Tony Saich imageFebruary 2023. GrowthPolicy’s Devjani Roy interviewed Anthony Saich, Daewoo Professor of International Affairs and the Director of the Rajawali Foundation Institute for Asia at Harvard Kennedy School, on China’s economy, the country’s COVID policies, Xi Jinping’s legacy, and the future of the Chinese Communist Party. | Click here for more interviews like this one.


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GrowthPolicy: With his recent re-election, President Xi Jinping has now served three consecutive terms as the President of the People’s Republic of China, and, simultaneously, held power as the head of the Chinese Communist Party for over a decade. What will such a lengthy tenure as General Secretary imply for the future of China, both geopolitically and for China’s economic future? In other words, what do you see as President’s Xi’s legacy?

Anthony Saich: First, I would prefer to use the title of General Secretary for Xi Jinping rather than President as his real power stems from being the head of the Communist Party. There has not been a limit on the number of terms for the General Secretary, just the President. The extension of his tenure and other documents suggest that Xi sees his dominance lasting until 2035, when he will be the same age as when Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong passed from the political scene.

While Xi sees his tenure as beneficial to stability and China’s development, it contains certain risks. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has not been very successful, historically, at providing an orderly succession and an institutionalized system to ensure the smooth handover of leadership from one generation to the next. Xi’s decision to push succession down the road to an undetermined future, introduces the possibility of uncertainty and instability. There is no mechanism in place should he suddenly be incapacitated.

Further, the appointment of loyal followers to key leadership positions may also create problems. Will anyone be willing to inform Xi when policy is not working? Thus far, he has appointed those who have worked with him earlier in his career and tend to be bureaucrats rather than those with the kinds of technical skills and policy knowledge that the leadership will need to deal with the difficult policy challenges that it faces. His continued tenure suggests policy continuity rather than change.

In the economy, this indicates continued state dominance over the economy, with a stronger role for state-owned industry and industrial policy. While the CCP is dependent on the non-state sector for continued growth, it remains suspicious of any private enterprises that develop significant size and economic influence that might challenge state power. Currently, the non-state sector contributes around 60 percent of GDP and almost 90 percent of new jobs. Thus, policy has to accommodate the sector, but making sure that it contributes to the party’s priorities will remain paramount. This will also be the case for foreign entities working in China. In the political realm, Xi sees the party as crucial to achieving any of the leadership’s policy objectives. A strong, unified, and disciplined party is vital. This reinforces the increasing centralization of the policy process, which will continue as well as the much tighter control over research and expression from within society.

China has adopted geo-economic risk mitigation and geo-political risk mitigation. The former encourages the turn inward to protect against the pressures from external forces, especially from the United States. This will enhance a gradual decoupling in certain areas, most notably in tech and AI. However, the notion of a complete decoupling is impossible, given China’s integration into the global economy. This is most noticeable with respect to the financial sector. The current need to get the economy moving again has led the leadership to stress both the importance of the non-state sector and of foreign investment.

For geo-political risk mitigation, this is best reflected in China’s attempts to challenge the U.S.-dominated global order. China has moved to take advantage in those areas that it feels the U.S. has withdrawn from, while strengthening relations with those countries that also oppose U.S. dominance. The most notable example is the agreement with Russia that heralded a relationship that would be without limits. For his legacy, Xi thinks that great powers dominate standards in technologies of the future. This accounts for the large state investment in fields such as AI, biotech, etc.

One can expect the more assertive promotion of China’s national interests to continue, which may continue to cause frictions with its neighbors in the region, as well as with other countries further afield in Europe and North America. Of course, Xi has made it clear that eventually Taiwan must be reintegrated with the Mainland, the outer limit for which is 2049.

Thus, if he continues to rule, his legacy will be a state-dominated economy, a centralized decision-making process, tight political control over society, and a more assertive foreign policy.


GrowthPolicy: You are one of the world’s leading experts on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In your prize-winning book, From Ruler to Rebel: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party, you tell us that the CCP was, originally, a small group of rebels who rose to power against tremendous odds, owing success to endurance, flexibility, and adaptability. If we were able to travel to the year 2121, i.e., 200 years from the CCP’s inception, what do you predict would be the future of the CCP?

Anthony Saich: If I could predict such things with any accuracy, I would probably be a very rich person from playing the stock market! It seems highly unlikely that the CCP will still be ruling the country in 100 years, or if it is, it will be substantially different from the CCP of today. At the turn of the century, there was recognition among some leaders that the party would need to reform to meet the demands of an increasingly complex economy and a more sophisticated and better-informed population. Studies were launched into Tony Blair’s “New Labor” and the social democratic parties of Northern Europe.

This followed the introduction in the 1990s by the then General Secretary, Jiang Zemin, of the concept of the “Three Represents.” This concept recognized that the party could no longer be seen as just representing the working-class, but needed to be a party that could include other forces in society, such as the new middle-class and private entrepreneurs. Policy would need to reflect their interests. Such moves to broaden its representation were a response to both its own internal unrest following the student-led demonstrations of 1989 and the collapse of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).

Xi Jinping has drawn a very different lesson from the collapse of the CPSU. Ever since taking power, he has been concerned that a similar fate may lay ahead for the CCP. Thus, instead of relaxing controls over society and adopting a more flexible approach to the organization of the party, he has reasserted control over as much economic, political, and social activity as is feasible. He envisages a more traditional Leninist party as the vehicle to prevent collapse and to dive policy forward. It is highly unlikely that this kind of structure will be able to rule successfully over an extended period.

So how might the party develop? One possibility would be to look at the Nationalist Party (KMT) of Taiwan, which was, from its origins, a Leninist party. It has had to evolve to compete in a democratic society and has shifted to building support through local power-brokers and clearer policy principles. However, the KMT never enjoyed the strength of control that the CCP enjoys and it was more vulnerable to domestic pressures for change and external pressures from supporters such as the United States. Another possibility might be to evolve as the LDP in Japan, which has survived as a ruling party in a democratic polity. The LDP has acknowledged the existence of factions within the party. Another path might be to return to the study of the social democratic parties in Europe.

One first step for reform would be to accept the existence of factions within the party (they exist already) and allow them to promote their own policy platforms openly. This could provide the possibility to develop policy alternatives that would match with the increasing diversity within society. Over time, it could lead to the emergence of different political groupings that could compete in the system.

However, it is highly unlikely that Xi and his supporters would be willing to pursue any of these paths as they would impact negatively the vested interests that have developed as a result of the development strategy. Thus, the more likely future is the fate that has befallen virtually all ruling communist parties over time: sclerosis, followed by collapse and removal from power.


GrowthPolicy: In its Covid response, China’s public health system been reluctant to bring in vaccines from the international market. I’d like you to talk about this concept of “vaccine nationalism” as it pertains to China’s “zero Covid policy.” What has this meant for China’s Covid response, both in the initial 2020 phase and in the current 2022 phase?

Anthony Saich: The Chinese leadership was at pains to show the public that its approach to dealing with Covid was superior to that of many countries in the West, especially that of the United States. Using vaccines from the international market could have suggested that, in some respects, the West had certain advantages. Certainly, the vaccines developed have proved to be more effective than Chinese-produced vaccines. This reluctance to use more effective vaccines, combined with the low rates of vaccination for the elderly, created a major problem once China lifted the restrictions that were in force under the “zero-Covid” policy. Clearly, the official death toll announced by the authorities undercounts massively the number of those who have died because of Covid. 


GrowthPolicy: The New York Times recently wrote, “The public discontent vented in bold demonstrations [in November 2022] against China’s Covid containment policies represents the greatest domestic crisis President Xi Jinping has faced in his decade in power.” In what ways have these protests compared to, or differed from, past protests in China against the CCP’s authoritarian policies, such as those in the 1980s.

Anthony Saich: Certainly, the scale of the demonstrations took the leadership by surprise. It contributed to the sudden shift in policy, but was not the only factor. I think that leadership had become aware that the Omicron variant was spreading rapidly despite the lock-downs and that a shift in policy was necessary. In addition, the economy was crashing and it was clear that revival meant ending the severity of previous policy.

What is shocking is how ill-prepared the leadership was to deal with the opening up. They had almost three years to prepare and had seen the experiences of other countries that had lifted tough lock-down policies. In addition, on their doorstep they had the example of Hong Kong. Yet, they appeared incompetent and unprepared in the face of the challenges. This included the ineffectual vaccination program. Ultimately, this will represent a greater challenge to the perception of Xi’s rule than the demonstrations. If the rapid outbreaks and rise in deaths can be brought under control and the economy revived, Xi should be able to ride out the storm, given his grip on the key levers of power. 

With respect to the demonstrations, there is some similarity but also significant differences. The demonstrations were set off because of a specific incident of the fire in Xinjiang, where the demonstrators blamed the deaths on the lock-down policies. As in the 1980s, this provided the possibility for some to criticize broader aspects of CCP rule, although such people were few in number. Unlike the demonstrations in 1989, they were swiftly curtailed and did not lead to a widespread movement among the general population to criticize the fundamental nature of the regime. The holding up of blank sheets of paper was a clever tactic, rather than raising specific demands as had been the case in the 1980s.