Chinese President Xi Jinping has dismissed Li Shangfu who until October 24 was defense minister. Li was a former favorite of Xi and had a smooth rise to the top. Yet he has been sacked like another Xi favorite, former foreign minister Qin Gang. Unpredictable sackings are now the norm at the highest levels of the Chinese government.
[Editor-in-Chief Atul Singh and retired CIA officer Glenn Carle commented on Qin’s fall from grace in an earlier FO° Exclusive.]
Li and Qin were also removed from their positions on the State Council. Both men have fallen victim to a broader purge that has included senior generals Li Yuchao and Xu Zhongbo as well as Major General Cheng Dongfang. In Xi’s court, no one is safe.
Xi appears unable to identify and promote trustworthy talent in an orderly way. He elevates favorites to top positions and then fires them summarily. Few, if any, really know the real reason why. What is going on?
Zhongnanhai has reverted to the days of its past. This compound is where leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the State Council reside. Appositely, Zhongnanhai is a former imperial garden and lies next to the Forbidden Palace in Beijing. Yet again, it has become a shadowy medieval court where courtiers fall from favor overnight.
This concentration of power and arbitrary imperial rule portends a darker era for China. The CCP-run Middle Kingdom is no longer the institutional, collective dictatorship that Xi inherited from his predecessors. He has transformed it into a one-man dictatorship and, therefore, cannot rely on institutions to bring good people to the top. Loyalty, not professionalism, is how one rises through the ranks. As the sackings of two favorites demonstrate, even loyalty is not enough.
Basically, the Chinese state is no longer able to cultivate and promote top talent, a process essential for any organization’s success. Xi only promotes those he can trust. However, once they are in power, he cannot trust them to do their jobs.
Xi’s reliance on personal favorites has exposed his administration to caprice. China is no longer ruled smoothly as in the days of Deng Xiaoping and his successors. It has gone back to the days of Mao Zedong. There is no process that slows or moderates Xi’s whims. Instead, everything runs or stops and everyone rises and falls at his pleasure.
In a system where institutions have no legitimacy, the incentive is to be a yes-man. No one can dare tell the emperor that he is naked. Disasters inevitably follow. Then, ministers lose their heads.
It is clear that China has entered another period of malaise. Deng’s era of pragmatism and professionalism has been replaced by a Mao-style personality cult. In our era, political dysfunction is not only a hallmark of democracies but also autocracies. Even China, which has been a poster child for autocratic rule with its spectacular growth rates, extraordinary infrastructure and spectacular reduction in poverty, is falling apart.
[Anton Schauble wrote the first draft of this piece.]
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