THE madness unleashed by the rule of a charismatic despot, Mao Zedong, left China so traumatised that the late chairman’s successors vowed never to let a single person hold such sway again. Deng Xiaoping, who rose to power in the late 1970s, extolled the notion of “collective leadership”. Responsibilities would be shared out among leaders by the Communist Party’s general secretary; big decisions would be made by consensus. This has sometimes been ignored: Deng himself acted the despot in times of crisis. But the collective approach helped restore stability to China after Mao’s turbulent dictatorship.
Xi Jinping, China’s current leader, is now dismantling it. He has become the most powerful Chinese ruler certainly since Deng, and possibly since Mao. Whether this is good or bad for China depends on how Mr Xi uses his power. Mao pushed China to the brink of social and economic collapse, and Deng steered it on the right economic path but squandered a chance to reform it politically. If Mr Xi used his power to reform the way power works in China, he could do his country great good. So far, the signs are mixed.
It may well be that the decision to promote Mr Xi as a single personality at the expense of the group was itself a collective one. Some in China have been hankering for a strongman; a politician who would stamp out corruption, reverse growing inequalities and make the country stand tall abroad (a task Mr Xi has been taking up with relish—see article). So have many foreign businessfolk, who want a leader who would smash the monopolies of a bloated state sector and end years of dithering over economic reforms.
However the decision came about, Mr Xi has grabbed it and run with it. He has taken charge of secretive committees responsible for reforming government, overhauling the armed forces, finance and cyber-security. His campaign against corruption is the most sweeping in decades. It has snared the former second-in-command of the People’s Liberation Army and targeted the retired chief of China’s massive security apparatus—the highest-ranking official to be investigated for corruption since Mao came to power. The generals, wisely, bow to him: earlier this year state newspapers published pages of expressions of loyalty to him by military commanders.
He is the first leader to employ a big team to build his public profile. But he also has a flair for it—thanks to his stature (in a height-obsessed country he would tower over all his predecessors except Mao), his toughness and his common touch. One moment he is dumpling-eating with the masses, the next riding in a minibus instead of the presidential limousine. He is now more popular than any leader since Mao (see article).
All of this helps Mr Xi in his twofold mission. His first aim is to keep the economy growing fast enough to stave off unrest, while weaning it off an over-dependence on investment in property and infrastructure that threatens to mire it in debt. Mr Xi made a promising start last November, when he declared that market forces would play a decisive role (not even Deng had the courage to say that). There have since been encouraging moves, such as giving private companies bigger stakes in sectors that were once the exclusive preserve of state-owned enterprises, and selling shares in firms owned by local governments to private investors. Mr Xi has also started to overhaul the household-registration system, a legacy of the Mao era that makes it difficult for migrants from the countryside to settle permanently in cities. He has relaxed the one-child-per-couple policy, a Deng-era legacy that has led to widespread abuses.