The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) celebrated its 90th founding anniversary on July 1, across the country on a grand scale with gatherings of tens of thousands of people and singing of Mao era songs. As the CCP stands poised at the start of its centennial decade, its leadership is concerned that the party’s status as the sole ruling party could be challenged. Additionally, the global economic crisis that accelerated China’s unprecedented rise in international influence and economic clout and placed it at the high table with the world’s major powers possibly 10 years ahead of time, has complicated matters. China’s emerging leadership will now have to grapple with ways to avoid conflict while attempting to realise China’s ambitions of territorial sovereignty in this new context.
Party general secretary Hu Jintao’s 9,797-word speech credited all China’s achievements till date to leadership of the party. It did, however, point to future political tensions. Hu Jintao spoke for 72 minutes harping extensively on China’s colonial past, humiliations and poverty, and the CCP’s role in eliminating these and its adaptability. He dwelt on the need for enhancing ‘socialist values’ and ‘socialist spirit’ among party cadres to bring them closer to the people. He described the challenges ahead as “more strenuous and pressing than at any point in the past.”
Departing from past practice, Hu Jintao invoked Mao’s legacy. He referred often to Mao Zedong and his contributions and, to a reduced extent, to Deng Xiaoping. Mao was mentioned five times in the speech while Deng figured thrice and Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao’s ‘scientific development concept’ even less. The surprising presence of conservative, 94-year-old veteran party leader, Song Ping, at the official celebrations in the Great Hall of the People, sparked speculation that a pronounced pro-Mao tilt is becoming evident. Song Ping has, however, been Hu Jintao’s mentor and first brought him to Deng Xiaoping’s notice.
While stressing continuation of reforms, Hu Jintao referred an unprecedented 10 times to ‘stability’, revealing that this was of very serious concern to the party leadership. For the first time ever Hu Jintao warned: “development is the fundamental principle, stability is the fundamental task; without stability, nothing can be accomplished, and the gains we have already made will also be lost”.
It is the domestic political landscape that will throw up most of the major challenges in the coming decade. One cause for concern is the difference in political thinking that is emerging.
Neo-Maoist sentiment, or ‘Red Revival’, has gathered strength in recent years eliciting the tacit support of many ‘princelings’. Included are Bo Xilai, party secretary of Chongqing Municipality, Vice President Xi Jinping, who is tipped to succeed Hu Jintao at the next party congress in 2012, Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member and security czar Zhao Yongkang, PBSC member Li Changchun and director of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s General Political Department, Li Jinai. This nostalgia for Mao is fuelled by diverse factors including rampant corruption, unchecked inflation, efforts by liberal economists to dismantle state-owned enterprises, grabbing of arable lands of farmers by rural cadres, perceived dilution of purist communist principles etc.
Another line of political thinking was reflected in the comments of General Liu Yuan, son of former President Liu Shaoqi and political commissar of the PLA’s General Logistics Department. At a conference in Beijing this May, attended by at least six PLA generals, he presented an essay urging China to rediscover its ‘military culture’ and asserted that ‘the party has been repeatedly betrayed by general secretaries, both in and outside the country, recently and in the past.’ The essay is preface to a book advocating a ‘New Left’ to save China and the CCP. Liu Yuan is close to Xi Jinping.
Other major challenges that could cast doubts on the party’s legitimacy to rule are the growing discontent triggered by the reform process and widening income disparities. Half the country’s armed police force was deployed last year to tackle domestic unrest, which peaked at 1,80,000 protests. There is apprehension that the 200 million illegal migrant workers could collude with discontented factory workers seriously endangering urban social order. The planned shift from an export and investment-led model to one driven by Chinese consumers could also cause severe disruptions. Low incomes combined with traditional thrift, growing inflation and unemployment, are contributory factors. Unavailability of jobs for fresh graduates introduces volatility. As people demand greater accountability from party and government cadres, mobile phones and the Internet have facilitated communication and coordination of protests severely testing the party’s abilities.
Restiveness among ethnic minorities is extremely high. Tibet and Tibetan areas witness sporadic violent outbursts despite stringent security. How the leadership deals with the Dalai Lama and Tibetans abroad will determine whether tensions become unmanageable. Violence in Xinjiang is home-grown and no longer perpetrated only by activists from across the borders. Uyghurs have local grievances and are unwilling to accept Han domination or marginalisation of language and culture. A new feature is the anger among ethnic Mongolians. Eruption of these angry sentiments will have dire consequences.
Finally, sovereignty issues will come to the forefront this decade. China’s bid to become the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific and ‘claim’ its ‘territorial sovereignty’ has contributed to tensions in the South China Sea. Beijing now seeks to assuage US concerns regarding neutrality and freedom of international passage-ways while separately urging Vietnam and the Philippines to negotiate bilaterally. The US, provoked also by China’s rise, has demonstrated its intention of remaining in the region and, for the first time ever, carried out a naval exercise in the South China Sea. Maritime territorial tensions with Japan have temporarily receded, but will resurface. The long-pending border issue with India, complicated by the introduction of fresh territorial claims in Jammu & Kashmir and Sikkim, has the potential to spiral out of hand. China’s domestic developmental programmes, like diversion of the Brahmaputra river, could heighten existing suspicion of China’s intentions.
How the emerging new leadership tackles these issues is crucial and will determine whether China’s modernisation gets derailed and the party crippled. The leaders appear doctrinaire, unwilling to brook relaxation of political controls, and approve Beijing’s policies towards the minority ethnic nationalities. Some have exhibited a partiality for tough measures. They are unlikely to compromise on issues of territorial or national sovereignty. Nevertheless they are well-educated and firmly believe that the primacy and sole ruling status of the CCP is essential for China’s stability and progress.
Jayadeva Ranade is a former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India