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Xi Jinping’s Politics and What it Means for India

Dr M.S. Prathibha is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • December 20, 2018

    President Xi Jinping inherited a host of problems when he came to power in 2012: an economic slowdown, disruption of market supply by the all-powerful State-Owned Enterprises (SOE), bribery and extravagance among members of the Communist Party of China (CPC), and a bloated and inefficient military, all of which threatened the Party’s hold on power. Party members were also less ideologically cohesive, impacting the CPC’s unity. As a result, in 2013, Xi postulated the idea of ‘China Dream’, hoping that it would offer a blueprint for implementing reforms in a stagnating economy. The challenge however was that for the reforms to succeed, Xi wanted the very culture of the CPC to be transformed, especially its leadership, management and power structure. This stemmed from the belief of Xi and his supporters that Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, was unable to implement reforms because he pacified the collective leadership to such an extent as to compromise on his policies.

    Since Xi and his base believed that reforms would be difficult to implement because of a disinterested bureaucracy and vested interests, they wanted a strong ‘core leader’ in the mould of Deng Xiaoping. They considered both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao as weak leaders; the former let technocrats enter the CPC at the cost of ideology, and the latter did not exercise much power over the army. The struggle, it seems, was to extend the legitimacy of the CPC, which they believed had been compromised due to CPC officials forgetting the legacy of the Party’s rule and the ineptitude of officials in wasting public funds and engaging in “formalism” when asked to counter social problems. 1

    Xi, unlike any of his predecessors, wanted to leave no room for negotiation, and continued to centralise power to prevent threats to his position from powerful constituencies opposed to his reforms. First, the idea was to use massive political education to make CPC cadres conform to his policies and use disciplinary actions to punish the unwilling.2 The anti-corruption investigations were pursued to break the symbiotic relationship between big business and politicians and introduce accountability at the management level. For Xi, unrelenting corruption within the Party had allowed members to amass massive wealth through bribery from businesses intending to curry favour for contracts or influence.3 It is equally true that Xi used these well-intentioned policies to purge many political opponents.

    Political opposition in the Chinese system is one of the lesser-known complexities. Factions are divided on questions relating to legitimacy, reform tendencies, ideology and, importantly, how to usher China into the modern world. Xi and his supporters derive their legitimacy from being sons of the founding fathers of the revolution, known as “second-generation red” (红二代)”. Many of those targeted by Xi are children of high-level officials who have benefitted from China’s economic success, called “second-generation government officials (官二代)”. Predominantly, this latter group opposes Xi’s policies believing that it would disrupt ongoing reforms.

    The difference of opinion between the two factions is subtle and nuanced. Both factions believe that the Chinese system as it exists is not conducive to produce further economic growth and stability. However, the disagreement seems to be the method through which these factions would want to reform the system. Xi and his base believe that market forces should decide supply and demand, meaning that the economic growth should not be determined by corrupt officials and vested interests that benefit from maintaining the existing production method, which has resulted in overproduction of goods in backdrop of slowing global demand and saturation in the real estate market. Xi wants to resolve this by micro-managing the economy and strengthening party ideology through his anti-corruption drive, whereas others believe that China should continue to reform the market and its political system.

    In other words, these other factions believe that while China could maintain certain authoritarian traits, it does however need to bring more political and economic freedom than control. These reforms could be in breaking the monopoly of SOEs, protecting private entrepreneurs, enabling the Chinese public to address their social grievances through legal measures, and fundamentally reducing the role of state in economic decisions. Xi and his base believes that bringing these reforms without strengthening ideology and control of the CCP central authority would be the road to Western interference, leading to societal instability and corrupt practices. That the West would finally achieve the plundering of China through external pressure by using the call for political reforms that is built on Western values.4

    However, Xi’s opponents were unable to oppose his anti-corruption drive, given that the Chinese public welcomed it. Only after the 19th Party Congress were they able to successfully capture the apprehension of rise of “personality cult” of Xi, comparing him to Mao Zedong. Secondly, Xi did not want the disadvantaged groups, such as military pensioners, rights activists, lawyers, intellectuals, etc, to coalesce into an effective opposition. Apprehensive of political factions, disadvantaged groups as well as Western countries which could possibly use such groups to spread criticism of his policies in the media and influence public opinion, Xi imposed widespread restrictions on freedom of speech and threatened punitive actions against the bureaucracy if it fell short in implementing his policies.

    However, even with such widespread control, Xi was less than successful in implementing economic restructuring to change China from an investment-based economy into a consumption-based economy. Thus, Xi and his support base believed that the second term is too short a time period for Xi to finish the reform agenda, and nominating a successor would have only reduced his influence. Moreover, they believed that there were no strong leaders among the Standing Committee who could take the reins after Xi, who would push the Belt and Road Initiative required to shed their over-capacity. In the end, they decided to increase Xi’s advantage by eliminating the two-term limit for the presidency.

    The addition of “Xi Jinping Thought” in the Chinese constitution might be construed as elevating and equating his views with those of Deng and Mao, but is quite acceptable in the Chinese communist system. In this system, bureaucrats and officials often take their cue from the proclamations and statements of leaders to determine the red lines that shall not be crossed. This is in fact a continuation of Deng’s practice and an efficient way for the Party leadership to exert pressure on the entire system to follow central policies. However, the difference seems to be that the restrictions among officials and cadres seem to be very strict and the penalties are higher. In fact, the recent disciplinary guidelines measures are considered as very harsh.5 Not only that, now one’s “self” has to emotionally and spiritually trust and serve the Party.6

    Despite such measures, resistance to Xi’s reforms are plenty. Although Xi has substantially reduced the bureaucrats’ ability to misuse government funds, he has been less than successful in restructuring the economy. No one can doubt that Xi has emerged as a core leader and has dominated his rivals. However, comparing him to Mao could lead to the adoption of wrong policies towards China. While Xi has attempted to reorganise the Party under a ‘unified and centralised leadership’, his power is neither permanent nor absolute. The transformations in the Chinese system after the havoc created by Mao’s policies on the social, cultural, economic and political life of China have been fundamental.

    Deng Xiaoping’s creation of a consensus system in the political institutions was an attestation of the vehement opposition to the Mao-style destructive politics. Xi cannot escape such systemic resistance unless he succeeds in further economic growth and success.7 Any wide-scale oppression would also bring resistance within the Chinese society who are used to loosening central government control after economic liberalisation and moved away from Mao’s political excesses. These are already visible in the resistance in elite universities, where students are supporting workers’ rights and opposing Mao-style repressive policies.8

    Significance for India

    In the wake of the India-China Annual Defence and Security Dialogue recently held in Beijing and the 21st Special Representative Talks in Chengdu, it would seem that temporary arrangements such as “post-Wuhan cooperation” and “intensifying efforts on border talks” will not be enough to mitigate the mistrust in the relationship post the Doklam crisis. There is a need to close the perception gap in India’s assessment of the state of Chinese politics, to distinguish between transformation and conflict and respond accordingly.

    What is of significance to India is that Xi’s policies have led to a huge disruption in Chinese politics. He is under tremendous pressure to deliver and his strategy of centralising power does have enormous consequences. He faces questions about the legitimacy of his leadership from sections of society that are apprehensive of an increasingly intrusive CPC, intellectuals who fear the impact of lack of criticism on ill-conceived policies, bureaucrats who are not able to trade loyalties and favours, powerful SOEs dependent on massive loans, and political rivals.

    Due to the politics of transformation in China, Xi would engage in intense diplomatic and economic engagement to offset his critics and worsening trade war with the US. While India-China high-level political relations had benefitted in changing the atmospherics through the Wuhan summit, the time is now ripe for capitalising on such overtures. India should leverage the Chinese need for deeper political engagement and explore possibilities for concessions of political nature from China.

    At the same time, India should be wary of bilateral tensions being used as a stepping stone by various factions jostling for power in Chinese politics. Also, India should engage various centres of power in China by, for instance, initiating dialogue with political commissars from the Chinese military to improve military-to-military relations, and newly relevant organisations such as Ministry of Public Security, National Audit Office, Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Science and Technology, and various provincial governments.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.