The Dragon Game

The succession war in China escalates as the Communist Party congress beginning October 18 gets ready to choose the successor to both the Paramount Leader and Prime Minister. What this means for China

Published: 07th October 2017 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 07th October 2017 04:34 PM   |  A+A-

A pro-democracy protest in China

The moon-shaped beach of Beidaihe, a coastal resort town on China’s Bohai Sea, is known for its shallow waters, ideal for rookie swimmers. In July, veteran navigators of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) deep and treacherous political tides had gathered there to discuss the contours of the organisation’s future leadership. In patriarchal China, retired party luminaries such as Jiang Zemin still influence political outcomes both inside and outside government. The CPC’s 19th congress, scheduled to begin on October 18, will elect the successor to the omniscient ‘Paramount Leader of China’, the 64-year-old Xi Jinping—General Secretary of the Communist Party, President of the People’s Republic of China and Chairman of the Central Military Commission. His second term ends in 2022. Successors are elected at the end of the incumbent’s first term. Delegates will also be choosing replacements for Prime Minister Li Keqiang. 

However, the powerful Xi shows no signs of wanting to go. Will he change roles as party and government boss to China’s ventriloquist by selecting a successor of his choosing in the manner of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had stepped down in 2008 to install Dmitri Medvedev in his place, only to return to the Kremlin as President in 2012? The bull in the China shop is the question whether Xi will try to change the party constitution, which restricts the presidential terms to two, though the length of the General Secretary’s sinecure is not specified. The Doklam confrontation between India and China was a sign that Xi needed deflection to consolidate power ahead of the party session. His second term in 2017 as President is a given.

As matters stand, it is not going to be easy for Xi.
Ethnic riots in Xinjiang Province along northwest China, civil unrest in Tibet Autonomous Region, a hostile bureaucracy deprived of the fruits of corruption and the weakening core of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are Xi’s major challenges. China’s housing and construction sectors have decelerated in 2017, affecting industry, which controls most of China’s corporate debt and construction sectors. More corporate defaults and bankruptcies are feared to occur in 2018. China will be then forced to increase spending to meet the pressures of the US’ protectionist policies.

One of Mao Zedong’s best-known maxims is ‘power comes from the barrel of the gun’. Xi’s dependence on the military as a pivotal force in China’s power structure illustrates his presidency’s reliance on the PLA’s support. In July, Xi—wearing the uniform of the Commander-in-Chief—had presided over a massive military parade to celebrate the PLA’s 90th anniversary. The Army and the Party feed off each other in China; though the former is no longer the fearsome dragon of the past few decades. It is inexperienced in modern warfare. It fought its last war in 1979 and was defeated while trying to teach Vietnam a ‘lesson’. The Korean War in the 50s and the India-China War and border encounters with the USSR in the 60s is the only other action it has seen. Says Major General (retd.) G D Bakshi, “China cannot afford a full-fledged conventional war with India. Over the last two decades, India has emerged as a nuclear state.”

China is at least a quarter century behind Western powers in naval prowess. If American right wing philosopher Thomas Friedman is to be trusted, it will never catch up. The Chinese Air Force is dependent on Russian technology. Its dense population, especially on its eastern seaboard where the rich and middle-class live, makes it vulnerable to nuclear attack. India’s Agni V intercontinental ballistic missile, with its 6,000 km range, can hit targets in Pakistan and China. Agni IV can strike nearly all of China, including Beijing and Shanghai, from northeastern India.

Agni II can deliver a nuclear or conventional warhead over 2,000 km to hit western, central, and southern China. “China uses Doklam to wean away India’s influence in Bhutan. The internal political dynamics of China are playing a major role in the border issue since the incumbent government wants to prove its mettle to get back into power again. But military confrontation is highly unlikely since China has been embarrassed in the world arena for escalating a local issue,” says Lt Gen Mohinder Puri, former deputy chief of the Indian Army.

Xi’s China is in the throes of a gigantic economic crisis. Over one billion Chinese out of 1.4 billion live in households whose income is below $2,000 a year (600 million below $1,000 a year). An ageing population, urban-rural economic disparity and poor rural health infrastructure are hindrances to growth, though China’s growth rate has been moving up steadily over 30 years. Economists believe China will have to shift its focus away from exports to domestic consumption. To achieve this, the Chinese middle-class has to grow more. But wage growth for high-skilled workers is down from a high of 20.3 per cent in 2007 to 8.6 per cent in 2014.

According to a recent survey, over 50 per cent of Chinese high net worth individuals, who have investible assets of $1.5 million or more, are either planning to or are considering emigrating to the West. China today has more billionaires then the US. Uneven wealth distribution is another challenge—as the economy grew rapidly in the 80s, enriching the new middle-class, so did disparity. Post the Tiananmen Square protests on 1989, employment was tailored towards youth in cities and towns, leaving peasants out leading to urban migration. A report showed that in spite of the average wealth of each Chinese citizen being $17,126 —almost double of Indians—median wealth was just $6,327. “Taking on India will send China’s growth path on reverse mode. It shares borders with 14 countries and has disputes with most of them,” says Lt Gen Puri,

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang

The economic ramifications above are visible in China’s rural areas where the government has to put down riots periodically. Migrant unrest is rising in the cities. The Islamic and cultural insurgency in the Xinjiang autonomous region in China’s far west, led by the indigenous and largely Muslim Uyghur population, is escalating, and has been demanding independence since the 80s. The authorities have been carrying out repopulation initiatives by giving ethnic majority Han Chinese jobs and homes in Xinjiang. The Uyghurs are hitting back, targeting them as riots, bombings and stabbing sprees continue to break out periodically. The world is watching China’s intolerance for dissent.

In Hong Kong, protests hit the street in August when three activists of the Umbrella Movement—the pro-democracy agitation that sprung up spontaneously in 2014—were jailed. Moreover, the ocean burial of Nobel laureate and pro-democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo by China’s secret police to prevent his burial site from being a pilgrimage destination for pro-democracy activists has ignited seaside protests across the world. However, these may not be an urgent concern for Xi, who is looking beyond 2022 to make history his own.

In the coming fight, Xi will be applying history’s lessons to triumph. The Politburo had anointed him “the core” of the party’s leadership last October and Paramount Leader. Now, he is facing the CPC’s Shanghai faction, led by Jiang Zemin, and the Hu Jintao-led Beijing lobby. Fortunately for Xi, they are engaged in an internecine war themselves to be ahead in the political game. Both are aware that Xi is prepared for a fight. And he has the advantage, being both the General Secretary of CPC and the President. He has the power to reduce the number of members in the elite Politburo Standing Committee from seven to five, thus reducing opposition.

Five retire next year, which will enable Xi to appoint his own men to the vacancies. The majority faction decides the outcome of China’s next president. The number of seats has oscillated from three to 11 from 1927, when the Standing Committee was formed. In 2002, Xi’s predecessor Jiang packed the Committee with his nominees to retain control of the party, after expanding its strength to nine. Xi had cut the number back to seven, ousting Jiang’s men. Significantly, both changes occurred during the appointment of a new General Secretary.

The Paramount Leader, whose role model is Chairman Mao, has been ruthlessly consolidating his grip over the party and the country. Rivals and bureaucrats have been purged, and dissidence and criticism have no place in Xi’s schematics. When Xi assumed the catbird seat, the internet was transforming information dissemination. During February and March 2016, Ren Zhiqiang, once the most followed person on Weibo (the Chinese avatar of Twitter, with 38 million-plus followers), questioned Xi’s demands of unconditional loyalty from the media. Xi promptly ordered Ren’s account shut down, which created a furious cyber storm. Subsequently, journalist Zhou Fang, who worked for the CPC-controlled news agency Xinhua, called for a probe against the government for violating the citizens’ constitutional rights using internet censorship.

Xi also faced opposition from respected media conglomerate Wujie News and online giant Alibaba. Chinese secret police arrested 11 citizens for asking for Xi’s resignation—their fate is unknown. Xi champions “internet sovereignty”, which advocates the government’s unquestionable right to impose censorship on domestic internet space. Upon becoming the CPC General Secretary in 2012, he created a ruling cabal with himself as the centre. He embarked on the elimination of future opponents. He took down mighty lobbies like the energy industry and regional cliques, made the powerful Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission toothless and broke up the Communist Youth League, which influences the political careers of top leaders. He also created a network of loyal technocrats from the defence sector involved in China’s space programme, appointing them in provincial posts, which are pivotal in Politburo elections. He also extended his grip over China’s military and security organisations. He set up policy-making commissions to control economic and foreign policy.

If Xi is successful in neutering his enemies during the October congress, his writ will run supreme in China and the CPC. The signs became clear in July when he appointed loyalist Chen Min’er the Party Secretary of Chongqing, which guarantees a seat in the 25-member Politburo. Now, Xi has three of the country’s six most powerful regional posts in Beijing, Chongqing and Tianjin in his pocket. The multitude of protégés he has posted in many provincial positions will ascend to national status in five years. This rainbow consolidation today makes Xi the most powerful leader in China since Mao Zedong. Beidaihe has changed much since Mao built a house there. Mao believed that only a ruthless and omnipotent leader could bring global supremacy to China. Hence, the ghost of the Great Helmsman would only be too happy to endorse the claim of his most ardent worshipper as China’s most powerful dictator in the 21st century.

Xi Jinping
As General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, President of the People’s Republic of China and Chairman of the Central Military Commission, Xi Jinping wields absolute power and has appointed his men in all key positions ahead of the party congress

Xi needs the support of the bureaucracy if he has to carry on as an effective president. However, after his anti-corruption campaign punished over a million officials, including ‘flies’ (minor officials), 
‘tigers’ (big guns) and senior generals in the PLA, officialdom has 
turned against him. Officials are lowly paid though their perks are high.

By getting a second term, he will be able to manipulate the number of Standing Committee members to decide in his favour in 2022 in case he is able to manoeuvre a third term by altering the Constitution

He has to firefight on various fronts such as civil and sectarian unrest, an army that has not modernised enough to meet global standards, unemployment, powerful dissenters and negative market forces

The Chinese Roller Coaster

March 1912
Sun Yat-sen resigns and Yuan Shih-kai becomes the ruler. Yuan attempts to reinstate an imperial system with himself as emperor causing Sun to start one of China’s first political parties, Kuomintang or KMT. Sun fights hard to establish a democracy but is largely unsuccessful until the 20s. 

May 4, 1919 Students demonstrate against the Treaty of Versailles, which ignores China’s plea to end concessions and foreign control of the country. The May Fourth Movement was the foundation for the Communist Party of China (CPC).

China is divided in a power struggle between the CPC and KMT. The KMT controls a majority of China with a strong base in urban areas while the CPC displays small holdings in rural communities.

The CPC is expelled and China is nationalised under the KMT. However, the CPC resurfaces on November 1, 1931, when it proclaims the Jiangxi Province as the Chinese Soviet Republic.

CPC begins to wage war against the KMT, taking control of Manchuria and working its way south

Oct 1, 1949
With the retreat of the KMT to Taiwan, Mao Zedong establishes the People’s Republic of China

Founders of the People’s Republic of China, including Mao, die. Power struggle begins between Deng Xiaoping and Mao’s supporters, headed by Jiang Qing.

Deng seizes power, develops state constitutions and brings new policies to the party

Deng retires and Zhao Ziyang becomes General Secretary, and Li Peng becomes premier

China comes into the world’s eyes again with the Tiananmen Square incident. Jiang Zemin emerges as one of the nation’s most influential Communist leaders. In June, when the Communist party was purged of its moderate leaders, he was appointed General Secretary.

Deng reappears in public and tours southern China to restore faith in his reforms and stop the country’s slide back into Maoism 

Deng dies. But  during  the period prior to his death when his health deteriorates, General Secretary Jiang Zemin and other  members of his generation gradually assume control

March 1998
Jiang is re-elected President during the 9th National People’s Congress. Premier Li Peng is constitutionally required to step down. He is elected to the chairmanship of the National People’s Congress.

March 1998
Jiang is re-elected President during the 9th National People’s Congress. Premier Li Peng is constitutionally required to step down. He is elected to the chairmanship of the National People’s Congress.

Protests Refuse to Disappear

Xi Jinping’s battle for the future is unfolding against the backdrop of the civil unrest following the unprecedented crackdown on pro-democracy activists who are routinely made to “disappear” by the Chinese secret police. “Thanks to its brutal control over the media, China has managed to mute news reports about hundreds of protests in provinces. But some underground activists have provided details on what we now know as a major uprising against the Xi Jinping regime ahead of 19th National Congress of the Communist Party,” sources said. A section of China watchers predict a break-up of China with Xinjiang, Manchuria, Hong Kong, Tibet, Chengdu, Zhangzhung and Shanghai turning into free nations after a new revolution. Teng Biao, China’s eminent human rights activist and lawyer, says the revolt is bound to succeed since it has spread to all sections of society. “We don’t know whether it will take five years or 10 years. We are not waiting but preparing for another revolution like 1989.

Despite the crackdown on social media and blogs, activists and lawyers are using other means to spread information and assist the revolution,” Teng adds. Manchuria is a tipping point where simmering labour unrest since 2008 is turning into a full-blown rebellion. Sources say in 2010-11, the government faced over 1.5 lakh pro-democracy protests, whose number is on the rise. There are on average four protests a day despite the brutal suppression. In July, 103 protests were reported from Sichuan Province, mostly by democracy supporters. “The Communist Party of China has mounted mass arrests in recent years, causing the disappearance and silencing of many activists,” says Hang Tung Chow, an activist and lawyer in Hong Kong.

A section of China watchers predict seven of its regions turning into free nations after a new revolution


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