By Brahma Chellaney
China, the world’s communist behemoth, is at a turning point in its history — one that will have profound implications for the rest of the world, but especially for neighbouring India. The just-concluded 19th national congress of the Chinese Communist Party put its imprimatur on President Xi Jinping’s centralisation of power by not naming a clear successor to him and signalling the collective leadership system’s quiet demise. The congress, in essence, was about Xi’s coronation as China’s new emperor.
To be sure, the lurch toward totalitarianism didn’t happen suddenly. Xi spent his first five-year term steadily concentrating powers in himself, while tightening censorship and using anti-corruption probes to take down political enemies. A year ago, he got the party to bestow on him the title of “core” leader.
Now, in his second term, Xi will likely centralise power in a way China hasn’t seen since Mao Zedong.
Xi, in some ways, is already more powerful than Mao.
Domestic politics in any country, including a major democracy like the United States, has a bearing on its foreign policy. The link between China’s traditionally cut-throat internal politics and its external policy has been apparent since the Mao era. For example, China launched the 1962 invasion of India after Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ left millions of Chinese dead in the worst man-made famine in history. The resulting damage to his credibility, according to the Chinese scholar Wang Jisi, served as a strong incentive for Mao to reassert his leadership through a war.
In the run-up to the party congress, two senior military generals disappeared from public view, including the top-ranking general holding the position equivalent to the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff. Xi has ruthlessly cut to size any institution or group that could pose a potential challenge to his authority. By purging scores of generals, he has sought to tame the powerful People’s Liberation Army (PLA). More recently, Xi has also gone after China’s new tycoons in order to block the rise of Russia-style oligarchs.
Control and nationalism are the guiding themes in Xi’s approach, which centres on the State being in charge of all aspects of public life. Such an approach risks cultivating a pressure cooker syndrome.
It is true that even before Xi assumed power, an increasingly nationalistic, assertive China staked out a more muscular role. China’s proclivity to bare its claws, however, has become more pronounced under Xi. His government has aggressively used construction activity to change the status quo in relation to land and sea frontiers and cross-border river flows. In his three-and-a-half-hour speech to the party congress, Xi actually cited “South China Sea reef and island construction” as one of his major achievements.
In truth, Xi aspires to become modern China’s most transformative leader. Just as Mao helped to create a reunified and independent China and Deng set in motion China’s economic rise, Xi wants to make China the central player in the international order.
Now that Xi’s pet One Belt One Road (OBOR) project has been enshrined in the party’s constitution, the world will likely witness a greater Chinese propensity to use geo-economic tools to achieve larger geostrategic objectives. The $1-trillion OBOR, however, symbolises the risk of China’s strategic overreach: The majority of the nations in OBOR are junk rated or not graded. China’s OBOR drive is actually beginning to encounter a backlash in several countries.
Even so, the sycophancy with which senior officials abased themselves to extol Xi at the party congress indicates there is no room for debate in a one-man-led China. Xi’s neo-Maoist dictatorship will likely spell trouble for the free world, especially Asia’s two main democracies — India and Japan. The world will likely see a China more assertive in the Indo-Pacific, more determined to achieve global superpower status, and more prone to employing coercion and breaching established rules.
Xi’s goal essentially is to make China the world’s pre-eminent power by 2049 — the centennial of communist rule. The longest any autocratic system has survived in modern history was 74 years in the Soviet Union. When China overtakes that record, Xi may still be in power. But with the party’s ideological mask no longer credible, the longer term prospects of continued communist rule are far from certain.
Xi’s new strength and power actually obscures China’s internal risks, including the fundamental challenge of how to avoid a political hard landing. As for Xi, he needs to watch his back, having made many enemies at home in his no-holds-barred effort to concentrate power in his own hands.
Hindustan Times, November 1, 2017