When President Xi Jinping succeeded Mr Hu Jintao in 2012 as Fifth Generational leader, it was assumed that he will abide by the constitutional provision of two ‘five terms’. He was also expected to initiate far reaching economic and political reforms, consolidating on the collective leadership model. However, Xi has played out his hand differently by abolishing the Presidential term limit. This crucial development, a political coup, startled many longstanding China watchers with muted local response. Primary reason why most got Xi spectacularly wrong is the lack of understanding of the simple lessons of Chinese history and insight into its closed system.
Going by the Chinese mythological belief, legendary dragons are symbol of power. During the times of Imperial China, they were the guardians of emperor’s throne. Although benign and protective, the dragons could turn violent if the people defaulted. As per Chinese traditions, only proven ministers and generals are bestowed ‘mandate of heaven’ (tianming) to rule; a Confucian idea to facilitate dynastic cycle. The first Chinese ruler to claim mandate was King Wen (1050 BCE) of Zhou feudal state. Since the emergence of China as a unified entity under Shi Huang di (Huang di title relates to the first Yellow Emperor, founded China four and half millenniums ago) in the third Century BCE till the collapse of Qing Dynasty in 1911, China stood as the hub of the East Asian System.
Founders of Communist Dynasty established in 1949; Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping went on to wield more power than hundreds of previous rulers with title of Huang di. Mao’s era represented First Generation leadership, lasted for almost three decades and made China great. Deng, who succeeded Mao ruled for almost two decades, transformed the economy to make China rich. To avoid repeat of aftermath of ‘cultural revolution’, Deng limitedthe tenure of President to two-five year terms through constitutional provision. Thereafter, Jiang and Hu, representing third and fourth generational leadership adhered to the terms limit, serving a decade each. However, Xi in his quest to join the league of legends has gone on to change the rule.
Emperor Ascends Dragon Throne
Historically, all the Chinese regimes since the demise of Qing Monarchy have consolidated state sovereignty and pursued power through all available means. Xi is no exception. As per Mr Kevin Rudd, former PM of Australia, Xi since early days has demonstrated an unmatched political skill to amass power. To get to top, he outflanked, outmanoeuvred, marginalised and ultimately removed all his politically opponent. Xi joined the Communist Party of China (CPC) at the age of 21, although his father Xi Zhongxun, one of Mao’s most prominent Generals was purged during the Cultural Revolution. He himself was sent to country side to do agricultural labour as a teenager in the mid Sixties. Xi made his mark on the political scene as the graft fighting Governor of the Fujian Province in 2000.
Xi commenced his first term in 2013 with a conviction that China needed a strong personalistic leader. Accordingly, he went about systematically to consolidate his position both within the Party and the PLA (People’s Liberation Army); the two key organs of Communist China’s political structure. Soon, he was donning the triple hats as General Secretary of the CPC and Chairman Central Military Commission (CMC)- the two most important positions in the political hierarchy of People’s Republic of China (PRC),besides Presidency-largely a ceremonial position. Over a period of time, Xi went on to acquire over dozen titles, becoming ‘Chairman of everything’.
Xi leashed unbridled ‘anti-corruption campaign’, a master stroke in political warfare. Besides cleaning the system, its two fold aims were to purge potential rivals and gain popularity among the masses. Some of the top ranking officials who faced action for corruption included Zhou Yongkang, member Politburo Standing Committee-the apex body and Bo Xilai, member Politburo and Party Chief of Chongqing. Many senior generals were also netted in the anti- graft operations, latest being General Fang Fenghui, former Chief of General Staff and member of CMC.
To prepare the military for the future role and reinforce Party’s control over the PLA, Xi initiated radical military reforms in 2013 which are expected to continue for next decade and half. In the reorganized structure of the CMC, Xi as President assumed the role of ‘Commander in Chief’, thus exercising direct operational control over the Military. Series of reshuffles were undertaken to ensure that Xi’s loyalist occupied the key positions.
During the 19th Party Congress held last October, Xi further tightened his grip, by having his “ thoughts for new era socialism with Chinese characteristics” enshrined in the Party constitution. Departing from the three decade old tradition, Xi did not choose any successor, indicating that he was contemplating third term. In January this year, some 200 senior CPC officials in a hush-hush meeting decided to do away with the Presidential term stipulation. During the just concluded National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s rubber stamp parliament approved an amendment enabling Xi to remain President indefinitely.
China Dream-Great Rejuvenation
Xi has unveiled ‘China Dream’ (Chongguo Meng) which envisions great rejuvenation (fuxing) of Chinese nation, restoring its past grandeur. The Dream is marked by ‘two centenaries’; 2021-hundereth anniversary of CPC and 2049-hundereth anniversary of PRC. China is expected to become fully modern economy and achieve social modernization by 2035, and acquire the status of ‘great modern country’ by the mid- Century.
Xi’s philosophy offers an alternate model to liberal democracy. He has propounded policy of ‘striving for achievement’ (fanfa youwei), advocating PRC’s greater Chinese leadership role in shaping the new world order with Chinese characteristics. This marks a strategic shift, abandoning Deng’s strategy of maintaining low profile, biding for time and not assuming leadership role until the completion of peaceful rise. There is also change in the DNA of the CPC, from a Party of masses to the Party of elites, Xi himself being a ‘princeling’.
CPC’s decision to empower Xi is driven by twin requirements of maintaining stability and ensuring continuity. China is in the wake of emerging as a global power and its economy is in transition from low technology manufacturing to advance digitised enabled production. Besides, measures such as transition from ‘state- owned enterprises’ to private companies and sustain growth through domestic consumption are also on the anvil. Xi’s mega projects like the belt- road initiative are vital both from the view of economic pay offs and geo strategic considerations. Anti- corruption drive remains a work in progress. New “National Supervisory Commission” has been established to widen the scope beyond Party ranks.
To realise ‘China Dream’, Xi has lined up new team approved by the NPC. Former anti-corruption chief Wang Qishan has been elected as the Vice President. Liu He one of the four Vice Premiers is set play a significant role in the management of Chinese economy. Foreign Minister Wang Yi, known for his tough stance on the Doklam issue has been elevated to the position of State Councillor, making him the senior most diplomat. Lt Gen Wei Fenghe, former head of the Rocket Force is the new Defence Minister; driving force behind the rapid military modernization. Chen Wenqing remains the security czar overseeing internal security. Yi Gang, a reformist has been appointed as the new Governor of the ‘People’s Bank of China’. Composition of the team indicates greater thrust on economic and military reforms, assertive foreign policy and tightening of internal controls and security mechanism.
Decoding Xi’s Grand Design-India’s Concerns
Xi’s model for China is based on ‘neo-authoritarianism’; an alternate to the ‘Western liberal democratic capitalist’ model, where political stability and economic development override democracy and individual rights. After almost four decades of policy pragmatism, since last few years China has steadily retracted towards Mao’s Centralist system, aligned with Marxist-Leninist ideology. With the decline of West including US, China’s authoritarian model appears to be an attractive option especially for the developing nations.
China’s current political system leaves no space for dissent, given tight internal controls. Despite apprehensions of oppressive measures, public protests are unlikely. Today, the main concern of the Chinese people is stability and economic progress. There is an unwritten understanding between the Chinese Government and people; not to question the political system as long as Party ensures prosperity. Xi enjoys enormous popularity and is seen to make China strong. Hence, on-going political developments will lend China short term advantage by way of consistency in policies and clear strategic direction. In the long run, dictatorial regimes are vulnerable. Rising China middle class too could seek greater political freedom in the future.
Xi started his second innings by exhorting the PLA to be combat ready and focus on winning wars. During the closing session of just concluded NPC,Xi flagged nationalism; vowed to safeguard nation’s sovereignty and not concede an inch of Chinese territory. Taiwan was issued stern warning that it will face punishment for any attempt at separatism. China has always opposed global security system of American military alliances. It treats Asia-Pacific as its sphere of influence and seeks to diminish US influence in the region. For this reason, Xi has explicitly called for new type of great power relations. Setting up of institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, the Shanghai Corporation Organization and ‘Belt-Road Initiative’ are all measures to foster an alternative multilateral system.
Going by the past record, it was during the autocratic leadership era of Mao and Deng that 1962 War, 1967 incidence and 1987 face off occurred. Recent stand- offs at Depsang, Demchok and latest at Doklam have taken place during Xi’s rule. Signs of China’s growing aggressiveness are evident from its massive infrastructure build up on the borders, lately at Doklam and hardening claim to Arunachal Pradesh- which it refers to as South Tibet. China’s increasing presence in the ‘Indian Ocean Region’ and deepening Beijing-Islamabad nexus through new initiatives like ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’ are serious security concerns for Delhi. India needs a well calibrated long term policy to deal with PRC, in keeping with our long time national interests. Given China is a nation which respects strength and negotiates only with equals; it implies shedding our appeasement mentality. We need to be prepared for heavy lifting to exploit emerging strategic opportunities in the Indo-Pacific.
Xi occupies the throne, fraught with numerous imponderables. China is a nation, externally formidable- internally fragile. Given slowing down economy, growing rich-poor divide and unsustainable growth, China’s challenges are more homebound. In case these spiral out and lead to chaos (luan), the dragons could turn violent in a bid to protect the throne. The effect could be cascading, with catastrophic implications.
As per renowned statesman Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Xi has a soul of iron and never let past suffering weigh upon him. He is known to be person with exceptional intellect. Xi has repeatedly stated that China’s rise will be peaceful though his pronouncements are not in sync with the claims. His ushering PRC into ‘New Era’ is going to be radically different from Mao’s ‘great leap’ or ‘cultural revolution’. It is bound to seriously challenge the existing international order. The world will have to continuously grapple to decode Xi’s grand design; given his recluse persona and the Communist system shrouded with secrecy.