Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Recent Political Developments in China

Growing signs of ideological hardening

Ambassador PP Shukla 
(Joint Director, VIF)

Back in the days of the Soviet Union, readers of a nationalist newspaper, Sovetskaya Rossiya [Soviet Russia] were exposed to a full-page article by one Nina Andreeva, a chemistry teacher at the Leningrad Technology Institute. The article appeared in March 1988, at the height of the tussle between Mikhail Gorbachev and his opponents in the Soviet Communist Party. The title of Andreeva’s article was “I Cannot Compromise my Principles”, and it was an open attack on the direction that Gorbachev – though without naming him - and his supporters were taking the Party and the country. It created a stir within the Party and became a rallying point for all those who felt that the policies of the westernising neo-liberals were leading the country towards non-socialist pluralism – by implication, to the end of the socialist state. Events were to prove her right, but this was not the response to the article then.

The reason for bringing up this now-obscure event from Soviet history is the appearance of a similar article in the Chinese press. On 1 August, Xinhua carried an article in Chinese under the title “If China Collapses, It Will Be Worse than the Soviet Union”. Before analysing the article and its import, the context needs to be set out. It is actually quite curious how obsessed the Chinese leaders are with the fate of the USSR. Perhaps nowhere else in the world, including in Russia itself, is there the same degree of attention to the developments leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union as in China.

To illustrate, here is a quote from Xi Jinping’s speech at the time of his Southern Tour in December 2012 – he was then already Party leader, but had not yet become President.
Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and beliefs had been shaken. In the end, ‘the ruler’s flag over the city tower’ changed overnight. It’s a profound lesson for us! To dismiss the history of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communist Party, to dismiss Lenin and Stalin, and to dismiss everything else is to engage in historic nihilism, and it confuses our thoughts and undermines the Party’s organizations on all levels. 
Why must we stand firm on the Party’s leadership over the military? ...because that’s the lesson from the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union where the military was depoliticized, separated from the Party and nationalized, the Party was disarmed.
In short, as recently as December 2012, the top leader in China was discussing the collapse of the USSR, and presumably drawing lessons for China from that experience. And the key elements he identifies are the lack of ideological commitment at the top, and the fact that the Armed Forces had been de-politicised – a clumsy word that one Soviet Defence Minister had trouble even pronouncing.

The important thing is that it seems the Chinese leadership is still concerned that it too might go the Soviet way. To the outsider, China is a success story par excellence, but apparently, the reality – at least as perceived by the Party - is more shaky.

And now, to turn to the content of the Xinhua commentary: not surprisingly, it spends most of the time on the collapse of the Soviet Union, and describes in detail what hardships befell the country as a result of the collapse. The GDP fell by more than half; its access to and control over the seas, built up over centuries, was lost; the people were reduced to begging, and war heroes were forced to sell their medals; the country is now reduced to selling its natural resources to get by. It goes on to refer to so stern a critic of the Communist Party as Solzhenitsyn as saying that Stalin and the Party were good for the country, and Russia after the break-up was in a worse plight.

In an interesting side-swipe at India, Xinhua suggests that, since China does not have the resources that Russia has, it will, following a collapse, fall below India in terms of living standards!

The commentary dwells a little more on the collapse of the USSR, and concludes that China will suffer a worse fate if it collapses. It argues that China was enslaved and occupied by foreign powers in the past, and it was only the Communist Party that gave China back its standing. The elderly are enjoying a stable old age, and the children have all the amenities they need – all thanks to the Communist Party. And all this would be lost if China were to collapse.

The solution to the danger of the collapse is to contain the micro-bloggers who apparently seek to copy the western system – the “non-socialist pluralism” of Nina Andreeva’s article. It appears that these bloggers reach millions of recipients, mostly sympathetic to their message of constitutionalism, and of western-style democracy with greater individual freedom. The author concludes that he would allow such a change only over his dead body.

The important point of inquiry is why there has been this kind of writing, especially in the public domain. To understand this, there is another strand in the current Chinese discourse that needs to be focussed on. This is “constitutionalism” – the notion that the Constitution of the country is paramount, and that the provisions on individual rights and freedoms need to be upheld and exercised. It is this kind of constitutionalism that Chinese leaders, including Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, have criticised for having separated the Armed Forces from the Party in the Soviet Union. [Yes, all three have talked about the collapse of the Soviet Union.] And this is what they are clear shall not be permitted to happen in China.

Constitutionalism is the very banner that some in the Chinese system are raising. The Southern Weekly, a “liberal” paper that comes out in Guangdong, had written an editorial at the beginning of 2013, under the title “China’s Dream, the Dream of Constitutionalism”. This was a reference to the slogan of the “China Dream” coined by Xi Jinping himself, and the editorial was thus filling its own content into the slogan. As it turned out, the content was unacceptable, and the censors changed the title, removing any reference to constitutionalism.

For good measure, there has also been a spate of articles in the Chinese press on the dangers of constitutionalism. The People’s Daily has taken the lead on this and ran three articles in August alone attacking this concept. One of them went so far as to say that the real aim was to overthrow the socialist system and oust the leaders of the Party. In another context, the People’s Daily accused “spies in the higher echelons of the Party” of colluding with foreign enemies.

This kind of fevered writing on a hypothetical event such as the collapse of China or the upholding of the Constitution would definitely indicate a graver source of concern than a couple of editorials in the regional media on the need to uphold the Constitution. There is, of course, the fact that the economy is in serious trouble, and many are beginning openly to express doubts even about the reliability of Chinese growth figures. We know that Premier Li Keqiang, before he rose to the present post, had himself told visitors that many of the statistics were “man-made”, and that he himself did not take them at face value. China’s public finances are another mess in the economy, and one that will lead to major difficulties.

Similarly, there are a growing number of incidents of unrest in the country. In 2012, the number of such incidents rose to 200,000, which must surely be hard to manage. This would also tie in with the remarks made by Xi about the importance of the Armed Forces being loyal to the Party, and not being allowed to be “nationalised” – ie, to become loyal to the State, rather than to the Party.

As to the Constitutionalists, they pose an unusual type of challenge to the Party establishment. After all, the present Constitution was adopted only thirty years ago, and the anniversary of the event was celebrated last December by the Party itself. It becomes very difficult to argue that upholding its provisions is in any way harmful to the country. And yet, that has been the burden of the attacks on those supporting the Constitution – the People’s Daily declared that Constitutionalism was incompatible with socialism! And yet, both Xi and Li have referred to the Constitution as the supreme law, even after they assumed office.

It would appear that a combination of difficulties is closing in on the Party leaders – economic in the first place, but also social and political. Of this last, the Bo Xilai episode is the most visible manifestation, and it is not yet clear what its implications will be. What does appear to be happening is that there is some unhappiness in the Party over the treatment of the entire episode, and some of the angry charges that are reflected in the writings mentioned above are a response to that. There was also a sense in the run-up to the CPC Congress last November and immediately afterwards, that Xi was a “reformer” of the kind that his father was, and that many people, in China and outside, are looking for. He himself has given little ground for expecting any such change from him, and his remarks on the fall of the USSR, quoted above, were made within weeks of taking over as Party leader. Perhaps there is a fear among the traditional elites in the Party that the pressure for change in the face of the mounting difficulties could lead to some experimentation in the direction of political pluralism. The opponents of this are moving pre-emptively to head off any such change.

For India, these are significant issues to sort through, because such internal pressures frequently affect the foreign policy as well. The emphasis on the role of the Armed Forces in preserving the system is particularly worthy of note. This could be linked to the growing aggressiveness we are seeing on the part of the Chinese forces in the border areas. If the trends towards ideological hardening discussed above were to continue, or worsen, it is likely that tensions on the border along the LAC will also worsen – with unpredictable consequences.


It is to be hoped, against hope really, that our defences are being looked to, for they need to be upgraded, and the earlier the better. History shows that instability in China can spill over into neighbouring countries. Forewarned is forearmed.

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