Predicting China is always a hazardous game. Yet, no one can say that China is not changing. There has been greater transparency of the years and decades. More recently, society has been allowed to be more active, even question and criticize policies as long as the red line is not crossed. The Communist Party of China (CPC) still remains sacrosanct.
As the new leadership under Xi Jinping and Li Keqian are taking roots gradually, probably at a faster pace than previous leadership combinations. The 12th National People’s Congress, China’s Parliament, will convene on March 5 in Beijing. Xi Jinping, who rose to take over the leadership of the CPC last November, will take over the presidency from Hu Jintao. He will be fully decorated as the party chief, the military chief and the chief of the government.
Li Keqian will take over as China’s premier from Wen Jiabao. The next ten years of China will be in the hands of the Xi Li duo. Till now, the two have demonstrated full understanding with each other as far as the outside world can see.
Immediately after taking over as party chief, Xi demonstrated that he will pursue Deng Xiaoping’s economic policy of reforms (economic) and opening up (economically). But his foreign policy is yet to be exposed, but it is unlikely to be that of Deng’s. It is beginning to be seen that Xi is really not anybody’s man, but a man who carefully constructed himself brick by brick, quietly using his revolutionary pedigree.
As CPC chief, Xi Jinping has emphasized on the rule of law, judicial justice and fight against corruption. He quietly demoted the security czar’s position from a Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member to an ordinary Politburo Member. This allows him to have an overall control of security. In China, security head is a hugely powerful position reigning over internal security, corruption, personal dossiers of leaders and many other issues. The last incumbent, Zhou Yongkang a PBSC member raised the budget of national security to over $105 billion, higher than declared defence budget. Xi does not want another Mao Zedong’s Kang Shung.
China has enough laws in its books which, if implemented, could give greater justice to the people. This is exactly what Xi meant when he stressed (Xinhua, Feb.24) on “judicial justice” and “rule of law”. Xi’s views are likely to be reflected in the NPC document, but can they be implemented. Judges deliver their judgements on political guidelines. At different levels the judges consider if one of the parties is a foreigner. In land take over by government party –business mafia, the case is usually decided against the weak and land owners and farmers. The vested interest are so strong that it is not going to be possible to change the decades old system over night.
As mentioned earlier, the civil society has been given an window, howsoever small it may be, to speak out their frustrations and aspirations. The main outlet is internet blogs, and the participants are increasing. The internet police has also increased in strength, blocking posts not acceptable to the system. But the bloggers find ways to get post. Yet, the heavy hand of law has not come down on them till now. The new generation of leadership may have realized that a value may be allowed to release steam which may otherwise build up to burst the vessel.
The NPC will certainly consider this issue but how the laws are tuned will have to be seen. The Chinese character is to ensure stability, hence the fear of change in case it encourages challenges to the authority.
At the same time, globalized China can hardly keep its people isolated from international developments and currents. The Chinese are highly intelligent people. With economic empowerment and hundreds and thousands travelling abroad, ideas cannot be blocked. The saving grace, however, is that the Chinese people also do not like instability unless pressed to the wall. Therefore, the authorities have to create conditions and compromise to a certain extent to satisfy the people incrementally. But demands for freedom of expression and civil rights is rising.
In December 2012, an online petition by a group of Chinese intellectuals demanded that the Party end Internet censorship and its grip on the courts, and leave the decision to judges and lawyers.
In an open letter to the NPC (Feb.26) a group of more than one hundred prominent Chinese intellectuals, journalists, lawyers, economists and former Party officials demanded immediate ratification of the “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPA)” , one of the three main components of the UN International Bill of Rights.
Addressed to NPC Standing Committee, the latter would have to be considered by the NPC, and the Chinese Peoples’ Political Consultative Committee (CPPCC), which convenes from March 3, two days before the NPC. The CPPCC, which is a body comprising non-Communist Party representatives but led by their Party, assumed importance since the CPC decides to include non-Party personages in building the country. The CPPCC is a large repository of highly educated intellectuals and experts who always wanted to contribute to the country’s development and security, but did not accept the Party’s rigid communist ideology. The petitioners gave a veiled message – either comply or face disaster made by blind party rigidity which does not even measure up to progressive ideology.
The most daring challenge before the NPC is environmental pollution. The yellow smoke this December in Beijing and other areas was a stark precursor of what is to come. Ten villages have been declared as cancer prone.
Recently, Ma Yun, founder-CEO of China’s leading e-commerce company Alibaba, told a business forum the “Cancer will trouble every Chinese family in ten years”. The Chinese official media, including the Party mouthpiece the “People’s Daily” have rung alarm bells on environmental pollution. Yet, the Ministry of Environmental Protection refuses to provide data saying pollution is a state secret! The Chinese government strongly protested against the US Embassy in Beijing monitoring pollution.
The maddening drives for production and profit have blinded Chinese industries and their politically strong patrons stonewalled any efforts to control pollution. It can also be safely said that in all these years top Chinese leaders ignored potential environmental distasters to achieve high goals. One example is that of the huge “Three Gorges dam” project. Premier Li Peng brushed aside concerns from environmentalist to build the world’s biggest dam. Today it has become the world’s biggest environmental disaster.
How will the NPC deal with this issue? Because, such air pollution will eventually threaten neighbouring countries unless controlled. It is comparable to radio active fallout from a nuclear disaster which can be carried by wind currents across vast territories.
Foreign policy is part of the NPC conclave, as it is implemented by the government though formulated by the Party. In China’s neighbourhood, especially on territorial issues foreign policy is being increasingly backed by military postures including threat.
Some Chinese experts have been recently critical on some foreign policy issues. Support to North Korea has been severely criticized because it hurts China’s interests. Aggressive behavior with neighbours on territorial issues is also seen as limiting China’s influence. Under threat, these naeighbours like Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam are getting together against China, and are also coming under US influence.
But for the leadership, shifting to a softer line suddenly is not affordable. Ultra nationalism has been built so strong over the years; the public pressure may not allow any such shift.
Another aspects to be monitored is Xi Jinping “China’s Dream” vision. This will be discussed in detail in another article. But suffice it to say that it aims to regain China’s past glory. This could mean that neighbours should behave as vassals.
March 5 is eagerly awaited across the world.
(The writer, Mr. Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based NewDelhi;Email:email@example.com)