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China’s Xi Regime at Six Months

Tags: China , Xi Jinping , Economic Growth , Japan-China Relations , Foreign Policy

Suwa, Kazuyuki

June 20, 2013

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Last November, at the Eighteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China, the CPC Central Committee elected seven men to the Politburo Standing Committee, the nation’s de facto governing organ: Xi Jinping (general secretary, chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission), Li Keqiang, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan (first secretary of the Central Secretariat), Wang Qishan (secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection), and Zhang Gaoli.

Xi Jinping, left, and Li Keqiang.
Xi Jinping, left, and Li Keqiang.
A few months later, at their annual March meetings, the National People’s Congress and National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) completed China’s leadership transition by designating Xi president of the People’s Republic of China and chairman of the PRC Central Military Commission, Li Keqiang premier, Zhang Dejiang chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, Yu Zhengsheng chairman of the CPPCC National Committee, and Zhang Gaoli first-ranked vice premier.

Quite a few observers have concluded from this lineup that Jiang Zemin’s Shanghai clique has triumphed over its rivals, the Youth League faction of Hu Jintao and the taizidang, or “princelings,” grouped around Xi Jinping. This is an oversimplification that ignores long-term ramifications and the complexity of interpersonal relations in Chinese society.

No Clear Winner

There is no denying that the disgrace of Ling Jihua, General Secretary Hu Jintao’s most trusted aide, cast a pall over Hu’s final days in office and dashed his hopes for a smooth and graceful exit.[1] But Hu has been able to put his successor, Xi Jinping, in debt by voluntarily and fully yielding the stage through his relinquishment of the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission and other leadership posts—and taking Jiang Zemin with him. With regard to the latter, Xinhua reported in January that Jiang Zemin had asked to be treated like other retired senior statesmen in respect to the order of precedence in the wake of the Eighteenth National Congress.[2] The most recent ranking (May 2, 2013) consequently places Jiang eighth, followed immediately by Hu.

If Hu truly cares to cling to power within the party, he will have a good chance ten years hence, when Xi leaves office. The CPC’s second-ranking official, Li Keqiang, is a Hu protégé and, under current party age limits, will still be eligible to take the helm—albeit for one term only—when the Twentieth National Congress is convened in 2022.[3]

What of Xi Jinping’s own power base? Although closely associated with an informal group of elite politicians commonly known as the taizidang (or “Crown Prince Party,” referring to the sons of former major party figures), Xi is said to owe his current position to Jiang Zemin, who engineered his 2007 appointment to the Politburo Standing Committee using the process of “democratic recommendation” prior to the Seventeenth National CPC Congress. This catapulted Xi, then Shanghai party secretary, past Li Keqiang in party ranking and placed him next in line for the top spot. In this sense, Xi himself can be considered part of the Jiang faction.

Meanwhile, CPC Central Committee General Office Chief Li Zhanshu, widely regarded as Xi’s closest ally, has a solid base within the Youth League. As for the other members of the Politburo Standing Committee, all except Li are too old to seek reelection at the next party congress five years hence. This means that all five are likely to fall into line with Xi over the next few years as they look forward to a peaceful retirement.

While the members of the Politburo Standing Committee may differ privately on policy and personnel issues, they can generally be expected to function as a team. In the unlikely event of a genuine schism threatening party unity, the top leadership can be expected to cope with the crisis by purging the sources of discord under the time-honored pretext of rooting out corrupt and subversive elements.

Emphasis on Continuity

When Hu Jintao was appointed general secretary in 2002, a good number of Japanese observers, impressed by Hu’s mild-mannered image, expressed high hopes for democratic reform and improved relations between Beijing and Tokyo. But those expectations came to naught. The political changes instituted under China’s 30-year-old “reform and opening up” movement reflect a grim awareness of the dangers of concentrating too much power in a single individual. Under the current system, there will never be another Mao Zedong.

China remains a one-party dictatorship, to be sure. But we must recognize that three decades of reform and opening up have transformed the party itself. Those changes, embodied in Jiang Zemin’s “three represents” doctrine, guarantee that each new regime will take on the flavor of its top leader only gradually and only within the limits of fundamental continuity. Even Deng Xiaoping himself adhered to this path. Since then, every new leader has begun by honoring the parting instructions of his predecessor—in this case, Hu Jintao’s Political Report to the Eighteenth National CPC Congress. The CPC of the early twenty-first century is a predictable organ, operating in an extremely systematic manner.

The most important of the policies that Hu Jintao bequeathed to Xi Jinping are those pertaining to economic development. We can expect the new regime to focus its economic efforts on boosting domestic consumption and achieving the goals of the twelfth five-year plan and the targets revealed at the Eighteenth Congress (including an average annual growth rate of 7% between 2011 and 2015 and a doubling of GDP and per capita income in both the cities and the countryside between 2010 and 2020).

When it comes to political reform, the administration’s task will be to bolster the existing one-party system (including the NPC and the CPPCC), not to emulate Western democracy. In today’s China, so-called political reform actually focuses on administrative reforms aimed at maintaining and strengthening the party’s control.

Xi’s Unique Flavor?

Yet while clearly cognizant of the need to adhere to established policy, Xi Jinping has already revealed some early indication of his own proclivities. The first was his coining of the “Chinese dream” concept, which—if we may judge by the enthusiasm of party organs and the state media—might ultimately take its place alongside such official doctrines as Jiang Zemin’s “three represents” and Hu Jintao’s “scientific development.” Of course, in the absence of concrete measures to bring about equal opportunity and a more just society, the dream remains just that. Still, it suggests a determination to infuse greater mobility and vitality into China’s increasingly stratified society.

Xi has also differentiated himself from his predecessors with the historical view, expressed in a speech early this year, that the period before reform and opening up should not be rejected completely but regarded as a an integral part of Chinese history since the revolution, necessary to what came afterward.[4] This statement elicited sharp criticism from intellectuals in the progressive camp, who saw in it a reactionary attempt to legitimize the policies of Mao Zedong. Troubling as the statement may be on one level, one can appreciate the need for Xi, as the nation’s leader, to acknowledge and address the sentiments of those who have begun looking back with nostalgia to the Mao era, when at least everyone was “equally poor.”

The real question is which elements of reform Xi intends to preserve and which he intends to modify. Only time will tell, but for now I would be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt and take his statement as an indication that he is struggling to appeal to as broad a political spectrum as possible in order to consolidate his power base in these early days of his administration.

Dim Prospects for Rapprochement

Relations between Japan and China can only be understood properly in relation to Chinese foreign policy as a whole. The immediate source of the tension that has brought the bilateral relationship to its lowest point since the restoration of diplomatic ties in 1972 is the Japanese government’s purchase of three of the disputed Senkaku Islands in September last year. But China’s increasingly prickly dealings with Japan epitomize its entire approach to diplomacy of late.

Despite Beijing’s lip service to “peaceful development,” its foreign policy in recent years has been predicated on the pursuit of hard power and a serious persecution complex. If forced to articulate the worldview underlying this policy, the Chinese would probably say something like:

In 2008, we successfully hosted the Beijing Olympics. We weathered the financial crisis that broke out that year thanks to a huge infusion of funds and saved the world economy. In 2010, the year we held the highly successful Shanghai Expo, we overtook Japan to become the world’s second largest economy. Then everything changed. Washington began “rebalancing” toward Asia with a view to containing China. Other countries in the region took to repeatedly violating our territorial sovereignty, Japan in the East China Sea and Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea. These threats leave us with no choice but to boost our defense, strengthen our partnership with other emerging economies, build our own multilateral frameworks (such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization), and expand our cooperation with developing countries in Africa and elsewhere.

Such are the basic assumptions underlying the foreign policy that Xi Jinping inherited. Deng Xiaoping’s policy of “lying low,” conceived in the midst of China’s international isolation following the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989, has ceased to play any meaningful role in Chinese diplomacy, now that China itself is a major power—except perhaps in relation to the United States.

We must keep in mind two major points when dealing with Beijing henceforth. The first is that China’s “big stick” policy did not begin with the Xi Jinping regime. That being the case, singling out the new regime for its hardline stance is not merely unproductive but potentially misleading.

A case in point is the incident early this year in which a Chinese naval vessel locked its weapon-guiding radar on a Japanese destroyer. There is no question that the behavior of the Chinese vessel in this incident deserves the strongest censure. But the assumption that it was acting on orders from China’s top leadership is misguided. The problem, rather, lies in the “anything goes” atmosphere surrounding provocations against Japan, an atmosphere that has encouraged rash decisions in the field. Having duly protested the incident, the Japanese government should now turn its attention to developing mechanisms for averting a military crisis.

The second point is that China’s persecution complex cannot easily be removed by an outside force. If we assume that the patriotic education campaign launched in the mid-1990s is a key factor behind the recent upsurge of xenophobic nationalism, the curriculum’s emphasis on Japan as a villain in Chinese history has made our country a natural target for such sentiment. Given these deep-seated attitudes toward Japan, we are scarcely in an ideal position to persuade China that its suspicions are unwarranted.

Two recent bright spots in this otherwise gloomy picture were China’s decisions to resume talks between Japanese and Chinese senior defense officials and to take part in the Japan-China-South Korea Tripartite Environment Ministers Meeting in Kitakyushu this past May (with China being represented by the vice-minister). That said, any substantive move toward rapprochement by the Chinese seems unlikely for now, given Chinese suspicions that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is just waiting for a victory in the July House of Councillors election to reveal his true, rightist colors. There are even intimations that China’s Foreign Ministry is considering downgrading Japan’s diplomatic status; in his review of Chinese diplomacy in 2012, outgoing Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi pointedly omitted Japan from his discussion of “Major Power Diplomacy.”[5] Such is the state of relations between our two countries.

For an increasingly confident China, the Xi Jinping decade holds the promise of overtaking the United States as the world’s biggest economy. Yet the domestic situation, which ultimately sets the tone for Beijing’s foreign policy, is far less stable than it was at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests.

Amidst these circumstances, the administration of Xi Jinping must steer a safe course to solidify its power base—in spite of which, it has already shown some signs of flexibility on matters of policy. With all this taken into account, Tokyo can best serve Japan’s national interests by approaching this stormy period in the history of Japan-China relations with a firm belief in the possibility of rapprochement, some solid strategies for improving relations (such as the development cooperative multilateral frameworks) and an understanding that as a still fledgling major power, China must be treated with patience, understanding, and caution.

 

1. In March 2012, Ling’s 23-year-old son died in a car crash. Details of the crash were not revealed until months later, when it was reported that the young Ling had been drinking and carousing while driving his Ferrari at high speed. The incident set off a storm of public outrage over the luxurious lifestyle of the political elite, symbolized by the Ferrari, and the incident’s cover-up by government officials.

2. Xinhuanet, January 23, 2013. http://www.cq.xinhuanet.com/2013-01/23/c_114463725.htm

3. The maximum age for a general secretary candidate is apparently 67 years under current party rules. Li, who was born in July 1955, will be 67 in 2022.

4. Renmin Ribao, January 6, 2013, http://paper.people.com.cn/rmrb/html/2013-01/06/nw.D110000renmrb_20130106_2-01.htm?div=-1. See also China.org, http://www.china.org.cn/china/2013-01/06/content_27596486.htm

5. Carried (in Chinese) in the January 2013 edition of Qiushi, http://www.qstheory.cn/zxdk/2013/201301/201212/t20121227_202430.htm

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