In the NY Times, Susan Shirk informs us that Xi Jinping as fallen into the "Dictator Trap":
Thinking about this I asked myself, is there a “dictator trap”? Is there something about being a dictator that forces, or strongly tempts, leaders into policies that are ultimately bad for the nation? Probably so, but is that more true of dictatorships than other governments?President Xi Jinping’s first decade in power has been a study in hubris. He has purged political rivals and adopted heavy-handed policies that have imperiled China’s economy. He laid the groundwork for a crackdown in the Xinjiang region that drove Muslim citizens into thought reform camps and has alarmed and alienated neighbors with an aggressive foreign policy. . . .Mr. Xi fell into the same trap that has ensnared dictators throughout history: He overreached. He has concentrated more power in his hands than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, looming so completely over the country that he’s been called the “chairman of everything.”
You could certainly say that the desire to stay in power leads dictators to make bad choices, for example cracking down so hard on real or imagined opponents that you do real damage to the government and the economy (Stalin), or thinking that you need great military victories to stay in power (Napoleon, Hitler). Or encouraging corruption so as to enmesh the whole elite in your governing scheme (Putin). It can be a problem that dictators sometimes have the power to make dumb decisions with nobody to stop them, but then all governments sometimes make dumb decisions.
Changing directions: is there a Democracy Trap? Libertarians and small-government conservatives have long maintained that there is. They believe that democratic governments will inevitably try to make the voters happy by spending money, which they will get either by printing it or ruining the rich, destroying the economy and ultimately diminishing freedom. This is pretty much what happened with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and the turmoil over on-again, off-again democracy in Thailand has a lot to do with a fear of Robin Hood populism.
Against this I would say that few democracies have actually done this, and that in fact democracies have a better record of economic management than other systems.
A different kind of conservative thinks the problem with democracy is that most people are foolish, short-sighted, and dominated by fads, so over the long term foolish, short-sighted voters will remake a truly democratic state in their image. What the nation needs is not democracy but the guidance of wise leaders. This is, I suppose, the justification for the current Chinese state, and the main source of their legitimacy was that they were making the country better. Now that they are not obviously making the country better, they seem to be turning toward surveillance and police violence to stay in power.
One thing I would say with more confidence is that in our world, maintaining any sort of state that is not either a democracy or a harsh dictatorship seems to be very difficult. The only real sources of legitimacy seem to be democracy and force. So the Russian state has trended toward Putin's dictatorship, and the Chinese state has trended toward Xi's dictatorship. Without the need to get support from voters, Xi easily smashed the constitutional limits on personal power put into place by Deng, which were supposed to prevent a repeat of Mao's disastrous personal rule.
In that sense it is not Xi who has fallen into a Dictator Trap, but the Chinese state. Deng's arrangements were supposed to keep the state balanced between dictatorship and anarchic democracy, but it turned out to be an unstable point, always in danger of tipping toward one side or the other.
I think Xi's consolidation of power will be bad for China. I have never been sure that democracy is a great option for China, so I have not been calling for radical reform of a system that really seemed to be benefitting most people. But Xi's turn toward grim despotism changes the equation. I expect the bad trend to continue, which worries me. Twenty years from now China will either have undergone some kind of revolution and become much more democratic, or it will be an awful place, perhaps exporting awfulness around through world through war or economic mayhem.