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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Xi Jinping's newfound strength obscures China’s political risks

The president's consolidation of power demonstrates that there is no linear path between rising prosperity and political pluralism, writes Brahma Chellaney

Today, everyone is dispensable except president Xi Jinping, who appears set to remain in power indefinitely AP
Today, everyone is dispensable except president Xi Jinping, who appears set to remain in power indefinitely AP

China is at a turning point in its history, one that will have profound implications for the rest of the world, but especially for Asia and the Middle East.

The just-concluded 19th Chinese Communist Party congress sanctioned president Xi Jinping’s centralisation of power by naming no clear successor to him and signalling the quiet demise of the collective leadership system that has governed China for more than a quarter century.

By enshrining “Xi Jinping thoughts on Chinese-style socialism in a new era” in its constitution, the party has made this new “ideology” – just like Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong’s thoughts – compulsory learning for Chinese students at all levels.

To be sure, this new turn didn’t happen suddenly. Mr Xi spent his first five-year term tightening control. While strengthening censorship and using anti-corruption probes to take down political enemies, he steadily concentrated powers. A year ago, the party bestowed on him the title of “core” leader.

Now in his second term, Mr Xi will likely centralise power in a way China hasn’t seen since Mao. Mr Xi has, in some ways, already made himself more powerful than even Mao. Today, everyone is dispensable except Mr Xi, who appears set to remain in power indefinitely.

Domestic politics in any country, including in a major democracy like the US, 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.

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For example, China launched the 1962 Himalayan war with India after Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” created the worst man-made famine in history, with the resulting damage to his credibility, according to the Chinese scholar Wang Jisi, serving as a strong incentive for him to reassert leadership through a war. The Great Leap Forward policy led to the deaths of up to 45 million Chinese, according to the historian Frank Dikötter.

In the run-up to the latest party congress, two senior military generals disappeared from public view, including the top general holding the position equivalent to the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff. It is unthinkable that in any other major country in the 21st century, a top-ranking general can just vanish from the public sphere.

Mr Xi has cut to size any institution or group that could pose a potential challenge to his authority. By purging countless number of generals, he has sought to tame the powerful People’s Liberation Army, which traditionally has sworn fealty to the party, not the nation. Mr Xi has also gone after the new tycoons in order to block the rise of Russia-style oligarchs.

Control and nationalism are the guiding themes in Mr Xi’s approach, which centres on the state being in charge of all aspects of public life, including culture, religion and the digital realm. But such an approach risks creating a pressure cooker syndrome – cool on the outside but so pressurised on the inside that it could not be deftly managed.

It is true that even before Mr Xi assumed power in 2012, China began gradually discarding Deng Xiaoping’s dictum to “keep a low profile and bide one’s time”. An increasingly nationalistic, assertive China staked out a more muscular role, including resurrecting territorial and maritime disputes and asserting new sovereignty claims.

China’s proclivity to bare its claws, however, has become more pronounced under Mr Xi, who sees the West in retreat and wants China to gain the upper hand globally. His government has aggressively used construction activity to change the status quo in Asia in relation to land and sea frontiers and cross-border river flows.

Indeed, Mr Xi aspires to become modern China’s most transformative leader. Just as Mao helped to create a reunified and independent China through a communist “revolution,” and Deng set in motion China’s economic rise through reforms, Mr Xi wants to make China the central player in the international order.

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Now that Mr Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” (Obor) project has been officially 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 US$1 trillion (Dh3.68 trillion) Obor, however, symbolises the risk of China’s strategic overreach: The majority of the nations in Obor are junk-rated or not graded by international rating firms. China’s Obor drive is actually beginning to encounter a backlash in some partner countries.

Even so, the applause that senior officials showered on Mr Xi at the party congress indicates that there is no room for debate in a one-man-led China. Indeed, Mr Xi’s gaining of virtually absolute power demonstrates that there is no linear path between rising prosperity and political pluralism.

Internationally, this means that we will likely see a China more assertive in the Indo-Pacific region, more determined to achieve global superpower status and more prone to deploying instruments of coercive diplomacy.

Mr Xi’s vision, which he has called the “Chinese dream”, is essentially to make China the world’s preeminent power by 2049, the centenary of communist rule. The longest that any similar system has survived in modern history was 74 years in the Soviet Union. Mr Xi’s grip on power may still be intact when China overtakes that record in less than seven years.

Still, the longer-term prospects of continued communist rule are far from certain. After all, China’s future is likely to be determined not so much by its hugely successful economy, but by its murky domestic politics.

Mr Xi’s new strength and power helps obscure China’s internal risks, including the fundamental challenge of how to avoid a political hard-landing.