chinese politics; as premier, he ranked behind president Jiang Zemin. The pair ended up forming a fruitful partnership: Jiang managed diverse interests and maintained political support while Zhu rammed through controversial changes.

Of course, Deng and Zhu were strong personalities, willing to make bold decisions. Arguably, though, they were better able to accomplish what they did by operating within a larger network of support. Rather than shoving policies down the throats of terrified subordinates, they won buy-in for potentially destabilising reforms. And, in turn, they benefited from ideas and energy from below, as their followers felt empowered to look for new ways to fulfil the government’s priorities.

The process may have led to the occasional setback; Deng was compelled to sacrifice some of the most outspoken reformers to the conservative wolves to keep his coalition intact. But it also led to bigger, more fundamental changes that set the stage for future Chinese growth.

The past five years under Xi has shown the dangers of too much consolidation of power. Despite gathering more and more control in his own hands, Xi has so far been unwilling to employ that clout to revamp the country’s inefficient state enterprises, wean the economy off its debt addiction or allow the market to allocate financial resources; all are critical steps to bolster sagging productivity and produce healthier growth. With no one around to balance Xi’s power — premier Li Keqiang has been more or less sidelined and central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan is on his way out — there’s no one near the top able to push for faster change.

Nor does Xi’s government seem equipped to generate the kind of policy innovation that has been so crucial to China in the past. Rather than encouraging cadres to experiment and resist ideological conformity as Deng did, Xi and his anti-graft enforcers seem inclined to demand unquestioned loyalty. This has stifled debate within the government and denied China’s policymakers the flexibility to adapt to the needs of a changing economy.

There remains some hope among China experts that once the Party congress is over and Xi has solidified his grip, a new Xi, more focused on the economy and committed to fixing its problems, will emerge. It would be nice if this proved true. But the problem with big-man rule is that change can only take place if the big man wants it. And in Xi’s case, it’s not clear he does.

Schuman is a journalist based in Beijing and author of Confucius: And the World He Created.

• This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and/or its owners.

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