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Book Review of ‘Xi Jinping’s China’; By Amb. M. Ganapathi IFS (Retd.)

Image courtesy: KW Publishers

Article No. 009/2018

‘Xi Jinping’s China’, By Jayadeva Ranade, KW Publishers Pvt. Ltd. (2017).

The 21st Century was supposed to usher in a multi-polar world after the break up of the Soviet Union, with the dynamics of the power equation shifting rapidly towards the Asia-Pacific. The United States of America was presumed to be in decline. Russia was beset with a series of difficulties in its relations with the West. The ability of Europe to fill this void was compromised by BREXIT. West Asia and the Gulf were in a state of flux. This conundrum gave way to the attempts by and the rise of the People’s Republic of China. China felt that its days in the sun had arrived. Chinese leaders and the media never fail to emphasise that they had an important role to play in determining the destiny of the world with or without the United States. Even though the United States will continue to be the predominant financial and military power in the foreseeable future, a supremely confident leader at the helm has allowed the People’s Republic of China to slowly but surely bring China’s influence and domination into the global power equation.

As the first leader born after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, Xi Jinping today is the uncontested ruler of the People’s Republic of China. His rise to the highest echelons of office has been meteoric. Born a prince ling, he had seen the rise and fall and rise of his father in positions of authority. This has shaped the persona and character of Xi Jinping. As a destiny child, the rise and rise of Xi Jinping seemed somewhat inevitable.

President Xi Jinping has consolidated his power and authority over all the institutions of State in China. He is the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, the President of the People’s Republic of China, the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and head of groups dealing with national security, internet security, and economic reform, among others. He has been designated as the “core” leader of the Communist Party for his generation, a designation reserved for Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. And not too long after the 19th Communist Party Congress in October 2017, Xi has been named lingxiu, a wise and great leader seen to equal Mao Zedong in status. The 19th Party Congress enshrined Xi’s vision for China’s future, the “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Erain the Constitution of the Party. This compares him with Mao Zedong (Mao Zedong Thought) and Deng Xiaoping (Deng Xiaoping Theory) in having his eponymous ideological contribution reflected in the Party Constitution. Xi’s predecessors Jiang Zemin (Theory of Three Represents) and Hu Jintao (Scientific Outlook on Development) had only their ideas codified without the inscription of their names.

Xi controls the Party, the military, oversees the economy and shapes the foreign policy of China. He is well read and quotes easily from classics and classical ideas.  He has outmanoeuvred his rivals. His anti-corruption drive has emasculated many tall competitors. His imprint is clearly visible in China’s foreign and security policies, be it in his discussions with world leaders, in international Summits, his presence at Davos, through his articles in the press and in his addresses and statements. His proposal of the Belt and Road Initiative seemed to attract many a developing economy to gravitate towards China in the hope of securing attractive ideas and projects in their development agenda, however, flawed that maybe.

China sees itself as a democratic open society, but its transparency is limited to a select few of its leaders and is opaque to most. It needs the help of an expert Sinologist to meander through the maze to understand and reflect on developments in the People’s Republic. As China heads towards the Double Hundred, the 100th Anniversary of the Communist Party of China in 2021 and the 100th Anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 2049, many unanswered questions would remain in the political, economic and security spheres. Jayadeva Ranade’s Xi Jinping’s China should be able to assist in the process of unravelling some of these mysteries and questions.

Jayadeva Ranade is among the foremost Sinologists in India. He has served the Government with distinction and has contributed extensively to understanding China and deciphering the many strands which have contributed towards a strong leadership in China and to the success of the People’s Republic. His latest book, Xi Jinping’s China, would be an effort in that direction.

Xi Jinping’s China is a collection of 43 articles presented by the author at various Think Tanks or contributed to publications and journals. The period covered is from 2010 to May 2017. The focus is on the 18th Party Congress which anointed Xi Jinping as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and covers the period leading up to the preparations for the 19th Party Congress. The author spends considerable time in explaining the backroom goings on in the Party which led to Xi Jinping consolidating absolute power in his hands. Xi’s anti corruption drive, his moving away from Deng’s principle of collective leadership, and other steps have been covered in detail in the book. He also dwells on the steps taken by Xi Jinping in ensuring that the People’s Liberation Army was totally loyal to the Party and its supreme leader.

One of the most important events which did cast a shadow over the strength and unity of the Party was the so-called Bo Xilai affair. The Party and the leadership were considerably affected by the incident. It brought out the weaknesses in the security apparatuses. Bo Xilai’s ambition was his own undoing leading to his downfall and disgrace. It allowed the Party to strike at neo-Maoist forces and provided an opportunity to emphasise the purity of party. It also showed Xi Jinping’s determination in sending out a message that however high and mighty, the Party was supreme and that he was in control of the situation. The Bo Xilai affair has been covered in extensive detail by Jayadeva Ranade in his book.

Ranade analyses the move by Xi Jinping to assemble his personal team as an illustration of his supreme confidence and his ambition to be the uncontested leader in the Party and State. Xi Jinping’s move for a more pro-active role for the Secretariat illustrates the desire of the Party’s General Secretary to be the paramount leader of the Party. This mirrors the similar moves by leaders in the former Soviet Union and the erstwhile East European countries. Emphasising that “combating corruption” and “preventing degeneration” were priority tasks, the Chinese leader was able to marginalise all competitors and opponents in one-broad sweep.

A Department of considerable significance in Communist Parties has been that relating to AgitProp (Agitation and Propaganda). In this background, Jayadeva Ranade’s devoting a Chapter to the infamous Document 9 comes as no surprise.  This Document No: 9 issued in August 2013, is a detailed prescriptive guideline for regulating China’s propaganda and cultural organisations. It describes “the current ideological situation as complicated and the struggle as fierce” and lists seven “incorrect ways of thinking”. These include: advocating Western constitutional democracy thereby negating the current leadership and government system led by the Communist Party of China; advocating “universal values” in a bid to substitute the core value system of socialism with Western values; advocating “new liberalism” with the aim of dismantling State-owned Enterprises (SoE)s and changing China’s basic economic system; challenging the Party’s control of the media and the system for managing the press and publications; and, trying to deny the Communist Party of China’s history and the history of the People’s Republic of China, including the “scientific value and guiding role of Mao Zedong Thought”.

China today is the second largest economy in the world. The Communist Party has emphasised that the role of the market was “decisive”. The State owned Enterprises (SoE’s) would continue to play an important role in domestic and international market. The Party would also consider bridging the rural-urban divide as an important task. Xi has kept the channels of communication and action open between the Communist Party of China and the SoE’s.

One of the objectives of the ‘China Dream’ is the doubling of China’s GDP by 2020 over the 2010 figure. Despite global slowdown, Beijing is confident that it is on track to double size of the economy to $12 trillion by 2020.

Xi Jinping used his early days in the Party and his association with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to great advantage. By reorganising and restructuring the Army’s command and control system and by giving equal importance to the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and the PLA Navy (PLAN), he ensured that the loyalty of the Army to the Party and him personally was not diluted. Ranade notes that at an enlarged meeting of the Central Military Commission (CMC) on November 16, 2013, Xi Jinping emphasised the importance of “the Party’s absolute leadership over the armed forces” and that “the military must promote and appoint cadres based on their political performance and guarantee that ‘guns’ are always controlled by reliable people with loyalty to the Party”. The author brings out the double digit increases in the national defence budget and mentions Xi Jinping reiterating that the PLA’s core task was to improve its ability to ‘winning local wars under conditions of informatisation’ in the information age and conduct diversified military operations. China has set itself the goal of modernisation of the PLA by 2035 and transforming it into a world-class military by 2050.

A precursor and follow up to these developments was Xi Jinping’s repeated references to “the humiliations heaped on the Chinese by foreigners, the ‘China Dream’ and assertions that there will be no infringement of China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, all make apparent that there will be less flexibility and a reluctance to agree to concessions on issues of sovereignty or territorial disputes.”

Tibet gets a fair share of mention in the Book. This is but natural given the resonance this has on some aspects of China’s approach towards India. The author sees China’s interest in the development of Lumbini airport in Nepal as posing not only a military threat to India, but also as “more insidious” aimed at “potentially triggering instability and secessionism across the vulnerable Indo-Tibetan Himalayan border belt”. Ranade sees the release of the 2013 White Paper on Tibet a couple of hours prior to the arrival of then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in China as not just pure coincidence. It is interesting that the 2015 White Paper on Tibet was also released a month before Prime Minister Modi’s visit to China. The author notes the contradictory viewpoints by academics on the political and spiritual relevance of the Dalai Lama with a final imprimatur that the “differences between the Chinese authorities and the Dalai Lama are antagonistic and irreconcilable” and that the “Dalai Lama question should continue to be dealt with in a hostile way”. The author analyses the Chinese point of view “If China succeeds in resolving the Dalai Lama Dilemma, it will be able to disintegrate overseas Tibetan independence forces”.

Jayadeva Ranade underlines that since the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, China has switched to an increasingly assertive and muscular foreign policy doggedly focused on China attaining its self-perceived global status of a world power. He notes that the “Chinese Dream” could increase pressure on India and Japan. And this will see greater inflexibility by China on claims in the South China Sea and beyond.

The author analyses President Xi’s announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013 and its progress thereafter (now embedded in the Party Constitution); China’s new strategic policy towards its neighbours, labelled as “Peripheral Diplomacy”; categorisation of neighbours as “friends” and “enemies” among others as robust elements of China’s political and economic diplomacy. He notes “A large part of what drives today’s Chinese leaders – and particularly Xi Jinping – is a strong sense of destiny manifested as the ‘China Dream’. The ‘China Dream’ is the desire to redress the ‘humiliations’ inflicted on China for over 110 years in the Nineteenth Century, during which period it suffered repeated military defeats and “unequal” treaties were forcibly imposed on it.”  And he adds “The aim of the new foreign policy is to provide China’s leaders an expanded set of strategic options and ample chances to avoid using ‘military conquests’ to achieve regional dominance”. An interesting observation in the Book notes “China’s National Security Law enacted in 2016 authorises China’s armed forces and Intelligence and security personnel to enter foreign countries to apprehend terrorists.”

Sino-Pakistan relations gets due attention in the Book reflecting the strength of the relationship.  Despite the enduring bonds of the ties between China and Pakistan, it is interesting to note that “Xi Jinping became only the second Chinese leader to travel to Pakistan after Hu Jintao in 2006”.The author emphasises the “interdependency in the relationship” stressing that “unless there is a drastic deterioration in its internal stability, Pakistan’s importance for China under Xi Jinping will remain unchanged”. Ranade mentions that the five main drivers of China’s ‘multi-dimensional’ relationship with Pakistan were best identified in 2006 as: (i) deepening strategic cooperation and consolidating traditional friendship; (ii) expanding ‘win-win’ business ties; (iii) expanding cultural and social exchanges and strengthening the basis of friendship; (iv) strengthening cooperation in international affairs and upholding common interests; and (v) promoting exchanges among civilizations to enhance world harmony.

Ranade mentions that the Belt and Road Initiative’s route through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), “sets the stage for China to wield pre-eminent economic, military and diplomatic influence in Pakistan.”  He quotes an influential senior Chinese academic, saying in a private conversation “While we had earlier purchased the loyalty of the Pakistanis, now we will buy Pakistan!”

Bilateral ties between India and China have got a fair deal of coverage in the Book in six full Chapters with references in other Chapters. Xi’s views on bilateral relations were referred to by him even in 2010 as “The two sides should view the bilateral ties from a strategic and long-term perspective, and expand the common ground and properly handle the differences so as to push forward the long-term and stable relations”. However, there have been more difficulties with the aggressive behaviour of China on many fronts. Ranade mentions “For there to be meaningful forward movement in the India-China relationship, five main issues require to be addressed: (i) the disputed border; (ii) the unprovoked intrusions, including road construction inside Indian territory, by Chinese troops; (iii) plans for diversion of the Brahmaputra River to the north; (iv) Chinese activities in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) and the close Sino-Pakistan relationship which is essentially strategic and defence-related and impinges directly on India’s sovereignty, security and territorial integrity; and (v) the immense trade deficit disadvantageous to India”. Intrusions on the eve of high level interactions such as in Depsang, Chumar etc do undermine whatever goodwill and trust exists. 

Beijing’s reiteratation of its claim over Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, since the time of Mao, has been most unhelpful. Ranade covers some of the official and media statements on these issues.

Beijing is irked with India’s refusal to support the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India has unambiguously conveyed its objections and concerns to China over the BRI and its CPEC part by mentioning that the BRI was a unilateral initiative, it lacked clarity and transparency and it undermined India’s sovereignty over the CPEC’s passage through PoK, which is India’s territory under illegal occupation of Pakistan. Ranade devotes a Chapter to “China’s Road & Belt Initiative: Indian Perspective”. Analysts elsewhere have noted the increasing number of countries expressing reservations over various aspects of the BRI with one noting that “debt-funded infrastructure projects have a nasty tendency to evolve into imperial debt servitude.”

Reflecting on India-US relations, the author notes in the Book “Beijing no longer feels the need to retain even the diplomatic façade of exhibiting sensitivity to India’s concerns and that, in the backdrop of warming Indo-US relations, will use Pakistan to exert greater pressure on India’’. From an overall reading of the Book, Ranade is clear that Sino-Indian relations are in for troubled times with an increasingly assertive China.

From a foreign relations perspective, there is an interesting reference in the Book to “China’s apprehension, that the US will undermine its influence in countries where it has strategic investments”. The Book also notes “the unusual appointment of a Special Envoy for Myanmar”.

Sino-US relations will have their impact on global developments. Ranade brings out the point that during the Xi-Obama Summit, “Xi has urged the U.S. to adopt a new type of great-power relationship—to regard China as an equal partner and to acknowledge its claims to contested islands and other interests. The Obama Administration has declined to adopt the phrase”. Two chapters in the Book deal with Sino-US relations.

The Book is a veritable storehouse of information. Every Sinologist and foreign and strategic policy practitioner would find the Book addressing the many gaps in understanding China and the leaders who run China. However, there are a couple of infirmities. The Book is a collection of excellent articles by the author over a period of seven years. This does not allow a smooth flow of ideas and thoughts from one issue to the other. The absence of an introduction and a conclusion on where China and Xi Jinping are headed towards does hamper some clarity. And with Xi Jinping moving away from some of Deng Xiaoping’s legacy on the collective leadership; identification of successors; possible removal of the two-term stipulation for the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China; among others will shape China’s domestic and internal policies. The Book stops at a very crucial moment in China’s history. And from a bilateral perspective, Doklam happened a month after the last dated article in the Book, May 2017. The impact of the final resolution of the stand-off and its possible fallout on China’s approach to Sino-Indian issues and on the border itself will be interesting. It is hoped that the author’s next Book will address some of these issues.

[M. Ganapathi is a retired Ambassador who served in the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. He is Member of Chennai Centre for China Studies. The views expressed are the author’s own.]

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