There is no shortage of commentators trying to figure out what China’s rise means to the international system. Lately their focus has shifted to Xi Jinping, the party secretary and the country’s president, whose ability to consolidate his power within the party structure has been swift and unrelenting. What does a strong country with a strongman once again at the helm mean for China, the neighbourhood and the world?
Before we try to come to grips to these questions, Xi Jinping’s rise within the ranks of the party is unprecendented, even by the party’s own hoary history. Deng Xiaoping’s eventual rise to power was in part aided by public revulsion at the carnage brought about by Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Chinese public opinion then was solidly for Deng and against the reviled Gang of Four.
Xi Jingping does not have this advantage. Nor does he have the advantage of being anointed by Deng Xiaoping, China’s last true revolutionary, as he did with Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Their appointment to China’s top job was grudgingly respected by even those senior leaders who felt slighted by being superseded by younger and less experienced hands. At a conclave of the party central committee, Xi Jingping received the most votes as the most promising candidate to succeed Hu Jintao. Even this form of inner party democracy did not burnish Xi’s credentials for the top post in the eyes of some leaders. Challengers to Xi, Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang, were brought down.
Now that Xi Jingping has down away with his most immediate rivals, what should he do? There are many pressing issues that he and his team need to address. A slowing economy, rising inequality, falling real estate prices, polluted environment and growing water scarcity are some. Of course, there is Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, which is still going full steam, and to which according to some reports, he’s staking his life and reputation. Some observers call this campaign Xi’s great purge, reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s war on his own party. Other observers who are less cynical say that if corruption is not eliminated, it would destroy the party and China’s last chance for its great rejuvenation. This explains Xi’s sense of urgency at revamping the party and burnishing its image in the eyes of the Chinese public. And this anti-graft campaign seems to be going down very well with the public.
By most accounts Xi’s track record till now is glowing. His two predecessors, Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, left behind a dysfunctional party of competing vested interests overseeing a free-for-all economy whose profits, or at least some of it, seem to have gone in the pockets of the overseers. Xi, by accumulating enough power in his hands, wants to change this predatory nature of the Chinese state. And he may well succeed.
But one area where Xi needs to tread cautiously is the balance he strikes between keeping the economy humming and the military in the barracks. Any military adventurism on the part of China, especially in the East and South China Seas, might prove disastrous for the country’s slowing economy. Till now the world and China believed that the country’s economic boom is a one-way street, Chinese munificence benefiting all. That was true. And China used this economic clout to the full hilt. Any country whose head of state dared meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama was punished. Scholars call this the Dalai Lama effect on international trade. Trade ties were either cut off or suspended for a limited period. This worked well with countries which had not invested heavily in the mainland.
However, any provocative action in the East and South China Seas might prove disastrous for China. In November last, The Economist magazine carried a news item which said that 88,000 Taiwanese companies employ about 15.6 million Chinese workers in the mainland. 23,000 Japanese companies operating in the mainland employ about another 11 million. South Korea employs about 2 million. If you add to this number other companies in the troubled neighbourhood which employ Chinese workers in the mainland, the total number of Chinese in the payroll of neighbouring non-Chinese companies is about 30 million. That’s far more than the total population of either Nepal or Taiwan.
In case of full military action in the region, these companies would pull out of China. Troubling signs are there already. Even in peace time, Japanese investment in China dropped from$13.5 billion in 2012 to $9.1 billion in 2013. 30 million relatively well-salaried Chinese workers suddenly out of jobs is a task even the redoubtable Xi Jingping might find hard it to handle.
*Thubten Samphel is the director of the Tibet Policy Institute, a research centre of the Central Tibetan Administration