What Does China Want?

Xi Jinping is establishing a system of checks without balances. Although this intention defies the political science equivalent of the law of gravity, his first two years in power appear to be a success.

Two years after Mr Xi Jinping’s accession to power over China’s Party-state and over the military, the lines have hardened considerably inside China. For one, most of the fairly public debates that seemed to embody a political life of its own for China have been either terminated or considerably toned down. Then, a World Bank report endorsed by key Chinese institutions could clearly present extensive structural reform as the only choice available to keep China on its path of success. China’s prime minister along with elements in the rump legislative assembly and in the legal professions repeatedly staged advocacy of rule by law and of constitutionalism for the People’s Republic.

On China’s prosperous Southern coast, peasants demonstrated to get back the land that had been acquired from them at outrageously low prices at the beginning of the reform years. These years had also seen ugly and open expressions of a new nationalism—culminating in riots and violence against owners of Japanese cars in September 2012. The succession year was marked by the high drama of China’s most flamboyant Party politician, Bo Xilai, falling from grace in a murder case that Hitchcock would have dreamed of, followed by the exposure of gangland type elimination of tycoons tied to a local rival.

All that has stopped. It is now at the periphery of China—in Hong Kong where the “one country, two systems”deal still allows for the expression of dissent, or in Xinjiang where a violent cycle was ignited with bouts of terrorist action followed by massive repression, and also in the bloodless but ominous tension at the edge of China’s maritime domain—that open contest is taking place. All is quiet at the centre, at least in appearance. There is in fact a suffocating absence of public debate on most issues of concern for China.

The enforced silence does not only hit liberals or reformers. Has anyone seen an anti-foreign demonstration lately in China? During the last year, not only have there been growing tension with Japan, and plenty of occasions to express historical grudge against Tokyo: but the streets that echoed with anti-Japanese slogans only two years ago are now quiet. After China installed a deep water exploration rig in waters claimed by Vietnam, anti-Chinese riots ignited in Vietnam, causing thousands of Chinese workers to flee: there has not been a single public protest in China after these incidents. “Mass incidents” in general, or instances of collective protest might, for all we know, be just as frequent as they were before 2012. Only their numbers are no longer cited, even informally, and popular protest now goes unnoticed—perhaps one of the latest instances was the movement staged by relatives of the passengers of flight MH 370. But of course what we tend to see most is the stifling of liberal or dissenting opinion. The increased censorship of the web and social media, the silencing of debates on constitutional issues, and the repression of activists—of which the most striking example is the life sentence recently meted out against Ilham Tohti, a mild academic advocate of rights for Uighurs—is what catches the eye.

Yet it is the silence that should attract most our attention, because it speaks more loudly than words of the Party-state’s ability to buck the trend and “ride the tiger,” as Mao Zedong used to say. Not much is really known about Xi Jinping who has helicoptered his way to the top in barely two decades (a short time for a Chinese leader) and who came from a key insider family of the regime’s formative years. Some political scientists stuck to the idea of a slow transition to institutional rule by way of collective leadership, others saw a perpetual factional struggle inside the Party between conservatives and reformers, or between the scions of the regime (to which Xi indeed belongs) and more plebeian cadres rise through the ranks. Nobody saw the ascent of personal rule: not only had it been banished after the extremes of Mao’s reign, but also Bo Xilai had been taken down precisely because he embodied that risk.

Yet here we are, with a strong leader who took over the trinity of Party, state and army posts from the very first day, who has accumulated anywhere between eight and twelve top leadership functions since that fast track start, who has relegated prime minister Li Keqiang, China’s number two, to a humble existence in his shadow, and whose newly minted thoughts are the most often rewarded subject of research at China’s Academy of Social Sciences. Most of all, in a system where a basic assumption was that the top leadership is first preoccupied by domestic issues, Xi Jinping has taken a confidently assertive stance in foreign policy and has visited 32 countries, from Russia to the Maldives, from the United States to the Republic of Congo.

Most of all, he has silenced the other leaders, whether we see them as colleagues (a term he has used rather than comrades) or as potential rivals. A long and strenuous anti-corruption struggle has taken down China’s former no. 1 security boss, so far with almost no official publicity, as well as high military figures, and has decimated the ranks of China’s oil and energy sector in what is also widely seen as a corralling of Jiang Zemin, China’s Godfather-like former leader of 1995–2002. Unlike his immediate predecessor, who avoided direct exposure to the masses, Mr Xi craves photo opportunities in what looks like personal campaigning—to the extent of taking a taxi ride in Beijing or slurping dumplings at a downscale eatery. He has implicitly denounced Gorbachev, Eltsin and the men who brought down the Soviet Union, and instead of moving towards separating Party and state, he has brought increased control of the state by the Party—a meticulous, top down control that reminds one of Mao’s former alter ego Liu Shaoqi; all of which does suggest a search for a due process.

Mr Xi is establishing a system with checks without balances, and although this intention defies the political science equivalent of the law of gravity, his first two years in power appear to be a success. China’s economy may have slowed—and there is no shortage of predictions of doomsday bubbles—but it is still the world’s fastest growing economy, with a record breaking trade surplus achieved again in the summer of 2014, with ever expanding currency reserves that provide for huge tied loans or prepaid purchases of resources abroad. Many international firms now have a Chinese fund as one of its main shareholders (which amounts to an internationalization of Chinese capital), while the renminbi itself remains under capital controls, contrary to the expectations of most liberal economists.

In a word, the question of what does China want is shaping up increasingly into the question of what does Mr Xi want. Mr Xi has accumulated power more quickly than any of his predecessors since Mao. The statement challenges, of course, the unique figure of Deng Xiaoping, revered in China and abroad as the man who started China on the road to reform and opening up, and who undoubtedly has made China’s voyage to wealth and power possible. However, memory fails the admirers who forget that after two years of struggle in the dark (1976–1978) Deng had to steer a conservative Party majority to reform for eight years, until 1985. He had a free rein for only three years, after which his own recoil at demands for more change led him to ally with his conservative colleagues from 1988 onwards— bringing down his own reformist wing in the process. By contrast, Xi Jinping currently appears to have quickly manoeuvred himself at the apex of power, with a series of quick alliance reversals and a robust use of the anti-corruption tool in a country where money has tainted everything and everyone.

Grabbing power, however, is not the same as using it, and considerable doubt remains as to what Xi really wants. Can a man who celebrates the glory of Chinese civilization yet has a discreet and unassuming daughter study at Harvard, be one-sided? The same could be said of a man who has dwelled in poetic Mao quotes but fills Beijing libraries with the biography of his own father—a leading moderate in an otherwise intemperate Party. The dualism appears everywhere—in an ambiguous toast at the White House in February 2012, or even more in the recent visit to India, when 1 500 People’s Liberation Army soldiers appeared in Indian-controlled Ladakh while Xi toasted Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Gujarat. There are those who want to reassure themselves with both of these incidents, by suggesting a fragmentation of power that shows Mr Xi, in fact, does not control the essential instrument of state power in China—the People’s Liberation Army and its projection in the near abroad. The pattern of the incident, which had a precedent on a smaller scale some days before on another visit by a Chinese Prime minister, and where the intrusion increased in size immediately after Mr Xi left India, suggests otherwise.

For a period of unpredictable length, we can assert China’s course through a study of personal power and how it can either rigidify the system or ram change throughout its circles. We have already seen cases of both. Stopping political debate as well as populist nationalist expression belongs to the former, as does the celebration of the military and of the possibility of war. Nevertheless, presiding over an unprecedented expansion of e-commerce and e-banking, putting China in the driving seat worldwide, belongs to the latter. Deng Xiaoping, too, had facilitated the sprouting of new enterprises rather than face the direct reform of the state-driven economy. Xi has considerably slowed down the check book diplomacy for natural resources, from the developing world to Australia: his profligacy towards Mr Putin, with two recent energy deals, may have a more strategic design and is in fact not entirely proven, since the actual size of the outlays remains secret.

Mr Xi has captured power, but does he possess the dynamics of it? Political power is a mysterious alchemy whereby you get others to want what you want, beyond your own formal power. Mao excelled in revolutionizing China by mobilizing zealots and crushing his opponents under their weight. Deng Xiaoping hinted more reform than he could sustain, and achieved immense support as the man who would save China from itself— from the revolutionary tragedy. The only area where Xi suggests a dream is in foreign policy, with the suggestion of China’s past grandeur being reborn. To control that policy, he can brook no spontaneous expression, as he carefully balances challenge and restraint towards China’s competitors. Fine-tuning China’s rise implies a lot of ambiguity: many incidents in the South and East China Seas, not one casualty. A “new type of big power relationship” with America, but there also exists one with Russia. Funding the appearance of a BRICS union with Chinese money, but endowing it with IMF-like rules in order to limit financial risks.

Inside China, the limit of Mr Xi’s power lies in the fear he instils in the Party state machinery. Cadres will certainly obey any of his orders and march over a cliff if told to. As the sword of anti-corruption campaigns hangs over their heads, it is a powerful deterrent against taking any initiative. Can terror create reform? Catherine II’s dilemma awaits Mr Xi. His private religion probably lies more with the Party reformers and enlightened scions of the CCP aristocracy, pedigreed movers and shakers, than with ideologues, policemen and diplomats. He seeks transparency not of the Party-state to the outside world—on the contrary, secrets are better protected than ever—but transparency within the Party-state: the ability of the supreme leader to know all, control all, and correct all faults. (There has also been a nasty trend to make denunciations based on private lives—in a country that has revelled in obliterating Mao’s puritanical streak.)

If the system could police itself from above, Xi Jinping would create a continent-sized Singapore. However, Chinese society rests on balances too, and not only on checks. If they do not exist within the Party, then they must appear outside. Failing to acknowledge this, even the apparently level-heeded and pragmatic top leader that is Xi, with the ability to turn around on a dime (an ability that Mao and Deng also possessed), risks to be egged on the road to despotism when the first real bump appears on the road. Power itself remains the first object and the first problem of China’s political system.

François Godement

Director of China & Asia program, European Council on Foreign Relations

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