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As the Chinese Communist Party has been trying extracting itself from the Bo Xilai incident with the minimum damage, a serious debate appears to have emerged seeking both internal and foreign policy re-evaluation for the future.

The next generation of the Chinese leadership, or the 5th generation, will come into place in October this year at the 18th national congress of the Party. Part of this leadership will be a continuation from the 17th congress and part will be new leaders some of whom have already shown their inclinations and other who have hidden their political preferences carefully hidden from the public.

How much continuity will be there with earlier policies, and will there be some radical changes in consonance with the fast changing international environment which is bound to impact the internal dynamics of China. What the Bo Xilai incident exposed in parts is that there is struggle between the old leftist ideas and the gradual trends towards some liberalization.

Upcoming Party General Secretary and President, Xi Jinping is yet to reveal his political and ideological preferences. He is a blue blooded member of the new princeling faction, or progenies of senior revolutionary leaders. The princelings have one thing in common. That is, they believe they should rightly inherit leadership position because of family sacrifices for the country. But that does not mean that the group is in political and ideological agreement. Far from it, they form a spectrum from political conservation and leftism to reformist agenda.

Xi Jinping is a member of Jiang Zemin faction of Shanghai. Jiang as Party Chief and President was more liberal as his theory of Three Represents suggest. He preferred strong relations with the US. The outgoing Party Chief and President Hu Jintao are more conservative and left of Jiang. When Hu took over as Party Chief in 2002, his visit to Xibaipo and other actions illustrated his conservative outlook. His political views expressed through the theory of Scientific Development were to take development to the rural areas. Hu once famously described his predecessor Jiang Zemin’s mega projects in Shanghai as “vanity projects”. He also closed Shanghai’s ‘Disney Land’ project.

Xi Jinping will have as his close working partner Li Keqiang as Premier. Li belongs to Hu Jintao’s Communist Youth League (CYL) faction. The CYL faction who has evolved significantly in China’s politics is not necessarily conservative. In many cases they displayed efforts to counter Maoism. The new 9-member Politburo Standing Committee is expected have a CYL/Hu Jintao faction majority. There are wider issues of provincial leadership. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the increasingly stronger state owned industries (SOEs) who are pushing the private sector into a corner, has also been infested by corruption and political differences.

The authorities have tightened security in the run up to the Party congress. But what they are running against are “thoughts” and “ideas”. There are internet postings by people which are highly critical of the authorities, heavy in sarcasm and ridicule the party and the government. This has become infectious. Yet, something very different has just begun to happen. The Chinese internet portal which encouraged people to physically obstruct two health and environmental projects in Shifang in Sichuan province and Qidong in Jiangsu province were not blocked by the internet censors.

Some room may be given to protest against genuine issues impacting people’s lives as long as the Party is not criticized and politics avoided. In a few cases it was found that the wrath of the __were channelled against officials, not the Party and government.

In parallel, tension has been raising on issues relating to the sovereignty of the Spratley islands in the South China Sea with other claimants especially Vietnam and the Philippines. In the East China Sea the confrontation with Japan is becoming sharper over the sovereignty of the Senkaku islands. These issues have strong and provocative positions from the PLA, with China having set up a prefecture on Sansha, an island of the Paracel group in the South China Sea to conduct Beijing’s sovereignty over the South China Sea. A PLA garrison has also been set up in Sansha, signalling Beijing will not back down from its territorial claims.

The hard-line in the Party and the PLA are exploiting the situation using nationalism, and raising outrage over the US which is seen a supporting the formation of a united front by South East Asian countries against China.

Contradiction over the foregoing and more are intense. Hence, a serious exercise in introspection appears to have been initiated by at least a section of the top leadership of the Party.

The debate in China is examining if the static position of the Party in internal politics and administration will finally erode the country’s accumulations of power, and whether it is realistic to try and counter the US on the belief that “the USA is becoming weaker, and China is becoming stronger”. The US is also seen as an all pervasive ghost even in the bed rooms in Zhongnanhai.

It was under President Hu Jintao’s leadership that the Chinese experts and policy makers began to think that it was time that the country discarded Deng Xiaoping’s advice of keeping a low profile, while building strength. From 2004, open discussion by Chinese strategic experts projected China was economically and militarily powerful enough to do a deal with the USA to overlord, or establishing hegemony, over the larger Asian continent from the west to the Asian Pacific region.

The global economic meltdown of 2008, China emerging as the second largest economy in the world, and military modernization capable of Access Denial/Area Denial (A2D2) to the US, had catapulted the country to a position from where it could effectively challenge the US in near equal terms. A well known Chinese strategic expert Wang Jisi wrote recently that it was a wishful thinking among some Chinese.

Wang Jisi and others have gone deep into the Chinese self-promoting propaganda. ‘Populism’ and ‘nationalism’ were dangerous according to these experts. This is true, because the Party has used these psychological instruments in the past creating misplaced perceptions among the Chinese people. Promotions of such public emotion can have a reverse effect of pushing the authorities to take action externally which can blow back.

The experts were of the view that without political reform the Party could be further weakened, and so will be the institutions. They also argued that the USA was far superior to China in every way including militarily, and it would take China 20-30 years to come up to USA’s position as of today.

There were two other significant issues under discussion. One was USA’s soft power. While it was open to all people of the world to become US citizens, China would never accept a foreigner. The other was that the USA had political allies all over the world, whereas China had none comparatively. North Korea and Pakistan can hardly qualify as political players.

The Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily (August 02) put the real challenges facing China succinctly in the following words “The real problem is not the international and surrounding situation but internal institutional reform and social ecology. The real threat is not military conflict, but non-military problems in such areas as finance, society, network and diplomacy”. The People’s Daily’s comment in the context of China’s power vis-à-vis the USA. It said China’s internal core was confused and weak, which limited the country’s ability, attain its potential and stand up to the US.

Such a frank admission in the Party’s premier organ would have come after extended deliberation. It may not be the view of the entire top leadership, but certainly that of a powerful faction involved in the ongoing power struggle which wants to put up a fight against the new rising left.

The People’s Daily article came after the Party Central Committee’s theoretical journal Qiushi published the views of realist experts which were on similar lines. There was the same emphasis on institutional reform and true application of the rule of law first to sustain political reforms. These experts also argued that to retain the supremacy of the Party political reform was imperative, and not populism and nationalism, which will be counter-productive.

Hu Jintao, though cautious, recently encouraged the establishment of law firmly to bring in political reform taking the entire top leadership along. At the same time, Hu was clear that there was no space to regress to Maoist ideas.

The scale against the realist reformers is heavily loaded. The issue is of vested interests in the Party’s supremacy under unquestioned conditions. Research on the collapse of the Soviet Union and the East European Communist bloc continues even currently. The fear is that reform and political reform may lead to collapse of the Party, the country and that of the power holders themselves.

Each institution in China is controlled by vested interests. This includes the SOEs. The 2009 economic subsidies went mainly to the SOEs, further crunching the private sector. Party membership is seen as the ladder to employment and career progress. These developments are also creating a serious political divide in the country. Ideology and politics are only instruments and not dedication.

Having said all that, serious change is not near. But a process may have just started – third revolution after Mao and Deng Xiaoping.

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

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