The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been tightening its grip for over a decade, but the last few months have felt like a white-knuckle ride. CCP disciplinarians have expanded their watch to non-state actors and grassroots bureaucracies. Social controls have homed in on predictable targets, like journalists and lawyers, as well as new ones, like influencers and entertainers. Screws are tightening in the economic realm as well, with national champions and speculative titans being brought to heel.
What are we to make of these heavy-handed moves? The broad reaching pressure campaign is reminiscent of reactionary crackdowns of the Mao-era, but many of the recent controls also suggest a more deliberate course correction. Where that correction is headed remains unclear.
The Party is Over
Political tightening reflects a souring economic outlook. Growth, productivity, and urbanization are all stagnating, threatening leveraged sectors of the economy, like real estate, that depend on future-driven investment. All of this is prefaced by demographic aging that will leave much of China “old before rich.”
Adjusting to slower growth, materially and mentally, will be painful and Xi Jinping’s administration has demonstrated a willingness to inflict that pain. Regulatory scrutiny alone has wiped trillions of dollars from the books of Chinese economic champions, like Alibaba and Tencent. Regulatory intervention in the real-estate sector has already nudged China’s second largest developer into a 300-billion-dollar default spiral, with other property dominoes teetering on the edge. For hundreds of millions, state intervention is now visible in how they spend their income and leisure time.
Recent tightening also revolved around a unique political calendar. July 2021 marked the CCP’s centenary and November’s CCP plenum was a staging ground for Xi Jinping’s anticipated, but unprecedented, third term in office. It is thus unsurprising that the mood has been sensitive. The political calendar also carries expectations. What comes next for the Party? If Xi Jinping breaks precedent with a third term, how will his propagandists frame the public narrative?
Recent CCP statements and documents offer limited insight. The 6th Plenum Communique raised Xi Jinping’s profile above recent predecessors, all but ensuring a third term, purportedly to make good on China’s progress in achieving “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” A CCP Historical Resolution, published shortly after the communique, expanded on this theme by calling for “whole-process” democracy and “common prosperity.”
“Whole-process democracy” embodies four paired elements: “process and achievement,” “procedure and substance,” “direct and indirect,” and “will of the people and the will of the state.” Given the Xi administrations reform record so far, we might conclude the “whole-process” will focus on achievement and substance, not process or procedure; that it will be administered indirectly and at the will of the state, not directly by the will of the people. If so, it is stark admission on the part of the CCP.
“Common prosperity,” is suggestive of collectivism, redistribution, and scrutiny of the wealthy. Yet, summary notes from a recent Central Economic Work Conference, reiterate that economic priorities remain focused on prosperity. Crackdowns on some of the big companies may instead be due to the fact that Party leaders do not see service-oriented firms as future economic pillars — it prefers higher-tech industries, like semiconductors, automation, and bio-tech. Common prosperity may also be a justification for a long-delayed property tax, sorely needed from a budgetary perspective, but it is sure to invite pushback from a public opinion point of view.
Tightening has not delivered clear success, so far. Take anti-corruption, an issue where Xi has made his strongest mark. While over 60 percent of the population perceive the corruption situation has improved, over 60 percent also believe corruption remains a “major problem,” and China has barely budged in comparative rankings, like the Corruption Perception Index. It is not lost on observers that the state was able to eradicate poverty over the last ten years but has seemingly made little progress in ending political exploitation.
Attempts to tighten party building and weed out low quality recruits have not generated a rush of applications. Instead, leadership bodies, like the Central Committee, are the oldest they have been since the 1980s. Despite the hype around the creation of a National Supervision Commission, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission seems firmly in control. Perhaps most embarrassingly, what seemed like a renaissance in the Party’s United Front mission for overseas influence has delivered a string of failures, from Australia to India, and even Lithuania.
Similar lessons are found in the broader social and economic tightening. Shortly after regulators decimated the tutoring sector, social media users reported a spike in job ads seeking in-home “nannies,” presumably working as private tutors for well-off families. Whereas just a few years ago there were limits on how many children families could have, a 360 reversal in policy now urges them to have more. On the economic side, pressure tactics have tamed outspoken entrepreneurs and frightened speculators, but we are also watching supply chain failures unfold and bubbles on the verge of busting.
Pitfalls of Control
CCP tightening represents more than a reactionary crackdown; it is a full-scale attempt at correction. While some of this correction may be needed, Xi’s CCP has opted for control as its tool for change—and herein lie the greatest risks. By putting the CCP rank and file under scrutiny and centralizing power his own portfolio, Xi Jinping is undermining the collective party culture that has sustained elite buy-in for over four decades. Even if Xi is the benevolent dictator he makes himself out to be, he will eventually leave his party and the country with a strongman dilemma of epic proportions.
More broadly, the regime can censor the media, promote domestic industry, and eschew individualism, but it cannot inspire creativity, decree innovation, or cultivate trust and civil society. There must be active buy-in on the part of the people, and to do that there must be some degree of faith in the people. The CCP has had over a century’s experience in learning this fact and it is disheartening to see it repeating old mistakes. As Orville Schell puts it, “the party’s ongoing obsession with control reveals a lack of confidence in the system it has confected.”
 Johnston, Lauren A. ""Getting Old Before Getting Rich": Origins and Policy Responses in China." China: An International Journal, vol. 19 no. 3, 2021, p. 91-111. Project MUSE.
 Pei, Minxin, “The CCP’s Domestic Security Taskmaster: The Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission,” China Leadership Monitor, September 1, 2021
 Gueorguiev, D. and Schuler, P.J., 2021. Collective Charisma: Elite-Mass Relations in China and Vietnam. Problems of Post-Communism, 68(3), pp.190-201.
 Gueorguiev, D. (2021). Retrofitting Leninism: Participation without Democracy in China. Oxford University Press.
The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of ISPI.