Monday, 18 December 2017

Xi Sends A Message--And So Do Others

In the period following the 19th Party Congress in October, President Xi Jinping’s aim for the nation has been clearly communicated: Only the Chinese Communist Party can save socialism[1]---that is, the socialist path as contained in the new doctrine of Xi Jinping Thought.

A major challenge for local officials is interpreting just what Xi’s goal means for them in their daily work.

Nanjing’s government got a sense of the uncertainty of its role when Xi visited Jiangsu last week, ostensibly to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the massacre here. The trip seemed to be about that particular event.

But instead of going directly to Nanjing, Xi stopped in the northern Jiangsu city of Xuzhou—on the way in and, surprisingly, returned there on his way back to Beijing, spending little time in Jiangsu’s capitol and emphasizing themes that might have seemed, to at least some Nanjing officials, to be more about the past than the present.

In Xuzhou on the 12th, Xi called on a major manufacturing facility and said that China’s state-owned enterprises are “an important material and political foundation for socialism with Chinese characteristics and a pillar [顶梁柱] of the socialist economy with Chinese characteristics …[critical] for our party in governing and rejuvenating the country.” Xi also visited an environmental reclamation project and rural party organizations in the area, praising the latter’s role as “a strong fortress to promote reform and development” [推动改革发展的坚强战斗堡垒]. The implementation of his strategy of revitalizing China, Xi said, needs to combine “material progress and spiritual civilization…[with] particular attention paid to improving the spirit of peasants.”

After attending the gathering at the Nanjing Massacre Museum the next morning, Xi then returned to Xuzhou that afternoon.

In Xuzhou, he paid respects to fallen soldiers at the Huaihai [淮海] Military Memorial, commemorating a major battle that saw CCP forces launch the offensive that ultimately ended in the seizure of Nanjing from the Nationalist government. At the Xuzhou memorial, Xi asserted that “it is not always the weapons and forces that determine the outcome of a war. The military's strategy and tactics, the confidence and courage of the soldiers, the support and assistance of the people are often the more important factors.”

That was Xi again stressing the spiritual component of his political strategy to rejuvenate China, and how revisiting the revolutionary past should shape the bedrock of reform.

There’s no doubt that Xi’s devotion is deeply genuine. And his very presence at these places is in stark contrast to the previous practices of some leaders and local officials. There is much to admire and praise here.

At the same time, SOEs, the peasantry, “people’s war”, those are admonitions---authentic and inspirational to many, but they could be seen by some cadres as throwbacks, unconnected to such matters as urban management and assisting entrepreneurs. 

For Xi, the trip to Jiangsu was a commemoration more than  an inspection[2]---a reminder to local Party officials of their political mission [政治任务][3] and of his expectation of more progress in the provinces in the wake of the 19th Party Congress. 

But for officials in Nanjing, trying to put Xi’s strategy into practice may prove to be tricky. Just the day before Xi swung through Nanjing, Nanjing Ribao [南京日报] listed three tasks for the coming year--preventing major risks in the city's financial sector; enhancing pollution control; and poverty alleviation. 

So at least some cadres here seem to be signalling that the challenges they face are very much of this moment, and not a previous one.

More on the latter aspect in the next posting.

[1] An objective that’s rather different from what Mao Zedong was urging (“only socialism can save China” [只有社会主义才能救中国] or “only the Communist Party can save China” [只有中国共产党才能救中国])--and what Chinese intellectual Qin Hui has sort to subvert through some of his commentary.

[2] Central new agencies in their coverage indicated it was both.

[3] 政治任务 in Party discourse means more than just going through the motions; it’s about understanding policies agreed on at the central level and putting them into practice locally. To refer to the current efforts as Xi expressed them as政治任务 is part of efforts by the Party media to get cadres and citizens to take the conclusions reached at the 19th Party Congress seriously, and that mirrors the intensive effort at the grassroots to spread Xi Thought to the masses

Monday, 4 September 2017

North Korea's Nuclear Test Isn't Terrible for Xi Jinping

What a difference a detonation makes.

Sunday morning’s explosion of a hydrogen bomb by North Korea is seen by many observers as terrible news for Beijing. The Chinese leadership had been pressing Pyongyang in recent days to halt its nuclear program, and stop ratcheting up tensions in the region, so a lot of analysts see the blast as a major setback.

The event is also presented as especially embarrassing for President Xi Jinping in particular, coming on the eve of a keynote speech he was to deliver at the major BRICS summit--Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa--in the southern Chinese city of Xiamen. As one analysis put it, “President Xi Jinping does not like surprises.” According to the story headline, “The timing of North Korea’s nuke test could not be worse for China’s Xi.”

But all of that is highly questionable.

First, how does anyone know what Xi likes or doesn’t like? Apart from his inner circle, there’s no evidence whatsoever about Xi’s reaction—either what it was, or what it had to be. Given the paucity of information about Xi’s personality and how he reacts in person, claims like that are rash at best, misleading readers into thinking that someone has insight in Chinese leaders that's in fact undemonstrated.

Moreover, how does anyone know that Xi would have been surprised—given that there were all sorts of signals that another test of some sort on Pyongyang’s part was likely to occur?

After all, North Korea’s state media ran news of a visit by Leader Kim Jong Un to the Nuclear Weapons Institute, and claimed that the country had a hydrogen bomb capable of being mounted onto a new intercontinental ballistic missile. Given the long-standing military ties between the two countries, is it really probable that no one in Beijing knew that a demonstration of some sort might be forthcoming? Was China’s intelligence apparatus so inept that they were completely taken aback by the event? Why the unsupported presumption of surprise when it’s just as likely that there were indicators, signals, signs of something about to occur? To assume that Beijing and Xi were stunned is just that--an assumption, one that is contrary to how the relationship between China and the DPRK has usually been depicted. There's not a lot of logic in any of that.

Just as curious are the claims that the recent test is terrible for Xi.

Quite the contrary, it could well turn out to be a gift.

Of course, the prevailing Party line is about stability before the 19th Party Congress, and maybe if everything stayed quite until mid-October, that would be wonderful. But this is the real world, and insofar as the 19th is concerned, these conclaves aren’t nearly as scripted as some observers seem to believe. Events happen, and Chinese officials know that, which is why there’s still so much posturing and positioning going on. It's a dynamic situation, so changes are to be expected--and some officials here (Xi included) might even be seeking opportunities to make more of them.

Equally important to consider is that China’s leadership and policymaking apparatus isn’t a monolith by any means—which is why referring to the policies pursued towards Pyongyang’s nuclear program as “China’s policies” is simplistic and misleading. Just because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs decries the test doesn't mean that they're in charge, or that they represent the majority view here.

There are Chinese analysts who are insisting that North Korea’s recent tests are a major disruption are surely right—from their perspective, one which wants a return to the Six Party Talks and reflects the views of particular parts of the bureaucracy.  

But Xi and his supporters may have rather different views.

They could look to turn the increased tension to their advantage—that is, their policy agenda—by arguing Pyongyang’s effort to become a nuclear power is another reason why China needs to be more than just another major power. Beijing must dominate the region, they can insist, because it can’t stop North Korea (or protect it) without a more assertive foreign policy, and China needs to continue to rejuvenate the military to make it capable of carrying out its new goals. Xi clearly sees China as the preeminent power in the area, and he appears to be very much a unilateralist where regional matters are concerned. Pyongyang's nuclear test doesn't undercut him, but actually aids he and his allies in making arguments that are hardline.

Moreover, Xi and his people can contend that trying to be the mediator clearly hasn’t worked for Beijing: It hasn’t halted Pyongyang’s progress, only postponed the reckoning again and again. They can argue it’s now time to make a decisive choice to oppose American-Japanese aggression (as some see it) and support Kim (which is what at least some of China’s hardline media appears to be urging). Those officials and advisers insisting that Beijing’s best play is continuity (being a responsible regional partner) can be cast by opponents—such as Xi and his people--as outmoded and out of touch, should they choose to do so.

So whether this was a surprise or not, it could turn out to be more of an opening than a setback for Xi and his camp, a further chance for his sort of China to start suiting up, and for Xi to demonstrate yet again how he’s the sort of leader the nation needs to have around, perhaps even longer than usual—someone unafraid to pursue a new agenda, and not subject to all that shocks and awes others. Kim's test is just the sort of examination that Xi excels at. There's not a lot of reason to think that Xi's suddenly on his back foot.

Anyway, that’s in Beijing. Some locals here in Jiangsu think that Kim and North Koreans generally are crazy, while other residents see That Dear Leader and his followers as actually quite clever. Of course, more than a few don’t much care, as they see themselves untouched by Beltway issues here or abroad.

Just as important, a handful admit that they really don't know what’s going on, or how it will all turn out. They say that it’s too early to draw any conclusions.

How insightful of them—though nobody should be surprised.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Is Politics Really In Command of the Chinese Military?

There’s a very long essay this morning on civil-military relations in Nanjing Daily, entitled “Politics Builds A Fighting Force: Consolidate The Original, Open The New, Forever Forward” [政治建军,固本开新永向前].

Pretty much every major Party and military media outlet is running the piece, which isn’t surprising given Beijing’s deepening control (read: centralisation) of news here.

What is striking is that someone here seems to feel the need for such a lengthy essay to appear.

The reason is found in what problems the essay propounds.

Like many similar expositions, this one proceeds—at least at first—chronologically, highlighting the evolution and certain achievements of the People’s Armed Forces. While the piece refers to the faith in the measures being undertaken to “build a world-class military” [建设世界一流军队], it’s clear that the Party leadership thinks that the Chinese military needs to respond to two political challenges.

The first challenge is from outside powers messing about with Chinese society.

“There’s an undercurrent surging of ‘color revolutions’ and “cultural transmutation [文化转基因],” the essay intones, echoing claims by Beijing hardliners that foreign forces are trying to subvert Party authority over society. 

According to the editorial, “anti-China forces are intensifying efforts to do everything possible to get Westernization to take root in China, trying to pull the People's Army away from the flag of the Party.” And because Chinese society itself is becoming more diversified, “hostile forces are accelerating ideological and cultural infiltration [文化渗透], the essay warns. Therefore, “officers and soldiers must always maintain political firmness and ideological and moral purity, and enhance their immunity [政治免疫力]” to such influences, including those who engage in “online distortions of our party and army history, and attempt to discredit our heroic martyrs and other heroes.”

To mention this issue signals that the military’s methods of combatting this threat have thus far fallen short.

The second problem for China’s armed forces, according to the essay, is that military corruption hasn’t gone away.

The essay reminds readers that “an army is always faced with two kinds of tests: One is the battlefield and the life-and-death duel with the enemy; the other is the risk of being destroyed by their own camp. [一支军队永远面对着两种考验:一个是战场上与敌人的生死对决,另一个是阵营内被自己打垮的危险.]

The second struggle isn’t done yet, though the piece is at pains to point out the progress made in identifying large-scale graft by the upper echelons, and gives the current Party leadership well-deserved credit for confronting the level and scale of corruption among some high-ranking officers. What’s still in process, according to the essay, is the construction of a comprehensive system of supervision—that is, institutional oversight by the political powers-that-be.

Whenever State media highlights circumstances and conditions, they’re almost always actually identifying illnesses. So while many in the international media are looking at China’s rising military capabilities, the Party leadership remains concerned about the institutional shortcomings of the armed forces here.

The way to address those deficiencies, according to the essay, is for the military to “intensify command consciousness” [强化号令意识]—that is, strengthen the armed forces’ allegiance to the Communist Party.[1]

That this matter needs more than just mentioning implies that questions of loyalty and support for the Party core evidently remain. If this essay is coming from Xi’s camp, then he and they are uneasy, and probably a bit unhappy. What direct action—if any—might be forthcoming isn’t made clear.

Still, this essay has a larger meaning. It could well be the start of a series of pronouncements—conclusions, really—about what was discussed at the Beidaihe meetings and what was agreed on there. Identifying what’s been resolved—and what hasn’t been—should indicate what sort of Party Congress the 19th session is going to be. Already, it’s looking less simple and straightforward than some might have wished.

[1] “The Party's absolute leadership of the armed forces is the essential distinguishing feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” [党对军队的绝对领导是中国特色社会主义的本质特征.] Later in the essay, there’s a particularly pointed reminder that the armed forces here belong to the Party, not the nation, and thus the need to continue to fight against “military nationalization” [军队国家化]. Apparently, that debate isn’t dead.