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Reading China’s Party Plenum

China watchers were anxiously waiting to see the outcome of the 5th plenary session of the 17th Central Committee (CC) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held traditionally in Beijing’s Jinxi hotel.  It was hoped that the plenum (Oct 15 – 18, 2010) would provide some clues, if not answers, to the future direction of the CCP, which determines China’s future.

As the second biggest economy in the world now, though not in per capita terms, with a foreign exchange reserve touching $ 2.5 trillion. China is  not ready to take up global responsibility as a rich nation is expected to.  At the same time, Beijing’s growing assertiveness and territorial claims in South East Asia and East Asia backed by its not so veiled military power has not only raised concern among the affected countries but has also drawn international focus and US interest.

The imminent questions, however, were  whether Premier Wen Jiabao’s recent speeches at home and abroad calling for political reforms, jailed prodemocracy activist  Li Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace prize award, and how China would react to US and European pressure to revalue its currency.  The first thing that China watchers wanted to see was how the plenum would herald the fifth generation leadership of China.

The last question was answered affirmatively by the plenum.  Vice President Xi Jinping was appointed as the first Vice Chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission (CMC), confirming in Chinese style that he will succeed Party General Secretary, President and Chairman of the CMC Hu Jintao as China’s top leader at the 18th party congress in 2012.  This is the second smooth transiting of China’s top leader after Hu Jintao in 2002. Even then, it is recalled, that there was some problem with the CMC Chairman’s post which has no age limit like other posts instituted by Deng Xiaoping.  Hu’s predecessor Jiang Zemin, who was catapulted to power after the Tien An Men demonstration of 1989, was reluctant to give up the Chairmanship of CMC till the opinions of elders forced him to in 2004.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is unlikely to challenge the CCP for leadership, and are aware that remaining the strongest pillar of the party is their best place.  PLA representation in the Politburo in the party has come down to two representatives.  At the same time, the CMC’s voice and opinion has grown significantly with its independence.  The party head remains the Chairman of the CMC which is staffed mainly by PLA representatives.  Their opinion has to be taken into account in all strategic issues, internal and external.  And sometimes, the party and the government are forced to bend to the PLA’s opinion.

This is a major adjustment in China’s  internal politics with which Xi Jinping is very well versed.  Jiang Zemin extended his tenure in CMC to perpetuate his influence. But Hu Jintao may not follow Jiang’s example as the system of power transition is evolving into a more stable process.

Xi Jinping is in a far better position with the PLA compared to his two immediate predecessors.  Neither Jiang nor Hu had any direct military experience and had to build their acceptance through privileges and gratifications.  Xi was the personal assistant to Gen. Geng Biao, Secretary General of the CMC and Defense Minister from 1979 to 1982.  This position would have given him the opportunity to deal with the PLA very closely and with the military at different levels and understand the military mind.  It would have given him as opportunity to interact closely with the civilian leadership including Deng Xiaoping.

Xi’s father Xi Zhongxun, was a Vice-Premier and a close ally of Deng Xiaoping.  He, therefore, belongs to the powerful “princelings” clan, progenies of former powerful leaders who were close allies of Deng and who turned China around to what it is today.  The “pinceling” group includes rising leaders like Bo Xiali and Vice Premier Wang Qishan, some of whose fathers were Deng’s bridge partners, and partners in creating “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”.  These are leaders who will head the fifth generation leadership.

Thirty years of reform and opening up policy has eroded the old factional divide of liberals, conservatives and the ultra-left.  Today, the differences are mainly on application of policies with the common goals of sustained development, removing income disparity between regions because that percolates down to the people, strengthening  the party and government with cautious structural reform, that is, political structural reform, and thus ensure domestic stability.

In the last two years, China faced some severe internal challenges.  These include severe corruption against which public voice is rising,  Tibetan unrest and Uighur revolts, and  rising workers’ protests,  nearing 90 thousand officially recorded per year.

People like  Bo Xiali and Wang Xishan have excelled  in curbing  corruption.  But the malaise has acquired deep roots over the years.  No real policy has been created to effectively address other problems, especially of the two minorities who are fighting for at least real autonomy as promised by Mao once upon a time.  The modern leaders feel that giving way to autonomy demands would be the first step towards disintegration of China with western help, especially the US.

Xi is expected to maintain his usual low profile for the next two years.  His own ideals would become visible after he takes over the leadership in 2012, but no major change can be expected in his first term.

The new top leadership in 2012, the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), will have leaders from Hu Jintao’s  Communist Youth League (CYL) faction both in the centre and the provinces.  In the consensus to select the top two leaders three years ago, Hu’s candidate, CYL leader Li Keqiang was accepted as the future premier. Xi Jinping is still a dark horse where many issues are concerned, while Li Keqiang’s views about greater attention to the poor hinter land regions are generally well known.

The issue before  the leadership is how to deal with Deng Xiaopig’s philosophy “ To be rich is glorious”.  The strategy was to allow some people and regions to become affluent first so that the wealth generated by these centres could spread to the poorer regions to gradually bring in equity.  That did not happen, even with Jiang Zemin’s western development plan.

The 5th plenum document as explained by Premier Wen Jiabao was primarily focused on the 12th Five  Year Plan  (2011-2015).  As the party mouth piece the People’s Daily wrote “The next five years from 2011 to 2015 is a critical stage for China to build a moderately prosperous society.  The political flag was “people first”’ something not new but a very important condition to achieve by the party.  Mao Zedong’s thought was again missing suggesting reduction of ideology in development work.  But Deng Xiaoping’s theory, importance of “Three Represents” coined  during Jiang Zemin’s leadership, and “Scientific Development” a contribution during Hu Jintao’s current leadership as well as his “harmonious” development found mention, but not repeated several times as used to be earlier.  Serving the people or people first was reiterated several times.

Leadership of their party was a must inclusion in the document, but it was emphasized that the party has little option other than working for development which can empower the people.  The Chinese leaders are aware that despite strong censorship, some avenue has to be given to express their views.  The one that is working are internet blogs.  A part from the “50 cent nationalists” who are state sponsored, there have been both critical and constructive comments on the party’s and government’s work.  But it is unlikely to go any further.

Further modernization of national defense, especially ability to conduct military missions with focus on conducting diverse military missions with the ability to win regional wars under information based conditions was clearly recorded.

It may be noted that fighting “local wars under modern conditions strategy has given way to regional wars under information based conditions”.  This would suggest that Beijing has established a comfortable relationship with Taiwan and a status quo can be maintained, but military backed policies have taken urgency on territorial claims in South China Sea and East China Sea which have been elevated to the level of “core interest” i.e. non-negotiable and a military option is on the table. It would be pertinent to note that developments on such territorial issues in the past months have been enshrined in the party document.  Then the answer becomes, as it is said, “written in stone”.

Despite recent Chinese comments that territorial disputes between China, Japan and South Korea were just some heated words and all three would not allow East Asia to be destabilized, the truth of the matter is not so.  The Chinese activities have caused a churning  in the large region where powers from outside the region have critical economic stakes.  And, this is beginning to happen.

Adding new territories to its “core interest” can be disturbing.  China claims territories administered by India and states like Arunachal Pradesh. Google has been forced to show Arunachal Pradesh as part of China in Google maps of China.  The state now is depicted as East Tibet.  These are incremental moves.  If China eventually declares Arunachal Pradesh as a “core interest”’ something which is not unlikely, then India-China relations will not only be affected seriously, but other players will come in.

The upcoming Chinese leadership, which is striving for sustainable development and increased domestic consumption, will have to weigh how far they can go on these issues and historical clams on territories, and yet remain untouched.

There are enough signs, however, that the basic rigid policies of China are not likely to change any time soon.  If some of them even want to do so, they cannot.  They do not have the support to do it.

Finally, the question of political reform.  Freedom of speech was included in the Chinese constitution in 1982, when Deng Xiaoping was forcing the reform and opening up policy.  Deng needed support from the public and intellectuals.  After Deng’s  death in 1997, political reform was put in the freezer.  The recent speeches of Premier Wen Jiabao both inside and outside the country, though censored in the Chinese official media in the run up to the plenum, ignited some hope that “political reform” would be mentioned in the plenum document.  But the Nobel Peace Prize award to jailed activist Li Xiaobo, and an open letter to the National People’s Congress by 23 veteran and current intellectuals calling for freedom of speech, obviously rattled the Chinese leaders.  But these developments have catalyzed a discussion on internet blogs, with many supporting the Nobel Award, Wen Jiabao’s views and criticizing media censorship.

Obviously, there would be few takers for Wen Jiabao’s views even if they tied them to China’s future economic development. Only “political structural reform” was mentioned in the plenum document, which means some adjustments towards transparency. With almost astronomic economic and military development compared to 1978, the watershed in China’s political development, the leaders have found a new confidence, which could be disturbing to its neighbours.

It may, however, be asked, if China’s hurry is a reflection of its worry that in the next ten to fifteen years China will be facing a demographic crunch on working age population, and similarly on energy and raw materials.  China is already dependent on oil, gas, iron ore and other such imports.  The 5th plenum document suggests a retraction to a command system on polices including strategic polices.  And, is Premier Wen Jiabao actually a projection of China’s soft face for international consumption?

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New

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