China: Can Xi avoid Tacitus' trap?

Friday, October 27, 2017 // Written by Enzio von Pfeil

So what is "Xi Jinping Thought"  about? How does it differ from "Deng Xiaoping Thought?"

1.     “America First” doctrine with Chinese characteristics:  Salvatore Babones, in Forbes Magazine. This is what Xi's 3.5 hour lecture at the NPC was about.

2.    China’s new modernization approach.  Obviously, the new modernization approach championed by Xi not only differentiates from the journey of developed Western countries, which achieved modernization through industrial revolution and colonial expansion, but also from the neoliberal model advocated by the Washington Consensus.

3.    3. Theoretical innovations avert Tacitus’ Trap.  Experts widely believe the development of socialism in China shows that theoretical innovations by the Chinese leadership will not only help the country avoid history's cycle of rising and falling and the "Tacitus Trap,"[1] but offer an alternative answer to such predictions as the "end of history," by Francis Fukuyama, who argued for the inevitable triumph of Western liberal democracy.

OnOne way that Xi may walk into Tacitus' Trap is in his quest for centralisation - vs locals' current move towards  decentralisation. Here is what the Financial Times of 26th October 2017, p.3, contains:  " 'Everyone is scared of Xi, but whether everybody obeys him is a different question' says Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian.  This tension between an evermore powerful central party organisation and 'entrepreneurial' local governments that have driven growth will be one of the defining 'contradictions' of Xi's second term.  It is also a tension that Wang Huning, a Chinese political theorist, has spent most of his career studying. 'If power is not transferred to the lower level, it will be impossible to invigorate the economy and move it towards modernisation ...But the transfer of power to the local level brings with it extremely great difficulties to regulation and control by  the political system."

4.    Xi’s salary remains  USD 22,000 per year…[2]

5.    This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Karl Marx's iconic book "Das Kapital",  while 2018 marks the 170th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto as well as the 40th anniversary of socialist China's launch of the reform and opening-up drive

6.    We juxtaposition Deng’s with Xi’s thoughts:[3]

Deng Thought

Xi Thought

“Socialism with Chinese characteristics”

Launches a “new era” of socialism with Chinese characteristics.  This signals a modified application of Deng’s policies for China’s “new era”.  Here are some aspects of this “new era”:

1.    Economic development


Opened the door to uneven development: “attain prosperity for some in the short term à achieve prosperity for all in the long term.

èOpening the door to uneven development, Deng’s policies focused mainly on coastal regions in the east. In turn, the coastal regions transformed into today’s major cities and enjoyed a massive FDI influx. Yet, Deng’s approach also caused phenomenal economic inequality illustrated by China’s Gini coefficient, which has been as high as 0.465 (closer to 1 mean less equal).

In recognition of this, Xi reiterated the significance of balanced economic growth. “To achieve the goal of a “moderately prosperous society” by 2020 and to accomplish the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” he will promote more balanced economic growth with a special focus on long-marginalized regions in western and central China.

2.    Industrial production


During the Deng era, China’s growth was heavily reliant on producing inexpensive but low-quality commodities based on cheap labor

Xi’s China will promote industrial innovation in an active way.  Deng’s strategy of relying on the production of cheap, low-cost goods continues, but at the same time China will also actively promote industrial innovation.


Thus, Xi will open further China’s door to international society and lower Chinese barriers for foreign investors, while strengthening domestic innovative capabilities in digital, engineering, genetic, aerospace, cyberspace, and smart technologies.

3.    Rule of law 


Rules were applied somewhat arbitrarily during the Deng era, and such practices have continued until today

Xi announced his aim to break this long tradition, by establishing a “central leading group for full rule of law.” He will persist in a fierce anti-corruption campaign, while attempting to instill the rule of law in China.


Yet, considering that he concurrently stressed the leading role of the Communist Party, including over the legal system, his version of rule of law is different from Western concepts. Instead, it may be described as the “rule of law with Chinese characteristics,” in which the Communist Party serves as a main enforcer of the law, and challenging Party authority will never be tolerated.

4.    Participation in international affairs


Deng Xiaoping left a maxim that has underpinned China’s foreign strategy ever since: “taoguang yanghui,” meaning “keep a low profile and bide your time.” Deng also said, “By no means should China take the lead.”

China under Xi will actively participate in international affairs à “The China that can say ‘No’”


Nevertheless, Xi appears convinced that China has bided enough time now. During the Party Congress, he stated that an amicable external environment has been shaped during the last five years, and that China will take an active role as “constructor of global peace, a contributor to development of global governance, and a protector of international order.” We will witness China’s more active participation with a louder voice in international society during Xi’s second term.


[1] The term “Tacitus Trap” comes from the Roman historian Publius Gornelius Tacitus (56-117 AD), who argued that neither good nor bad policies would please people if they resent their government. Meanwhile, Historian Thucydides’ Trap (460 – 400 BC) occurs when a rival power challenges a ruling power

[2] He got a 63% wage rise in January 2015.

[3] Daekwon SON, Xi Jinping Thought vs Deng Xiaoping Theory, The Diplomat, 25th October 2017

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