Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Xi who must be obeyed (with apologies to The Economist)

The title of this post is directly stolen from The Economist which ran a cover story by this name a year or so ago. They themselves were punning the quote from here.

The much awaited China's People Congress ended today with the expected climax - the unveiling of the new Politburo Standing Committee ; the men who will run China for the next five years. More of this in just a little while. This ended a week of speechifying and staged events.

First, the two things that stood out during the days preceding the event today.  Xi Jinping opened the Congress with a speech lasting an incredible three and a half hours, reaching new heights of torture and boredom. It was a hugely self confident China strutting about as a world power, with Xi vigorously patting his own back. He outlined some of the directions for the next five years which were typically broad motherhoods, but gave some clues on where they are heading.

The most important outcome was the enshrining of "Xi Jinping Thought" in the Communist Party's Constitution. This is a peculiarly Chinese obsession. Their infatuation with obscure theories and doctrines knows no boundaries. "Mao Zedong Thought" was supposed to be the guiding doctrine of the Party - never mind that it is rubbish, the Party has long ditched many of that nonsense, etc etc. Then Deng Xiaoping "Practice" was enshrined into the Constitution after his death. At the end of their terms Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao's "theories" were also included, but their names were not mentioned (such semantics are very important in China with those two acknowledging that they are a step behind the two taller and earlier leaders). Xi hasn't bothered with any such finesse. Halfway into his term he has enshrined his name and "Thought" - the implication being he is Mao's equivalent and even above Deng. A dangerous move almost Trumpesque is self aggrandisation. His "Thought" is mostly bland with lots of garbage , but who cares. These are political moves cloaked in ideology.

And then today, came the line of seven men who walked in, and that was how the world got to know about the new Standing Committee. Readers of this blog may recall that this blogger made a prediction in this post a month or so ago. I got one thing wrong - that Li Keqiang the Premier would be dropped and that Wang Qishan, Xi's right hand man would stay on beyond retirement age and would become the Premier. That didn't happen. The powerful Wang retired and Li has stayed on as the Premier. I predicted a 5 man Standing Committee reduced from 7 (that didn't happen) but also named the potential seven man Committee if it stayed at that number. I got that dead right, including the order of seniority - after Xi and Li came Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, Zhao Leji & Hang Zheng. I got real lucky !

Here is my take on the implications of what happened over the last week

- Xi is all powerful. That we knew of course.
- Xi has decided to not break all traditions and to preserve some of the norms and continuity. Hence the  retirement of Wang Qishan and the continuance of Li Keqiang.
- No successor to Xi has been named, as expected. This leaves Xi's options open. He can stay on as a power centre either formally or informally after his term ends in 5 years.
- The two possible successors Hu Chunhua and Chen Min'er are on trial. They have to earn the right to succeed over the next 5 years. But even after, they will probably have to be subservient to Xi.
- The Party is going to tighten the hold on China even more. Forget any liberalism, tolerance and such other "esoteric" concepts.
- China will be aggressive in world politics. The world simply has to learnt to adjust to that. America will be the county most affected. It will be on the losing end more often than not.
- Zhao Leji will be the new Wang Qishan. He will continue the anti corruption drive and Xi's political opponents will continue to be targeted.
- China is entering into dangerous territory of authoritarianism.  Chinese history shows  how much the entire country loses when such autocratic tyrants take charge - recent examples of Ci Xi and Mao are enough to illustrate this danger. There is every risk of Xi going the same way - generating sycophants, staying on too long, getting drunk on power and doing stupid things.
- The Deng Xiaoping era is finally over (that it lasted 25 years after his death is amazing by itself). Most of the safeguards he tried to institutionalize are slipping. The wisdom of Deng is being frittered away. In many ways, he is the loser from what has happened. China will learn to its cost, the implications of ignoring its wisest man in recent history.

Life returns back to normal in China. This blogger will not blog about Chinese politics for the foreseeable future. A parting thought however - watch out for Hu Chunhua, Chen Min'er, Zhao Leji, and of course, above all, Xi.


Sriram Khé said...

Your reading of the tea leaves is why I refer to you as my go-to-China expert. Keep us informed, my friend.

BTW, the new Standing Committee did not include a younger leader who would be groomed as heir apparent to Xi Jinping.
"Does this mean that #Xi plans to break precedent and take a third term himself?"

Deepa said...

The last thing the world needs is another autocrat. Moreover I am curious as to how this would impact America in the coming years.

Ramesh said...

@Sriram - I think Xi will resign from two of his three posts - President and gen sec of the Communist Party in 2022 and somebody from the next generation will take over. He may stay for a few years as the Chairman of the Central Military Commission and wield power from the back. How this will pan out, who can say - Chinese history is full of strong men abruptly falling from grace. Chinese politics has tremendous fissures - so who knows.

@Deepa - China is likely to flex its muscles more and more and "clash" with the US multiple times. Because of the havoc the current administration is wrecking, China's influence on the world will keep rising, as the US falls. Who will trust the US government anymore after the antics of this year. China on the other hand , scrupulously follows, at least in the letter of the law, the agreement made on Hong Kong in 1997.

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

Incisive predictions Ramesh. Kudos. The US is run by a jackass, and Xi must be thrilled that he has the US where he wants it. One should of course note that Japan will now amend its constitution to add teeth to its military, and local alliances will be forged to contain the Chinese now that the US shows no appetite for power.

Sriram Khé said...

"The US is run by a jackass"
That's one hell of an insult to any jackass anywhere on the planet, Ravi ;)

"China's influence on the world will keep rising, as the US falls."

Ramesh said...

@Ravi - Your point on Japan is potent. A combination of Japan and India will be a powerful bloc - no wonder that both Abe and Modi are professing undying love. The danger of virulent anti Japanese sentiments rising in China is real - its lying just under the surface and the Party is not above stoking it.

Makes me miss the wisdom of Deng more. Deng's path to economic reform really started with Japanese help. He was willing to set aside historical disputes and cooperate for the sake of development. There is no Deng in the world these days, alas.

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

For 40 years after liberation, China did nothing to stoke anti Japanese sentiment. Chairman Mao in particular did not want reparations from the Japanese. While they were wary of the conversion of Japan into an American aircraft carrier, they did not say or do anything, and quickly normalised relations. The stoking of anti-Japanese sentiment can be traced to the post-Tienanmen era. For some time under Deng, communism had become a mantra for upliftment through pragmatic capitalism (I will leave Sriram as an academic to square that circle). After June 1989 communism became an expression of nationalism and that is where it stays today. The memories of Nanjing 1937 were unearthed and protests orchestrated against the Japanese - always to a point and without hurting any Japanese. Its a dangerous game and will lead to war. The Abe government can now re-arm and change the constitution but they still have to get Japanese men and women to have babies. How he is going to do that, God only knows.

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

@Ramesh - incidentally Japan does have a potent military. And they are capable of symbolism. A case in point is the Helicopter Carrier JSDFN Izumo. The Izumo has a 250 feet deck - ostensibly for carrying 24 attack helicopters. At any point it can be converted into an aircraft carrier. Three more are being launched. The Izumo is named after a retired Japanese vessel which played a critical role in - you guessed it - the Sino Japanese war 1936-1945.

Ramesh said...

@Ravi - Incisive comments as always. I didn't know Japan has a potent military already. God help us if they decide to revive their dormant military instincts.

Sriram Khé said...

Ravi writes that in China, "communism had become a mantra for upliftment through pragmatic capitalism" ...
Or, as some of us critics like to say, China has pretty much replaced its atheistic framework with a new god: Money.
China's "pragmatic capitalism" seems to be more ruthless and soul-crushing than Mao's thoughts!

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