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Xi's Backward Odyssey

Chinese President Xi Jinping is on track to become the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong – a change that will be felt far and wide. But by abandoning the principle of collective leadership and resurrecting absolutism, the ruling Communist Party of China is increasingly out of step with the times.

BERLIN – Momentous changes are casting a long shadow on China. The country’s political system will soon undergo a profound reform, pending final approval (a quasi-formality) at next year’s congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC). President Xi Jinping, the Party chairman and the “navigator” of the country, has decided on a new course, abandoning the principle of collective leadership. Xi is leading China away from the path taken by Deng Xiaoping after the terror of the Cultural Revolution, and back toward a system of absolute rule by one person without term limits, as under Mao Zedong.

From a Western perspective, these changes may look trivial. After all, the CPC’s political monopoly remains untouched, leaving no possibility for genuine democratization. But for China – which will soon be the world’s largest economy and one of this century’s two superpowers (along with the United States) – recent developments signal a return to a disastrous past. Xi’s formal elevation to the same stature as Mao implies a transition from authoritarianism to personal dictatorship. Given the enormous increase in China’s power and strategic importance since Mao’s rule, this change will have far-reaching implications for the rest of the world.

For the time being, the CPC seems to have managed to combine its one-party system with Western-style consumerism. Communist ideology has been pushed into the background by mass prosperity and individual wealth, resulting in a successful hybrid system combining elements of both a market economy and a state economy – all under the CPC’s sole and absolute control.