Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tilting the fragile balance?

The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to Liu Xiaobo, the initiator of the Charter 08, a text suggesting the introduction of democratic reforms into the opaque Chinese one-party system. It was signed by 300 prominent intellectuals.
The Nobel award comes at a very special time for China.
Though the Communist Party is not bothered by general elections or vote banks, during the 18th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress to be held in October 2012 (just two years from now), General Secretary Hu Jintao and most of his colleagues of the Standing Committee of the Politburo (PBST) will have to bid goodbye to active politics. Having crossed the 70 years age-limit, 7 out 9 PBST members will stop running the day-to-day affairs of the Party (and the country). While observers generally agree that Vice-President Xi Jinping will step in Hu’s boots (at least as President and CCP General Secretary) and that the First Vice-Premier Li Keqiang will succeed Wen Jiabao as Premier, the jockeying for the 7 other coveted remaining posts in the PBST is open to new fifth and sixth generation leaders.
Several papers analyzing the power struggle for becoming the next bosses of China, have recently been published. Willy Lam, a veteran China expert has written one of the best analyses for The Jamestown Foundation, it is entitled Changing of the Guard: Beijing grooms sixth generation cadres for 2020.
Lam goes into the strengths and weaknesses of the two major factions, the Communist Youth League Clique (lead by Hu Jintao) and the Gang of Princelings (lead by Xi). The paper pays great attention: “to the political traits and policy orientations of a host of Sixth-Generation rising stars such as the Party Secretaries of Inner Mongolia, Hunan and Jilin, respectively Hu Chunhua, Zhou Qiang and Sun Zhengcai.” It means the leaders for the 2020’s.
As Lam explains, “President Hu and his PBSC colleagues play a major role in picking their own successors — and sometimes even the successors of their successors. While headhunters at the CCP Organization Department are looking for a high level of professional competence, they are setting even more store by ‘morality’, namely the candidates’ ideological and political correctness as well as readiness to toe the Beijing line.”
In other words: “Stick to the book and you will be promoted”.
One of Lam’s conclusions is that in the current scenario there is very little chance to see the emergence of a new Gorbachev or even a Hu Yaobang, the General Secretary in the 1980’s who brought a fresh air in the Party affairs and could have brought about some of the reforms dreamt by Lui, the new Nobel Prize Laureate.
One of the difficulties, Lam points out is “The twin deficit of talent and fresh ideas may render it difficult for the CCP leadership to reach ambitious economic and diplomatic goals for the first half of the 21st century.”
There is however another factor, perhaps even more important: the People’s Liberation Army. The Central Military Commission which runs China’s defense affairs is also due for renewal. What role will the PLA play in the change of guard?
President Hu will probably remain as the Chairman for a few years, but many new generals will join the 12-member Commission (Hu will remain the only civilian).
In the China Leadership Monitor, Cheng Li in a paper entitled China’s Midterm Jockeying: Gearing Up for 2012 — Military Leaders analyzed: “Although the political leadership’s control over the military has not been challenged in the last two decades, several factors—a possibly ineffective civilian collective leadership, growing social tensions and public protests, and China’s great power aspirations amid a rapidly changing global environment—may all enhance the military’s influence and power in the years to come.”
While trying to reveal ‘the new dynamics between civilian and military elites’, he sees ‘the possible challenges that lie ahead’, he concludes: “At a time when China faces an uncertain leadership succession at home and must follow an uncharted path of searching for its new power position in the world, the upcoming large-scale turnover in PLA leadership and the potential pitfalls associated with it deserve serious attention.”
Take the tussle between Beijing and Washington about the joint U.S.-South Korean exercises.
General Luo of the Yuan Academy of Military Sciences put vividly the Chinese view: “How can we let a stranger fall sound asleep just outside our bedroom?”. He even quoted Mao Zedong: “If people don’t offend me, I won’t offend them; if people run afoul of me, I will surely hit them back”.
One could ask, why are the generals seemingly speaking out differently than the official policy promoted by Hu Jintao of a peaceful rise of China; simply because the PLA play a more and more important role in formulating the foreign policy of China and the generals are ready to call the shots. It is not good omen for India.
The change of guard will probably be an occasion for the hardliners amongst the PLA and PLAN (Chinese Navy) “to lobby for more economic and political resources to upgrade their arsenal.”
For any China watcher, the forthcoming scenario appears complicated, uncertain or to put it in one sentence, the balance between the different forces, cliques, gangs is extremely fragile.
The Nobel Peace Prize to Lui gives a boost to another lobby generally not mentioned in the succession war: those (perhaps like Premier Wen Jiabao) who want to infuse some democratic reforms into the totalitarian regime in Beijing.
The publication by a group of former senior officials of a strongly-worded open letter to the top legislature calling for an end of media censorship is symptomatic of the resurgence of the ‘fifth modernization’ (Deng Xiaoping had spoken of 4 modernizations), dear to those who wrote posters on the Democracy Wall on the Tiananmen Square in 1979.
Now these Elders (who probably participated to the Party censure thirty years ago) demand that books and papers from Hong Kong and Macau, popular among mainland readers, be made available on mainland and asked for free speech, which, they say is enshrined in the 1982 constitution.
The signatories questioned the fact that even the Chinese Premier is today censored in China: “Wen talked about political reform on [many] occasions, but it was not mentioned in reports by Xinhua. What right does the Central Propaganda Department have to place itself even above the Communist Party Central Committee, and above the State Council [Cabinet]?"
Interesting two years ahead.

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