I have been saying, for a long time, since before I started this blog, that I think that Xi Jinping sees himself as a transformative leader, à la Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong. I wasn’t sure how he might manage that under the Chinese constitution and I guessed that he might, like Deng, allow the office of Paramount Leader to pass to someone else but retain enough informal power to “run” China from behind the “throne.” It appears, however, according to an article in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), that “the ruling Communist Party had proposed to remove the line that the president and vice-president “shall serve no more than two consecutive terms” from the constitution … [and] … Xi, 64, [who] was re-elected as general secretary of the party in October and is expected to be handed a second term as president by the legislature during its annual full session starting on March 5.“
“The announcement follows a Politburo meeting on Saturday,” the article says, “and comes ahead of Monday’s three-day Central Committee plenum to discuss personnel and other proposed institutional changes to be tabled at the upcoming annual parliamentary gathering in Beijing … [and] … Minutes after the announcement, Xinhua reported that the party proposed to write Xi’s political theory – Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era – into the constitution. It also planned to list the new super anti-graft body, the National Supervisory Commission, as a new state agency in the constitution.” The President is, currently, a relatively “nominal” office so removing the term limits may not appear, on the surface, to be a dig deal, but we will ned to watch, carefully, for other changes ~ further constitutional amendments ~ that will add or transfer power to the office.
If I’m right ~ always a great Big IF ~ if Xi sees himself as a “transformative leader” then the question is: transforming China into what?
In another article the South China Morning Post speculated ~ and it’s hard to do anything else about the inner workings of China’s power elites ~ that “Some of Xi’s signature policies were also discussed at the second plenum of the party’s Central Committee – a two-day session that finished on Friday – including environmental conservation and building “a shared destiny of mankind”, Xi’s call for China to play a bigger role in global affairs,” and one of the political analysts that newspaper consulted said that “These policies were also likely to be added to the constitution.“
The environmental issue is one that Xi has raised at home and abroad. The domestic need to do something about pollution, especially from coal-fired power plants, is obvious to anyone who has been to China recently … it is, in short, a no-brainer, but even so it will be expensive and disruptive (China’s is the world’s biggest coal producer and user – hundreds of thousands (millions?) of jobs are at stake) and it may take a long, long time … even as the Chinese people grow increasingly frustrated by the problem. Notwithstanding that it is an efficient and effective dictatorship, the Chinese Communist party is still subject to public opinion.
But what about that “shared destiny for mankind?” Just what does Xi have in mind?
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which is generally thought to rank, with the Brookings Institution and Chatham House as one of the world best and most influential think tanks, asked, in a late 2017 report, “So, what is new about this new era as far as Chinese foreign policy is concerned?” It’s answer is:
- “At least in terms of two of China’s policies—bringing in (qingjinlai) and going out (zouchuqu)—Xi’s first term already marks a new era in Chinese foreign policy. But there is much more to the new era than the flurry of diplomatic visits. Xi introduced four new concepts into Chinese foreign policy: a new type of major country relations, major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics, a global community of common destiny, and a new type of international relations. No Chinese leader has been more successful in keeping foreign observers busy analyzing the meaning and implications of these concepts; and
- “In addition, never before has the Middle Kingdom had such a profound impact on global economic development. Under Xi’s leadership, Beijing initiated the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Silk Road Fund, and the New Development Bank, three multilateral financial institutions with a combined total of more than $200 billion in authorized capital. Meanwhile, he launched the Belt and Road Initiative, a massive, unprecedented plan to improve connectivity across the vast Eurasian continent.“
But The Carnegie Endowment article goes on to talks about what comes next: “What about Chinese foreign policy during the next five years or the coming decade?” the report asked.
“Xi’s report to the 19th Party Congress,” the Carnegie Endowment says, “offers some hints. This important document not only reviews the accomplishments of the past but also lays out in broad terms the priorities for the future … [thus] … The “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” received twenty-seven mentions in the document, while a “global community of common destiny” and the “Belt and Road Initiative” received six and five, respectively. More importantly, these three terms are now enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party’s constitution through amendments adopted at the national congress. Meanwhile, the term “major country” was mentioned seven times, but there were no references to a “new type of major country relations.” Nevertheless, a “new type of international relations” received two mentions.“
“Taken together,” the report says, “these signs suggest that the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will be Beijing’s top priority until 2049—the hundredth anniversary of the founding of Communist China. By then, as promised in Xi’s report, China will have become a “socialist, modern, and powerful country.” As Xi put it, “Socialism with Chinese characteristics in a new era means that the Chinese nation has stood up and become wealthy and that it is undergoing a great leap toward a powerful country.””
“But,” the Carnegie report adds, “the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation apparently goes beyond making China great again. Instead, Beijing appears to have committed itself to remaking the whole world—via the Belt and Road Initiative and a new type of international relations, in particular—into a global community of common destiny. This is no longer a blueprint for a single nation—admittedly the most populous one on earth—but an unprecedentedly sweeping and bold vision for humankind. No government—including the Roman Empire, the British Empire, or the United States of America—has ever proposed such a vision. This is nothing less than a Chinese manifesto for its global leadership. Thus, a wealthy and powerful China will usher in a new era in international politics too.“
But there are challenges:
- America, despite President Trump, remains the globe’s dominant power and it will not stand idly by while China aims to build from Xi Jinping’s blueprint;
- China’s East Asian neighbours ~ Japan, Myanmar, Viet Nam, the Philippines and above all Korea pose policy and political challenges;
- India is also growing, it is, as I have said, a counterbalance to China’s ambitions and something of a bulwark against Chinese hegemony in Asia;
- Economic interdependency does not seem to have ~ as many, including me, hoped it would ~ led to trust and confidence. Instead America and Europe remain wary of China’s ambitions.
In a third article, the SCMP notes that “Beijing’s top leadership is packed full of highly trained foreign affairs experts hand-picked to help deliver on President Xi Jinping’s global goals.” I’m guessing that Xi Jinping thinks that his bureaucracy can manage the necessary shift towards a cleaner environment without too much political pressure. His new “dream team” appears to be there to deal with Priority 2: China’s place in the world.
What to do?
In an essay in Foreign Affairs Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner say that “With U.S. President Richard Nixon’s opening to China, Washington made its biggest and most optimistic bet yet. Both Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser, assumed that rapprochement would drive a wedge between Beijing and Moscow and, in time, alter China’s conception of its own interests as it drew closer to the United States. In the fall of 1967, Nixon wrote in this magazine, “The world cannot be safe until China changes. Thus our aim, to the extent that we can influence events, should be to induce change.” Ever since, the assumption that deepening commercial, diplomatic, and cultural ties would transform China’s internal development and external behavior has been a bedrock of U.S. strategy. Even those in U.S. policy circles who were skeptical of China’s intentions still shared the underlying belief that U.S. power and hegemony could readily mold China to the United States’ liking … [but] … Nearly half a century since Nixon’s first steps toward rapprochement, the record is increasingly clear that Washington once again put too much faith in its power to shape China’s trajectory. All sides of the policy debate erred: free traders and financiers who foresaw inevitable and increasing openness in China, integrationists who argued that Beijing’s ambitions would be tamed by greater interaction with the international community, [and I am a believer in both those theses] and hawks who believed that China’s power would be abated by perpetual American primacy … [however … Neither carrots nor sticks have swayed China as predicted. Diplomatic and commercial engagement have not brought political and economic openness. Neither U.S. military power nor regional balancing has stopped Beijing from seeking to displace core components of the U.S.-led system. And the liberal international order has failed to lure or bind China as powerfully as expected. China has instead pursued its own course, belying a range of American expectations in the process.” Actually it appeared that Nixon’s approach worked with Deng Xiaoping and to an even extent with Hu Jintao; but either (take your pick) appearances are deceiving or Xi Jiniping is a horse of another colour. It seems, now, fairly clear that Xi intends to make China a “peer” of America, one of two predominant, global superpowers in his own (Chinese) way … that will, most likely not involve anything like direct, electoral democracy.
The question is can he do it? My guess, previous link, is that he can IF ~ another of those Huge IFs of mine ~ he looks carefully enough at Lee Kuan Yew’s model of a one party democracy and, somehow, can make it work for vast, complex China. It appears, to me, that he wants to have a go … that’s the transformation he wants to make: China as a rich, peaceful, contented (well governed), global superpower.
This is one of the reasons I am so concerned about Prime Minister Trudeau’s Indian
fiasco visit; as I said in the preceding post, “India matters. It is the world greatest democracy and a rising power in its own right. It is the only Asian counterbalance to and bulwark against China’s inexorable rise. ” America is stepping back from its customary leadership role; Europe is focused inwards, on its own deep divisions; Xi, I suspect, sees as clear a field as will ever happen.
In any event, Xi Jinping looks to be here to stay, past 2023, anyway, and he seems to be am leaders who is not afraid of big projects and grand designs.
After a lengthy discussion of why the various optimistic approaches about China’s rise proved wrong, Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner say that “The starting point for a better approach is a new degree of humility about the United States’ ability to change China. Neither seeking to isolate and weaken it nor trying to transform it for the better should be the lodestar of U.S. strategy in Asia. Washington should instead focus more on its own power and behavior, and the power and behavior of its allies and partners. Basing policy on a more realistic set of assumptions about China would better advance U.S. interests and put the bilateral relationship on a more sustainable footing. Getting there will take work, but the first step is relatively straightforward: acknowledging just how much our policy has fallen short of our aspirations.” The “more realistic set of assumptions about China” must, I think, include the fact that China has strategic goals that might provoke conflict. I have said before and I repeat that a war with China cannot be won (by any sensible definition of that word) and is, therefore, a mistake. Does that mean appeasement? No, not necessarily, but it may mean, for example, recognizing and accommodating China’s position as the dominant power on the East Asian mainland. It may also mean working much more closely with India to help it balance China in Asia. It may also mean competing more vigorously with China in Africa where, for a generation, the US led West has given China a free ride. Finally, our assumptions must include a clear eyed view of Xi Jinping, himself … he’s going to matter for a while longer.