The 5th Session of China’s 11th National People’s Congress (NPC), known as the country’s parliament, had much to reveal on the sidelines than the official report. This annual session (March 05-14) was held at a very critical time. In another six months or so the country’s one in ten years top leadership transition will take place. At the 18th Party congress scheduled for October, the 5th generation of the leadership will take over. Except for the posts of Party General Secretary, President and Premier, some questions still remain on the other seven members of the 9 member Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), the highest political body of the country. Xi Jinping as Party General Secretary and President and Li Keshing as Premier, are written in stone. One sure candidate for PBSC, Bo Xilai, has just fallen.
For Premier Wen Jiabao, this session of the NPC was his last. The government work report, a consensus document, presented by Wen Jiabao was, therefore, very cautious. It was evident, however, that the leadership had taken cognizance of the rising discontent among the people which was beginning to become visible by the postings on the internet by the country’s 460 million internet users. The internet army set up by the government largely failed to block the bloggers. Forced acquisition of land of farmers by the official-land mafia nexus have started creating a situation which is a serious challenge to the authorities and the Party itself. Protesting farmers have been beaten and even killed in some cases by security officials for not handing over their land. And in a contrasting landmark case earlier this year, residents of Wukhan, a fishing village in Guangdong, combated the police and land grabbers and won their case. And most significantly, the Party Secretary of Guangdong, Wang Yang, interceded on behalf of the villagers. Is a divide in the top political hierarchy emerging? Wang Yang is a top candidate for a PBSC post.
With around three hundred thousand anti-establishment protests a year, many of them turning violent, the authorities are concerned. It is noted that among the provincial leadership, differences in policies are growing. While some provinces use police power to subdue genuine protests, in some others the rule of law is implemented. The policies for 2012 promised by Premier Wen were more people oriented. The report promised to address urban- rural income gap, social security for retirees, health care and education among others. The NPC report did not seem to convey with conviction if these issues would be addressed adequately. There are too many political and ideological contradictions and vested interests at play, and corruption is endemic emanating from high places.
Particular attention is drawn to the internal security budget of $ 111 billion, an increase from approximately $ 96 billion in 2011. The last year’s budget was seen as preparations to meet internal challenges from the people. Overall, it was against sabotage of the Communist Party-social unrest, and terrorism by Uighur separatists like the East Turkistan Independence Movement (ETIM) in Xinjiang and rising demand from Tibetans for genuine autonomy and return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet. The network of informers and intelligence agents across the county is huge, given that in cities like Beijing every housing block was to have informers. This spells a paranoia that can encourage only hard-line policies.
Expanding on the government work report, leadership level delegates from Xinjiang and Tibet focussed on the problems they faced and promised enhanced retribution. Speaking on the sidelines of the NPC session, Nur Bekri, Chairman of the Xinjiang – Uighur Autonomous region, declared that the Uighur separatists have ties to Pakistani terror groups. Xinjiang leaders have made no secret of the fact that Uighur Muslim separatists received training in camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Chinese do not blame the Pakistani government openly, but they have made it clear to Pakistan in the past that Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, the ISI, have supported at least indirectly, the Uighur militants.
Similarly, the Tibet issue has seriously engaged the Chinese authorities. Especially with monks and nuns resorting to self-immolation to be heard. At least 27 cases have been reported since March, last year.
The Chinese authorities are in a quandary with the Tibetan and Uighur issues. On the Tibetan protests, they blame the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile for instigating the protests inside China. But they see a much bigger conspiracy with the US in the lead and western countries supporting and encouraging the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans. Nepal is perceived as a critical country where the western powers work with Tibetan refugees and the Dalai Lama’s representative to create dissensions in Tibet. India is also perceived as encouraging the Dalai Lama and Tibetans through an ambiguous policy. The solutions that the Chinese have preferred is sad. They have decided suffocate the Tibetans inside China and turn them into a pro-China ethnic population. It is hard to see how they can achieve this objective through coercive measures.
Xinjiang Uighur’s pro-independence factions present a different problem. Groups of them have taken to violence. They have supporters outside, including the openly stated Al Qaida in the Middle East. Across the borders, apart from support from Pakistani and Afghani (Taliban) camps, they have Uighur supporters in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. These developments, in a manner, impact China’s new Europe Silk Road ambition. The ethnic problem in China is not going to go away any time soon unless they seriously work out political reforms and provide living space to these ethnic minorities. But the authorities do not appear to be an item of agenda in the top hierarch in China. They have to contemplate how many can be killed, how many incarcerated, and how many subdued by either end of the rifle-barrel or the butt. The NPC session suggest a total mental paralysis on the part of the authorities over minority issues.
The fall of Bo Xilai, Secretary of the Chongqing municipality and a Politburo member during the NPC session may be coincidental. Bo, a princeling (son of a top revolutionary leader) was rated as very powerful. He spearhead an anti-mafia drive in Chongqing, but in course annoyed many powerful people. But his political drive rejuvenating Maoist values, Cultural Revolution songs and plays may have been his real undoing. While Bo was getting a lot of media space, it is noteworthy that neither Party Chief and President Hu Jintao nor Premier Wen Jiabao visited Chongqing during this period. His dismissal when the country’s leadership was present in Beijing must have served a telling massage.
The Chinese leadership appears to be caught in a difficult political and ideological matrix. The legitimacy of the party is at stake. It is unlike the Maoist policies will be allowed to return, but the challenging question is how to proceed forward.
The defence policy enunciated in the work report reveal some interesting facts. Premier Wen emphasised the need for a strong national defence and powerful armed forces for the nation’s security. The concept of national security has widened significantly from the old territorial issues like the reunification of Taiwan to securing claimed territories , terrorism, counter-piracy, securing interests overseas. The most important role for the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) was to win local wars under information–age condition. This means to ensure Taiwan does not move forward towards independence, prevent other claimants to the sprately group of islands from taking over their clamed territories, and similarly block Japan from extending ownership claims on the Senkaku and other disputed islands in the East China sea.
The defence budget for 2012 was increased by 11.2 % to approximately $ 106 billion (the real figures is estimated to be around $ 180 billion). The emphasis on defence modernization and new acquisitions was also flagged by the revelation of a new missile of 4000 Kms. range which can take out targets in India, and that of the USA in the Asia-Pacific region.
From the deliberations it appeared that the PLA had acquired an enhanced role in China’s national security including making of policy. Gradually, most security institutions in the country are coming under the PLA. The Strategic Planning Department (SPD) set up under the General staff Department of the PLA recently gives the PLA access and role in formation of policies including external policies.
Repeated emphasis that the Party had absolute leadership over the army, raises certain questions. This is not new, yet its importance is that the army is pushing for a greater part of the policy pie. The pressure may not be coming from the PLA members of the Central Military Commission (CMC), but the members of the CMC may be under pressure from the lower echelon. The PLA brass may also be realising some advantages in jargons that ‘army protects the Party’ that is, the army’s role is critical. The PLA is not inclined to remove the Party, but certainly is inclined to milk the Party.
Politically, the stage was shaken by Premier Wen Jiabao during his three-hour press conference on March 14, after the closure of the NPC session. While political reforms was hardly touched in the official NPC report, Wen told the international media that without political (structural) reform, in particular reforms in the leadership system of the Party, economic reforms and gains will be lost. He warned that unless new problems which had cropped were resolved, Cultural Revolution kind of tragedy may recur. Wen also said that the Arab people’s demand for democracy must be respected and truly responded to, and cannot be held back by force. He also said China respects the legitimate aspirations of Syrian people for change and for the pursuit of their own interests.
Wen Jiabao is in the last year of his premiership, and is expected withdraw from the frontline after 18th Party congress in October. His open call for political reform over the last three years has been looked as sceptically by some Chinese liberals. Initially, the official media had censored parts of political reform speeches and interviews. But his press conference was widely covered in detail by the official Chinese media, suggesting his views were gaining greater acceptance at high levels.
Mention of ‘Cultural Revolution’, which is a taboo, must be viewed as significant. His view on the Arab spring and the Syrian opposition contradicts China’s stated policies. Wen also took a swipe at Bo Xilai, Chief of Chongqing municipality, dismissed since, for his high handedness to highlight the problems in leadership among leaders who try to rejuvenate Maoism to forward their personal interests.
The cautious 5th session of the 11th NPC appears to be an effort to sweep under the carpet the rising contradiction within the country. A closer look suggests strong currents of dissent, and new ideas swirling underneath. The world’s second largest economy and third powerful army may not be having a sound sleep. The NPC session amended the criminal law to hold suspects without informing their families. Not only the security agencies but even provincial governments are sending large number of cadres to the countryside to prevent any protests and social instability in the run up to and during the 18th Party congress in October.
The developments portend serious tensions in the country. With the strengthening of the army and security agencies and using cadres to snuff protests, the situation is not stable. China’s neighbours, especially those who have territorial disputes with China, need to be alive to these developments. Internal streams have a tendency to flow out.
(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi. email:email@example.com)