In 1969, Tony Shub — the Washington Post’s Moscow correspondent who had just been expelled for critical views and contacts with dissidents — did a series for the paper, “Russia Turns Back the Clock.” He meant that after a few hopeful years of Khrushchev, Brezhnev was retightening Soviet Stalinism.

We’re now seeing a Chinese analog, “Xi Jinping Turns Back the Clock.” Brezhnev had a long run (1964-82) but could not reverse Soviet decline; he actually accelerated it. Xi, I suspect, will play a similar role: several years of superficial stability followed by serious difficulty. Amassing unlimited power to better control the system weakens it.

One problem is elusive middle grounds between market and command economies. It’s hard to get them just right; they tend to slide to one side or the other. Tito’s Yugoslavia allowed economic decentralization and partial marketization to repudiate the Soviet model. This middle way would grow the economy for a few years but got increasingly loose and decentralized until Tito would retighten it and punish a few abusers. Result: a zig-zag that never held steady.

Beijing’s recent arrest of the head of insurance-finance giant Anbang is a recent Chinese example of that. Even regime showhorse Jack Ma, billionaire founder and chief of Alibaba, may not be able to rely on his party connections forever. State-owned enterprises, big money-losers, are still propped up with forced bank loans that may never be repaid. 

The Chinese Communist Party, since its founding nearly a century ago, was plagued with the fact that agrarian China had almost no industrial proletariat. Now it has a big one. After record economic growth, at least three limits have arrived: Surplus rural labor has largely dried up (the “Lewis turning point”); the one-child policy doesn’t replace an aging labor force; and workers are fed up with low wages and mistreatment. Beijing tried to ignore their proletariat but now they have ironically introduced class struggle to China for the first time. Some even strike.

The Point: China’s economy is an unsteady mix with many of our ills. And China is starting to encounter its S-curve — rapid growth that plateaus after approximately 30 years (e.g., Japan). To keep up growth, governments pump out loans and subsidies, running up unsustainable debt.  

Xi’s lifting of the two 5-year-term limit, in place since 1982, shows China’s politics are poorly institutionalized; one strongman overthrows them. This means no checks on Xi, who could hold power for life. Xi is constructing a personality cult that enshrines him at Mao’s infallible level. He has set up numerous “small working groups” that cut across existing bureaucratic lines. Xi chairs all of them. Who will dare contradict him?

The White House conflates coercion with strength, but over time one-man rule weakens with rigidity and errors. Its Achilles heel: succession crises. The strongman grooms no successors. Ambitious underlings fight for power after his death (e.g., Stalin vs. Trotsky after Lenin, Khrushchev vs. Brezhnev after Stalin). 

Beijing’s two-term rule brought hope for a “Mexican solution” in China: Each PRI president would select, in consultation with party chiefs, the next president. This was hardly democratic, but it gave Mexico nearly a century of stability. China has now foreclosed this option.

Under Xi, the Party’s Discipline Inspection Commission fights not only corruption but anyone who opposes Xi or voices divergent views. This comes as China implements an artificial-intelligence system that will put all 1.4 billion Chinese under close surveillance, everything from political reliability to facial recognition. A state based on total intimidation begs for mass scorn and defiance.  

China’s rapid growth and broad state-private interface invites corruption. To totally throttle it would choke off growth. Moneyed Chinese, aware they are being watched, devise ways to stash their cash abroad — through Hong Kong corporations, Macau casinos, U.S. and Canadian apartments or children in U.S. universities. Capital flight, as in Latin America, is a vote of no-confidence in the economy.

The worst problem of one-person rule, Chinese or otherwise, is the tendency to make snap, poorly grounded decisions. Checks and balances, including those of independent media? Ain’t none. Few around the great man raise doubts or questions. They just implement, which may result, as under Mao, in mass famine and national weakness. 

During the relatively open first decade of this century, whiffs of Chinese pluralism, rule of law and grass-roots elections seemed to point toward democracy. We were a little naive. China largely escaped the 2008-2009 economic meltdown and convinced the Zhongnanhai that its authoritarian path was correct. Xi’s long-planned accession to party chief in November 2012 — he became president the following March — began the tightening up.

For more on this, see Carl Minzner’s new “End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival Is Undermining Its Rise” and Susan Shirk’s periodizing of Chinese communism into: (1) Mao’s tumult, (2) Deng Xiaoping’s stabilizing and now (3) Xi’s turning back the clock. One-man rule is unlikely to end well.