Great article, particularly all the cites. But a badly missed opportunity to use the phrase "Xi who must be obeyed" as a section header.

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Nov 7, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

I think you have several good points on the shortcomings of Xi's management. However, one idea I push back on is that unifying the Party apparatus was a small task. Coercing or convincing 90 million people to act as a single political force is no small task, and took quite a bit of brute force, political maneuvering, and risk-taking to do. 12-15 years ago, the Party was beset by corruption, non-state sector capture, and serial policy failure. Moreover, Jiang's Three Represents formulation to let in "Advanced Productive Forces" (entrepreneurs) was necessary but insufficient, and it almost seemed like the Party was evolving into a factionally dominated force that primarily supported business interests.

Xi on the other hand, has managed to unify in a very small amount of time. Especially considering that when he came in, he was considered a benign compromise candidate who would act the behest of greater cliques. The relative success of unifying the party, and the effort it took should play into an evaluation of Xi.

I think it's hard to objectively evaluate whether Xi is incompetent, because it's very likely he values different things in his vision for China. His foremost task and purpose has been to unify the Party into a political tool that laterally crosses domains into the non-state sector (firms, NGOs, civil society, academia), and vertically integrates communities of people in a way not seen since the Revolutionary era. The Party can now engage in repression in Xinjiang, manage private sector firms through informal and formal mechanisms, coopt spaces for resistance, and do all at little cost in political capital. This is a very different state from where the Party was prior to Xi.

In response to your question on whether Xi steps down, I think two scenarios are possible.

1. He steps down and still plays an outsized shadow role if a successor is found

2. He is president for life, and a successor comes from young cadres who have found their path under his wing.

It is hard to predict. In 2018 analysts had a pretty solid list of people who had climbed the ladder with Xi, but it is becoming somewhat hard as some of them have recently only moved laterally or been investigated by the CCDI (such as the head of the CCDI). Something that may help is the effectiveness to which the Party performs "Common Prosperity" policies, which are likely now a marker for regime loyalty and competence intertwined. This will determine who gets moved up, down, and across at the upcoming Plenum.

Sources (I recommend reading the intro, then Naughton, Leutert and Eaton, Norris, and Kennedy's Conclusion)


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Paywalled, but Cai Xia's "insider take" on Xi's competence seems in line with yours:


OTOH he managed to become dictator for life in a system that had mandatory retirement ages, so I don't know how confident to be about his incompetence. Competence has a lot of dimensions for a dictator.

Maybe we should say, ok, autocracy selects for competence in a certain mix of skills-- and "ruthlessness" happens to be a much bigger component of that than "policy wonkishness." Democracy, for its part, probably selects for charm too much and wonkishness too little, but at least leading a population into a great famine tends to take the sparkle off.

Are there any patches we could add to parliamentary or presidential democracies to select for better policy wonks, while maintaining representation?

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Nov 7, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

No, he's not very competent. At all.

By all accounts the fall of the USSR and the CPSU profoundly shook the then-young Xi Jinping. He took office two decades later determined to avoid that fate for his own Communist dictatorship. But it would appear he incorrectly misattributed the late-stage Soviet Union's rapid decline to excessive influence of the West (and associated decadence) when instead the real problem for that now-defunct state was the economy (general weakness and inefficiency greatly intensified by the 1980s oil glut).

So, it would appear Xi has now set about doing everything in his power to undermine his country's economic strength. Because markets are free(ish). Or a CIA plot. Or something. Sounds bad.

(And yes, he's simultaneously succeeding in making the PRC brand about as toxic as the Love Canal.) Double win!

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Nov 7, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

A quick quibble on terms: my Chinese university students are quick to downplay China’s accomplishments when it’s time to classify the PRC as developing or developed, favoring the former for at least the coming 30-50 years (!). I personally think the terms better fit the 20th C., now obscuring more than they reveal about a country and think “middle income country” should at least be added (whose “trap” Xi undoubtedly wants to avoid) as a third, more apt option. But my main point in the 1/3 vs 1/2 of per-capita income comparison is that comparisons to the very richest developed countries are not appropriate—to be a developed country, China only needs to catch up to the poorest developed countries like Poland, Slovenia, etc. And it’s almost there. I put it to my students whether the terms are still useful by asking if int’l power & high-tech industry don’t matter at all compared to per-capita income—would any of them say that Poland is more powerful and advanced than China? Spoiler: No, they do not.

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Putin hasn't left the office yet, and with every day it seems more and more probably that he will leave Russia in pretty bad condition.

Everything said about Xi can be applied to Putin: economy is slowing down (average GDP-growth 2014-2020 is 0.9%), neighbors are alienated, outside image is that of a cartoon villain.

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China had a golden opportunity to become the preeminent superpower during 2016-20. Trump was blowing up international relationships that had been decades in the making. It was a pretty low bar for China to position itself as the more reasonable hegemon at that time. Instead we got a serious of blunders by Xi that gave America enough breathing room to pull back from the brink.

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Relatedly, Policy Tensor has a theoretically grounded comparison of how secure various world leaders are in their posts, including Xi: https://policytensor.substack.com/p/who-has-the-highest-survival-probability. Summary verdict: Xi's more secure than Modi, but less secure than Putin.

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Nov 7, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

Can you expand a bit on Putin’s job as a leader? It appears as though Russia is still just an oligarchical oil state that’s progressively alienated itself from the western world to its detriment. Has Putin done anything well in terms of diversifying the Russian economy?

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Mar 15, 2022·edited Mar 15, 2022

Stumbled on this and laughed a fair bit how the Putin comparison aged like fine milk - as have more than a few of the comments. Dictators, man! Can't take 'em anywhere!

The zero-Covid assessment went in the other direction though, not only was the analysis accurate, it's looking worse in that regard than anyone might have guessed.

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Xi has long been ridiculed among Chinese speaking social media users as an "elementary schooler", because he had to drop out of elementary school during the Cultural Revolution. His public image is meticulously managed, but still a number of incidents presented where he read his script wrong (after which apparently all his scripts had middle school difficulty Chinese characters marked with their pronunciations), and boasted of things out of human possibility (walking 5km carrying 100kg of grains), which have become memes about his incompetence. The few official video clips showing him visiting homes and businesses only adds to the evidences with his irrelevant questions and confusion at the responses. I would not be surprised if behind the scenes he is as self-aggrandizing and as incompetent as Trump.

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The politics and economy of Zhongguo are more than Byzantine as your excellent teaching essay shows. Xiexie - China's problems remain intractable - a dysfunctional, extremely corrupt party state, a declining population without any desire to make more Chinese, a dysfunctional gender imbalance, a subtle rebellion among the young (smart idea, Xi to limit video games) who do not want to work as their parents did, an economy without a social net, thus leading to huge personal investment in housing, saving for retirement (opps! did that bubble just pop?). Internationally, Xi misread the world and particularly the US during Trump's fiasco rule. Biden is made of stronger stuff. In spite of the growth of the PLA, the combined militaries of those opposed to China make Xi's saber-rattling more dangerous for China than ever. If I were Xi, knowing that China has poor nuke sub detection and destroying capabilities, I would lie awake at night dreaming of US, British and French SSBMs swimming in the seas Xi claims. IMO, the dynastic rules of Chinese history apply to Xi, the new emperor. The mandate of Heaven (天降大任) has always been "easy come and easy go". All Chinese dynasties ultimately succumb to externalities, interpreted by the Chinese as the withdrawal of Heaven's mandate. Thank you, Peter H. Dohan, MD

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Idk why you think Putin is a good example of a hyper-effective authoritarian.

Like Xi, he's very good at consolidating state power and eliminating domestic rivals - to survive and thrive in those systems you must be.

But the past 20 years have not been good for Russia.

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Playing devil's advocate - a large part of the argument for incompetence is economic performance under his rule. However, he has just recently put forward his "Xi economic doctrine" - not all GDP growth is good. In particular growth of sectors that increase consumption of positional goods is bad.

Viewed from this perspective, a lot of Xi's work is investment in physical capacity increases which cannot be positional.

* Early 2010s, China drove massive reductions of cost in solar and li-ion batteries, allowing them to capture an emerging pillar of world manufacturing.

* Mid 2010s, China drove real world deployment of AI via the CCPs population management goals (remember in 2015 the big concern was AI researchers in US returning to China like Andrew Ng). This has paid off as desired in the form of the first consumer tech brand from China to become popular abroad (Tiktok). AND they drove logistics changes via apps, creating the first major markets for mobility, delivery, and domestic fulfillment via apps. Their pop. density created huge advantages here.

* Late 2010s, China attempted to drive semiconductor manufacturing. They were succeeding (as shown by organic adoption of Huawei 5G pre-trade wars). I suspect if the US/world had taken a laissez faire approach to this as they did with the prior 20 years, China would have already succeeded in shipping the best in class chips for some specific use cases, and on the path to overtaking TSMC, Intel, etc. for general purpose computing. The rules of the game changed in a way that no one really predicted in 2016 and this has set them back (maybe permanently?).

Looking at the targets of the common prosperity campaign, nearly all fit into either

(1) positional goods where a monopolist captures higher profits without improving service levels overall. Think loyalty programs that get people to spend more money to board a plane first.

(2) 0 marginal cost goods that can be monopolistically priced. Think in-app purchases in video games, crypto currencies, etc.

(3) platform providers that monopolize access to the platform. Think things that would be regulated utilities in the pre-internet world like logistics access (Alibaba), communications providers (Wechat), etc.

I agree we could view a lot of the unforced errors in real estate as incompetence, but let's also consider the forced successes elsewhere.

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Again, a not strong commentary on Asia (in line with past commentary on Japan etc).

First of all, there is a powerful assumption at work on the author's part: that world "approval" matters to China - particularly the US and European elite's wokenesss.

Secondly, there is a failure to look at the big picture. Xi has reined in the areas of the Chinese economy which threaten to turbocharge inequality. Somehow the notion that Xi / the Chinese government under Xi cares about inequality is ignored - and furthermore unlike American wokeness - the Chinese government has actually walked the walk vs. just talking the talk.

Chinese tech titans, real estate moguls, financiers etc have been brought to heel unlike their American and European counterparts.

China isn't perfect by any means, but flawed criticisms of it only reinforce just how clueless the West is about how China really operates.

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Saddling countries with unpayable debts for problematic infrastructure projects has been a standard colonial technique for centuries. Belt and Road might well have been planned to have plenty of problematic projects, precisely to get leverage over the local states. In several cases, China has ended up with indefinite control over major infrastructural assets, like Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. Generally the projects are run by Chinese management, giving the host countries no control over the asset they need to pay back the debts, which gives China the ability to effectively force defaults if it chooses, by mismanaging the assets.

Zero COVID is absolutely the way to go until the population is fully vaccinated, which is only a few more months for China. Recovery from lockdown-induced slowdown is very fast with some stimulus the CCP can easily do, but they can't un-die people and there's no good treatments for long COVID as of yet.

A flip side of this is - what has Xi done that *does* indicate good leadership? I can't think of anything economically or politically clever they've done in the past few years. The recent blizzard of edicts in particular seems poorly thought out - it's probably true that China is overbuilding subways at the moment, but imposing a blanket ban is ridiculous. Put in an oversight board, or impose financial and service standards. It would be easy to do this much better - but they haven't.

My interpretation of recent Chinese actions is that they are terrified of any dissent. That would explain the need to crush Hong Kong, the brutality in Xinjiang, shutting down tutoring, limiting online gaming (a major social network), etc. In combination with the fact that the Chinese have generally been pretty willing to accept CCP rule as long as it delivers good economic growth, I'm wondering if perhaps they've realized they *can't* continue the economic boom much longer and have concluded they have to go back to intense repression to maintain power.

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