Xi who must be obeyed

Xi Jinping appears determined to take personal responsibility for the ambitious objectives he has set through to 2035.

[Note: The title of this article is a play on H Rider Haggard’s 1886 fantasy novel She.]

All the way to 2035?

"We've had so many steps backwards [under Xi Jinping]. Media controls have become stricter, internet controls have become stricter. And now one of the few seemingly effective checks on a senior leader's power — that he can only be in power for two terms — is now just being completely cast aside."

Kevin Carrico, Macquarie University, 25 February 2018 (quoted in the Financial Times)

The (low key) 25 February announcement that the Communist Party of China (CPC) has recommended scrapping the two term rule for the country’s President and Vice-President seems to have taken some commentators by surprise — perhaps mainly because many had expected this to occur at last year's 19th Congress of the CPC. It should not have done so, in my opinion. As the quote above from Mr Carrico suggests, the writing had been on the wall for several years even before the unveiling of the new Standing Committee of the Politburo (PSC) last year in which there is no appointee who could take over the reins from General Secretary Xi Jinping under the current age limit convention of retirement at the end of the cycle when one reaches the age of 68. That this is not a formalised rule — and that a precedent which many had expected (me included) in the form of extending Wang Qishan’s term on the PSC beyond the convention was not set — did leave some room for doubt; but this latest move does seem to be the logical next step in a progression which goes back over several years now.

Nor (in retrospect at least) should the timing of the announcement come as any surprise, ie just a few days before the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s parliament, formally opening this year on 5 March. The NPC will be asked to approve — some would say ‘rubber stamp’ — the recommendation.

[Note: Although yesterday's announcement is, understandably, grabbing the headlines just now, the NPC does have other important business before it, including:

  • The expected political reincarnation of Wang Qishan, who was named as a member of the NPC in January thereby making him eligible for a senior government post. Some expect him to be appointed as Vice-President with special responsibility for China's relationship with the United States;
  • The naming of the new governor of the PBOC, replacing the veteran Zhou Xiaochuan (who could be Liu He doubling up in the manner of Zhu Rongji in the mid-1990s;
  • The appointment of Liu He, one of Xi Jinping's most trusted advisors and a member of the Politburo, to a position, eg Vice-Premier and head of the Commission responsible for oversight of financial regulatory bodies including the PBOC, which would give him day-to-day responsibility for the economy.

If such speculation proves to be accurate it will be taken as a sign of Xi Jinping's determination to push ahead with the economic and financial reforms with greater determination than we saw during his first term.]

Mao Zedong 2.0?

The two term rule was brought in by Deng Xiaoping 30 years or so ago to prevent the emergence of another Mao Zedong. With its scrapping, I think it would be reasonable to say that Xi Jinping will be China’s most powerful leader since Mao (and that he has followed pretty much the same path as many feared six years ago would be that of his erstwhile rival Bo Xilai, were the latter to have inherited China’s top job, leading to his arrest, trial and ongoing incarceration!). But — and acknowledging the legitimacy of the concerns which this latest move has stimulated — I also believe that, powerful though Xi Jinping undoubtedly is, the checks, balances and personal aspirations which are ingrained in modern Chinese society (more on which later in this article) are such that he will not truly be ‘another Mao Zedong’.

In short, if he is going to stay in power for many more years — and I suspect he sees himself steering China for a couple more decades — he is going to have to deliver in a way Mao Zedong never did for China and its people. And what he is going to have to deliver on for starters is the targets — both domestic and international — laid out around last year’s 19th Congress of the CPC, culminating in China becoming a genuine and comprehensive world power by 2035.

Let me underline ‘domestic and international’. In practice, the two are, in my view, so intertwined that it would be hard, if not impossible, to achieve one set of targets without the other. And more critical still is the likelihood that failure to achieve these targets could well prove fatal not only to Xi Jinping himself but also to the CPC’s grip on power.

Is the BRI the key?

Central to success or otherwise is, in my view, Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Clearly geopolitical, not to say hegemonic, its domestic significance should not be underestimated.

Around the time of a BRI ‘summit’ in Beijing in May 2017, The Economist offered a succinct list of China’s motives for what Anja Manuel, an expert on US policy in Asia, has rightly described as its biggest ever foreign policy initiative. This begins by recognising that, as he had made clear at the World Economic Forum at Davos earlier in the year, Xi Jinping is intent on abandoning Deng Xiaoping’s ‘hide and bide’ approach to foreign policy in favour of an open bid for global leadership. The article in question (subscriber access only) continues as follows.

“Behind this broad strategic imperative lie a plethora of secondary motivations.… By investing in infrastructure, Mr Xi hopes to find a more profitable home for China’s vast foreign-exchange reserves, most of which are in low-interest-bearing American government securities. He also hopes to create new markets for Chinese companies, such as high-speed rail firms, and to export some of his country’s vast excess capacity in cement, steel and other metals. By investing in volatile countries in Central Asia, he reckons he can create a more stable neighbourhood for China’s own restive western provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet. And by encouraging more Chinese projects around the South China Sea, the initiative could bolster China’s claims in that area….”

However, I think The Economist may be missing the point of paramount importance to China’s leaders, ie domestic stability. To be fair, in addition to specific concerns about Tibet and Xinjiang, the economic dimension to this (ie keeping China’s economic growth at a level consistent with social stability through the deepening and widening of export markets) is implicit in The Economist’s summary. But there is, in my view, also a very important domestic political dimension in play, ie through sustaining in and, where necessary/possible, exporting to third countries Beijing’s illiberal governance model.

Around 1995, Deng Xiaoping set the CPC Training School a demanding exam question, ie how does China become more democratic and the CPC stay in power? At the time, it undoubtedly seemed inevitable that the Party would sooner or later not be able to duck this issue. After all, the West was basking in Francis Fukuyama's end of history moment and China itself was heading down a similar track economically to the one which had taken neighbouring South Korea and Taiwan to fully fledged democracy.

Deng Xiaoping also defined the timescale, determining that the second half of the lifespan of the 5th generation leadership (ie now!) was the time when the move to a more democratic society should begin — so effectively setting that as the date by which the 'exam question' had to have been answered.

It is clear that Xi Jinping concluded some time ago that there is, from the CPC’s perspective, no satisfactory answer to the question. The CPC has therefore determined that China should more or less stick to its current illiberal governance model, presumably in perpetuity.

The return of ‘history’?

The political mess in which both the UK and the US (and, to an extent, Europe generally) find themselves today does make 'anti-democracy' an easier 'sell' for sure. But how much easier still it would be to persuade China’s citizens to accept the political status quo at home if Beijing were able successfully to ‘sell’ (by example, at least) and sustain its governance model abroad.

The aforementioned Ms Manuel refers to the BRI as “a new great game”, thereby implicitly acknowledging (to my mind at least) that this is indeed a drive to expand (hugely) China’s sphere of influence at the expense of the West. She elaborates as follows:

“The initiative also has a positive side effect for Beijing: Some Chinese government officials say specifically that it’s about competing with the United States. At a minimum, it creates leverage to make many smaller countries feel economically beholden to China.”

I question whether this is indeed a “side effect”. Quite possibly, this is how it was viewed when the BRI was first conceived. But the world has moved on significantly since then and today we should assume that it is a core element in the initiative.

Will Xi Jinping succeed?

It would not, therefore, be going too far, in my view, to suggest that, in order to keep the CPC in power, Xi Jinping is deliberately steering China into at least an ideological confrontation with the West on a global scale — and one for which he is taking personal leadership responsibility.

In December 2017, Evan Osnos, writing in The New Yorker, reflected as follows:

“If [China’s] economy surpasses America’s in size, as experts predict, it will be the first time in more than a century that the world’s largest economy belongs to a non-democratic country. At that point, China will play a larger role in shaping, or thwarting, values such as competitive elections, freedom of expression, and an open Internet. Already, the world has less confidence in America than we might guess. Last year, the Pew Research Center asked people in thirty-seven countries which leader would do the right thing when it came to world affairs. They chose Xi Jinping over Donald Trump, twenty-eight per cent to twenty-two per cent.”

My personal opinion sits closely with views expressed by former US Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers in a speech he gave last November, as follows:

“Right now I would describe the modus vivendi that the world has found as being parallel play. The West does its thing; China does its thing. Countries get a bunch of money from China and they do it China’s way. Countries get a bunch of money from us and they do it our way.”

The Financial Times’s James Kynge put this into the wider context in an article (subscriber access only) also published in December when he drew a parallel between China’s approach today and its historical propensity to avoid direct confrontation wherever possible in favour of looking obliquely to change the rules which a stronger competitor is used to following, a strategy which translates from Mandarin as “replacing their beams with rotten timbers”. He goes on to cite the BRI as a key element of China’s efforts in this regard.

As the European Council on Foreign Relations has highlighted, with the BRI as a cornerstone, what is now unfolding is a systemic clash between the values promoted by the West since 1945 and what Mr Kynge has described as “a highly potent challenger”.

Can we avoid Thucydides’s trap?

Does this mean that China and the US will inevitably fall into Thucydides’s trap? Given what history tells us about the probability of violent conflict erupting between a declining hegemony and a rising competitor one certainly cannot rule this out. Indeed, to judge from the stance of both Beijing and Washington neither has done so.

On Washington’s part, the declaration in the 2018 National Defence Strategy (NDS) of China as a “strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea” has been interpreted by many (including Beijing itself) as a return to great power politics.

As for Beijing, in this year’s edition of its annual Military Balance, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) concludes that the modernisation of China’s air and naval forces is proceeding much faster than many experts had expected, to the point where it is now very close to being a “peer competitor” with the US. As the BBC’s Jonathan Marcus notes:

“China has one clear strategic aim in mind to which many of its new weapons systems are tailored. In the event of a conflict, this is to push US military power as far away from its shores as possible, ideally deep into the Pacific. This strategy is known in military jargon as "anti-access area denial" - sometimes abbreviated as A2AD. This explains China's focus on long-range air and maritime systems that can hold the US Navy's carrier battle groups at risk.”

One must hope that the escalation in military preparedness by both China and the US in what US strategists now refer to as the Indo-Pacific theatre is consistent with the Latin adage “Si vis pacem, para bellum”, ie “If you want peace, prepare for war”. And, therefore, scant consolation though it may be to Europe and the US, that Mr Kynge is again correct when he concludes that the greater threat to the West is that it proves unable to “repair the rotten timbers upon which its eviscerated government structures rest”.

A race against time?

Even if the West can “repair the rotting timbers” it will certainly take time. In the US, President Donald Trump is, first and foremost, a symptom rather than a cause; so even if he proves to be a one-term president his mere departure from the White House would not be an instant ‘fix’. In Europe, populism and nationalism, coupled with anti-globalisation, remain a powerful threat — and not only in Central and Eastern Europe; I am firmly of the view that the 2021-22 election cycle could prove to be even more risky than the current one. As for the international institutions established by the West in the post-war era one only has to think of the minimal reform to date of the IFIs, let alone the UN Security Council, to realise that much needs to be done if they are accurately to reflect today’s balance of economic and wider power; and that there is very little likelihood of this happening quickly.

But China has its share of “rotting timbers” too. It is far from inconceivable that it could “collapse under the weight of its internal contradictions or be bogged down by huge domestic debts”, as Mr Kynge puts it. Writing in The New York Times last November (ie in the aftermath of the 19th CPC Congress), Robert Kaplan opined as follows:

“China can be stopped only by its own internal demons. As Samuel P. Huntington wrote in his classic 1968 study, ‘Political Order in Changing Societies’, the more complex a society gets, the more responsive its institutions must become, otherwise the creation of a large middle class is destabilizing.”

In other words, if Mr Kaplan is correct (and I believe he is), China will, sooner or later, have to evolve socio-politically if it is to avoid a major domestic crisis even though, as Mr Kynge has argued, China’s authoritarian system has, so far, proved remarkably resilient.

Thus, Xi Jinping may have avoided having to answer Deng Xiaoping’s ‘exam question’ for now. But, by extending his term beyond 2022, he may well have condemned himself to having to address it eventually even if he is able to pursue his ambitious agenda with a marked degree of success. And perhaps especially if the West can rise to the challenge in the meantime and reform and regenerate to the point of restoring the credibility of liberal democracy.

Alastair Newton

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