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  Opinion   Columnists  22 Oct 2022  Manish Tewari | Dragon desperate in wake of Xi’s congress

Manish Tewari | Dragon desperate in wake of Xi’s congress

Manish Tewari is a lawyer and a former Union minister. The views expressed are personal. Twitter handle @manishtewari
Published : Oct 23, 2022, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Oct 23, 2022, 12:00 am IST

From being the sick man of Asia at the turn of the 20th century to its current wolf warrior status, China has indeed travelled a long way

Chinese President Xi Jinping (AFP)
 Chinese President Xi Jinping (AFP)

Ever wondered why a once-in-five-year opaque jamboree called the National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) generates so much of media attention around the world. The 20th such event since the CPC was founded on July 23, 1921, concluded in Beijing on Saturday.

Why, like Kremlinology, has Zhongnanhaiology also become a fine art with copious amounts of TV time, reams of newsprint and aeons of digital characters being expanded trying to figure out the predilections of rather inscrutable Chinese gentlemen?

For the simple reason that what China has achieved in terms of the horizontalisation of its economic prosperity in the past four decades has been nothing short of a miracle. From being labelled as the sick man of Asia at the turn of the twentieth century to its current wolf warrior status, China has indeed travelled a long way.

If the maxim that money makes the mare go around has a ring of truth to it then China fits the description aptly. For economic success has enabled not only the modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) but has also facilitated China to regurgitate its questionable historic claims in the territorial and maritime domains.

The genius of the CPC lies in the effortless ease with which it became the logical inheritor of the many dynasties that ruled China beginning with the Xia dynasty in (2070-1600 BCE) to the Qing dynasty (1644-1912 CE).

For this uninterrupted run of dynasties over two millenniums encompassing the Xia Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han, Wei, Shu, Wu, Jin, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and finally culminating in the Qing dynasty gave China two central characteristics, a strong sense of centralism that power should be vested in a strong central government as well as a sense of self in terms of a conviction that China is the Middle kingdom and all states on its periphery are tributary states. Moreover, the truism that China was ordained with the divine right to rule over “All under Heaven” made its omniscience even more entrenched. Two contradistinctive impulses, Confucianism and Legalism, dating back to 207-233 BCE are still shaping Chinese political thought and statecraft though they are veneered over by Marxist Maoism.

It was this strong sense of centralism that allowed the CPC, modelled on the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), and more so, Mao Zedong, to concentrate all power in his own hands and put it to rather disastrous use with devastating consequences for the Chinese people after defeating the Kuomintang (KMT) of Chiang Kai-shek in 1949.

It was this same deference to central authority that allowed Deng Xiaoping to undertake transformative changes and it is the same obsequiousness that has again allowed Xi Jingping to dismantle the four-decade-old system of checks and balances created and nurtured by Deng Xiaoping and his successors. 

These checks included limiting the tenure of party apparatchiks at the apex level to two five-year terms to ensure that power is not abused and excesses perpetrated by the notorious “Gang of Four” during the cultural revolution are never repeated.   

However, Xi Jinping has succeeded in demolishing all those elaborate mechanisms aforementioned and in securing an unprecedented third term. In ruthlessness reminiscent of Mao Zedong, he has purged all his rivals in what is euphemistically termed as “party rectification” drives.

Mr Xi's opening speech at the week-long quinquennial congress focused incisively on the need to “cleanse” the party to achieve China’s centenary goal of becoming a great modern socialist nation. Mr Xi is not looking for accommodation with his peers, either within the party or even globally. His is a quest for total obedience to a “personality cult” that has been carefully created and nurtured in the past decade.

The congress is just the visible rostrum of Chinese politics — a grand and choreographed extravaganza. Backstage is where the deal making happens. Dehors a contingency, everything that plays out at the party Congress is already pre-gamed. Long-owed IOUs are collected; intimidation, inducement, influence, allurement and maneuvering underwrite the endgame. Confabulations among movers and shakers of the CPC in the coastal town of Beidaihe in August mark the grand finale of this process of internecine and exhaustive machinations.

 Xi Jinping was appointed as general secretary of the party at the 18th congress in 2012 then became chairperson of the Central Military Commission and President in 2013. He has since made numerous changes including enshrining "Xi Jinping thought" in the Chinese Constitution. Ten years down the line, he faces seminal challenges; the economy has slowed down to a four-decade low threatening to undermine the CPC’s fundamental compact with the Chinese people, i.e., a better standard of living in exchange for surrender to party hegemony. His Covid-19 strategy, exacting in its conception and utterly severe in its implementation, has further augmented pressure on the economy, already facing unprecedented global headwinds.

In his address to the 20th congress, Mr Xi acknowledged that China faces “dangerous storms” by way of an embattled economy due to Covid, high energy prices, and external pressures such as the Ukraine war.  What is significant though is that Mr Xi's speech, and the final work report, had a strong emphasis on “security” and “stability”. First, Mr Xi reiterated his rhetoric on Taiwan stating that China would not shy away from using force to incorporate Taiwan into the Republic. Second, in a warning to the West, he berated “interference by external forces” in Taiwan, insisting that Taiwan is a Chinese matter to be resolved by the Chinese. Contrast this with earlier sessions of the CPC — in 2012 and 2017 — where economy, innovation and reform were the principal swansongs.

Apart from rehashing a range of old bromides, Mr Xi's speech had little on the much-touted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), perhaps signalling a dampening of interest in that enterprise. Instead, the Global Security Initiative (GSI) and the Global Development Initiative (GDI) put forward by Mr Xi in April 2022 and September 2021, respectively, were the showstoppers.

For India, this 20th congress and Mr Xi’s third term means a more security-obsessed China. This is evidenced by the showcasing of PLA commander, Qi Fabao, involved in the Galwan Valley clashes in 2020 at the Congress. As the Chinese economy slows further, Mr Xi could use tensions with India and its suspect “historical claims” in the maritime domain to stoke the genie of nationalism. An apparition that is once out of the bottle is difficult to re-cork again. India and China’s other neighbours could be in for a rough ride.

Tags: communist party of china, people’s liberation army, beijing, xi jinping, national congress