As expected, the 19th Communist Party Congress saw President Xi Jinping consolidate his hold over the party and the government. The real test for Xi is not in making the Chinese military a mighty force. Nor is it in spreading the Chinese wings across the seas. The challenge will come from economy, which is causing hiccups across the rural and urban society. President Xi made no mention of India in his long speech but India is sure to figure high on Beijing’s agenda in the days ahead.
By Malladi Rama Rao
Xi Jinping becoming the new helmsman of China is a development that has been in the works for a while, certainly from the moment he had embarked on ruthless action to axe the corrupt in the party and the army. This drive for probity has given him an edge over his contemporaries and made him to be counted amongst the greats of China.
The five impressive takeaways from the 19th CPC Congress (see the box) notwithstanding, authoritarianism is a gift of the proletarian dictatorship that Communism has come to represent over the years. This puts a question mark over what President Xi will come to represent over the next five years (his second term) and the assured third term.
There is no gain in saying, however, that for Xi the real test is not in making the PLA a great mighty force, which he has more or less achieved. Nor in spreading the Chinese wings across the seas, which also he appears to have greatly accomplished.
Xi’s test will come from the economy, which is causing hiccups across the rural and urban society, and in managing diplomacy which finds China at cross roads. Already, economy and diplomacy are proving to be the soft underbelly of Xi’s Beijing, going by the bad press China is getting in Africa and Central Asia, and even in Pakistan that is beholden to his Communist purse strings, and by the concerns across Asia, particularly South-east Asia the assertiveness of Chia is causing.
Though President Xi Jinping made no mention of India in his record breaking three and a half hour long speech, New Delhi will figure high on Beijing’s agenda in the days ahead as in the days gone by. Because, China has not stopped blowing hot and cold even after suffering reverses at Doklam. In fact there is a surge in its penchant to take digs at and offer homilies to India (See Box).
From the sentencing of self-styled religious don, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, for rape to the death of 100 children at a Gorakhpur hospital, and violent clashes in Darjeeling hills to the dip in India’s growth rate, every headline in India has become fodder for the Chinese thought in the run up to the party congress in a bid to project a better image of the Dragon before home audience and neighbours alike. Modinomics needs a dose of Chinese advice is the latest refrain. Put simply, the dull sales of Chinese crackers during this Diwali should not let the South Block mandarins to believe that there will be one too many dull moments in the Sino-Indian theatre.
The Chinese leader had invoked the long forgotten “Panchsheel” for peaceful co-existence, and spoke about “enhancing relations” with neighbours along the country’s borders. In the same breath he made a not so nuanced remark that demands attention. “Do not expect us to swallow anything that undermines our interests”, he declared in what is a calibrated effort to camouflage his sense of hurt that a high-profile military foray into Doklam had ended as a zero sum game just before winter had set in the Himalayas.
The assertiveness in his tone cannot be construed as a pep talk to pep up the mood amongst the selected and elected delegates at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 18th Oct, the first day of the week-long party congress. It has to be seen in the right perspective. And the right perspective is that President Xi is not sending a friendship message to countries in South China Sea in general and to Modi’s India, in particular. Reason? The Trump administration has begun to see New Delhi as ‘reliable partner’ amid China’s ‘provocative actions’ that are ‘posing a challenge to the rules – based international order’ to quote Secretary of State Tillerson.
Expectedly, the high priest of Republican capitalism, The Washington Post, (WP), sees the Xi- speak through its anti-Trump prism. “Move over, America. China now presents itself as the model ‘blazing a new trail’ for the world,” Simon Denyer reported in his despatch, and went gaga over ‘stunning economic growth’ ushered in by the transition from communism to state-directed capitalism. The despatch quoted Xi-speak to declare that China is now officially another polestar for the world with ‘its banner of socialism flying high and proud for all to see’, and that China offers its wisdom ‘to solving the problems facing mankind’.
To be fair to the WP, its Beijing- datelined dispatch noted, in passing though, what constitutes the external core of Xi Jinping mantra. It is the demand for a tighter control of the party over national affairs at home, and greater say for China in global governance. The latter part is to be achieved by cashing-in on China’s growing financial clout that has comes its way through flagship programmes like “One Belt-One Road” (OBOR) across Asia and Africa. He couched the craving in pious platitudes. China, he said, rejects cold war mentality and power politics, and went on to say that China prefers developing state-to-state relations ‘with communication, not confrontation, partnership, not alliance’.
As of now, as Nayan Chanda, noted journalist and foreign policy expert, points out in his latest Times of India column (Enter Dragon, Oct 21, 2017), “armed with its bulging foreign reserves and a growing list of international friends and supporters, China has pushed to extend its control over influential international organisations – from Interpol to Internet governance. It has interfered with increasing brazenness in other countries’ internal affairs, drawing red-lines to ensure their internal policies conform to Chinese interests.
TAKEAWAYS FROM XI’s SPEECH
Xi’s marathon speech, titled title: “Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” offers the following takeaways:
1. Economic Changes, Not Market Reforms
Govt companies will be made efficient. Financial market will be regulated. Growth of private business will be supported
2. Foreign Policy and Military Modernization
By mid- century, Chinese military will become first class in every way with greater professionalization of officers and more innovation in weaponry.
China will play its role as a “great power” or a “strong power” (he made the point 26 times)
3. Taiwan & Honk Kong:
Hong Kong and nearby Macau (former Portuguese colony) can govern themselves only “with patriots playing the principal role.” Taiwan must return to mainland’s control. “We will never allow anyone, any organization, or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China.”
4. Security at Home, Too
More efforts to control the internet, including the use of censorship to “clearly oppose and resist the whole range of erroneous viewpoints.”
5. Leading China into a New Era
China has entered a “new era” under his stewardship; it will be an era that sees China moving “closer to center stage.” He is to this new era what Mao and Deng Xiaoping had been in their times.
Sinologists aver that the global rise of China under XI, who took over the CPC reins in November 2012 (he became President in March 2013), has not resulted in greater freedom or openness for its citizens. It may be true going by reports in Global Times and the Internet, but what is germane to my reality check is the sense of insecurity that comes out clearly and loudly through the Xi speech. The plank of stability, the image of unified leadership, and above all the glorification of Xi don’t mask the concerns over factional infighting (in the CPC), slowing of economy and rising social tensions at home, and the growing US threat of trade war and war abroad.
There are two clear giveaways. One is the widely covered report under the heading – Coup plotters foiled: Xi Jinping fended off threat to ‘save Communist Party’. The claim was attributed to Liu Shiyu, Chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission.
The second giveaway is the warning to world leaders against meeting Dalai Lama, who had fled Tibet in 1959 and has been living at Dharamshala in the Indian Himalayas. China considers as a “major offence” if any country or foreign leader hosts or meets the Dalai Lama, said Zhang Yijiong, Executive Vice Minister of the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on the sidelines of party congress on the 21st Oct.
China, Zhang stated, will not accept the arguments of foreign countries and leaders to meet the 82-year-old Dalai Lama as a religious leader. “I want to make it clear that the 14th Dalai Lama, the living Buddha handed down by history is a political figure under the cloak of religion”.
Fearing a threat from an acknowledged modern day apostle of peace? Well, it is indeed so. The Chinese leadership still subscribes to the old view that the Tibetan spiritual leader is a “separatist” trying to split Tibet from China.
CHINA GRIPPED BY INDIAN PARANOIA?
There are two recurring themes in the Chinese media these days. One – Born of chaos, India lumbers amid turmoil; two- India is gripped by security paranoia. The first is to ridicule Indian society and its economic twists and turns. The second is to grandly state that some Indian nationalists are over-estimating India’s strength and rights, while assuming that India “can bark orders across the border” at Beijing.
Defence Minister Nirmal Sitharaman’s visit to the Sino-Indian border in Sikkim and Bhutan region particularly to the new green field airport built at Pakyong did not go down well with the Chinese. The airport located in East Sikkim is close to the Sino-Indian border. It is about 30km south of Gangtok.
Global Times has termed the visit to the airport as an “aggressive gesture,” but felt that it was somewhat diluted by her friendly interactions with Chinese soldiers at Nathula.
Some Chinese homilies to India: Maintaining Sino-Indian friendship is a strategic instinct and a rational choice for China; India-US defence coop is much cry, little woo; India’s reaction over Doklam is eccentric; right recipe for Indian economy is the Chinese model.
In the same league is the other giveaway that came out when Liu Shiyu, spoke on the sidelines of the party’s congress. He “applauded” President Xi Jinping for “saving the Communist Party” by foiling a coup plot by former political heavyweights. He identified the plotters too. The list includes former party boss of megacity Chongqing, Sun Zhengcai. He was once a front runner for a place in the Politburo Standing Committee. Others were Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, Ling Jihua, Xu Caihou, and Guo Boxiong; they all had held high positions and great power in the party. All of them were axed quite a while ago. One of them, Xu died two years ago. Sun was expelled from the party this September. At that time the sedition charge was not made against him. It was merely stated that he was axed for corruption which “seriously endangered the party’s ruling foundation and ability to govern”.
Now Liu is telling the world that “they (the axed leaders) had plotted to usurp the party’s leadership and seize state power.” Like most Chinese leaders, he is economical on details. Believe me if you want – appears to be his stand. He is the first top ranking CPC official to accuse Sun Zhengcai of trying to take over the party.
The venerable People’s Daily has a different take. It has been telling its readers that the disclosure of a plot to overthrow Xi was made late last year by Wang Qishan, the man widely seen as China’s second most powerful man. He reportedly said: “….. Some (cadres) even sought to … seize party and state power, engaging in activities to split the party, and seriously threatening the nation’s political stability.” The dispatch was dated Oct 31 but it appeared on Dec 1, according to South China Morning Post.
In recent months, Xi ruthlessly executed the anti-corruption drive to throw out the likes of Sung Zhengcai, who was once regarded as a contender for a top leadership role in five years’ time. Such purges, going by general consensus, have been the means Xi has used to take absolute grip over the CPC, and People’s Liberation Army (PLA). As many as 4,885 PLA officers, a number of them generals, had been punished for graft, Xinhua reported in March 2017. These days, Xi himself chairs the Central Military Commission unlike in the past when regional commanders did the honours.
So what is there to fear or worry for President XI? It is a Sudoku for every Sinologist, who may need to give a thought to my thesis that like all political leaders, Xi Jinping, will not hesitate to return to nationalism as his refuge to drive away people’s attention from the social volcano if it becomes bust ready. Doklam face off was a test case for nationalism in action. Xi-speak is no less manifestation of that spirit.
This commentary first appeared in the November 2017 issue of Power Politics, a monthly, www.powerpolitics.in