The political storm in China

by Brahma Chellaney

As senior leaders are purged and as retired provincial officials publicly call for Politburo members to be removed, it has become clear that China is at a crossroads. China’s future no longer looks to be determined by its hugely successful economy, which has turned the country into a world power in a single generation. Instead, the country’s murky and increasingly fractured politics are now driving its fate.

One need look no further than the ongoing power struggle in the runup to this autumn’s planned leadership changes, or official figures showing that rural protests have been increasing at the same rate as China’s gross domestic product.

The sudden downfall of Bo Xilai — and the call from Yunnan Province for the removal of the two Politburo members closest to him — is just one example of the no-holds-barred infighting now taking place in Zhongnanhai, the closed leadership compound in Beijing.

Indeed, the internecine squabbles are said to be so vicious that there have been rumors, denied by the regime, that the Communist Party’s congress at which a new president and prime minister are to be anointed this autumn, might be postponed.

The party’s abrupt vilification of Bo after lauding him for his leadership in Chongqing has fueled public cynicism over his orchestrated downfall and laid bare the leadership’s thin ideological core. If China is to preserve its gains in global stature, it must avoid a political hard landing.

For the time being, at least five different scenarios are conceivable.

Re-equilibration: The party protects its legitimacy, keeps the military subordinate, and manages to put a lid on popular dissent. In other words, the status quo prevails for the foreseeable future. This is the least likely scenario, owing to deepening internal party disagreements and rising popular discontent.

Implosion: This likelihood of political disintegration, economic collapse and social disorder may be no higher than that of re-equilibration. The government’s fixation on weiwen, or stability maintenance, has resulted in China becoming the world’s only important country whose official internal-security budget is larger than its official national-defense budget.

This underscores the extent to which authorities have to carry out internal repression to perpetuate one-party rule and maintain control over the restive ethnic-minority homelands that make up more than 60 percent of China’s landmass. But it may also explain why one self-immolation in Tunisia helped to kindle the Arab Spring, whereas some three dozen self-immolations by Tibetan monks and nuns have failed to ignite a similar popular movement against the Chinese state.

The Soviet Union imploded because the party was the state, and vice versa. China, by contrast, has established strong institutional capacity, a multitiered federal structure, a tradition of civilian leadership turnover every 10 years, and a well-oiled, sophisticated security apparatus that has kept pace with technological advances. Thus, China’s government can pursue a policy of wai song nei jin — relaxed on the outside, vigilant internally.

Guided reform: A process of gradual political change begins, in keeping with outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao’s warning that without “urgent” reforms, China risks turmoil and disruption of economic growth. Can China emulate the recent example of neighboring Myanmar, which has initiated significant, if still tenuous, political reforms?

As the political heirs of the country’s Communist revolutionaries, the third-generation leaders that are taking over the reins of power in China may possess a strong pedigree, but they are also scarred and limited by it.

These so-called princelings are trapped in the same political culture that led to the death of millions of Chinese and the continuing repression of opponents (real or imagined). They do not look like political reformers in the slightest.

Great leap backward: A new “Cultural Revolution” erupts, as the clique in power ruthlessly seeks to suppress dissent within and outside the establishment. As the Dalai Lama recently warned, there are still plenty of “worshippers of the gun” in power in China. Indeed, such is China’s political system that only the strongest advance. One fallen princeling, Bo, has been accused of cruelty and corruption — traits that are endemic in China’s cloistered but fragmented oligarchy, which values family lineage and relies on networks of allies.

Praetorian takeover: The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) rules from behind a civilian mask, increasingly calling the shots with government officials. While the civilian leadership has become diffuse (every Chinese leader since Mao Zedong has been weaker than his predecessor), the military has enjoyed greater autonomy and soaring budgets since 1990. The party, having ceased to be a rigid monolith obedient to a single leader, has become dependent on the military for its political legitimacy and to ensure domestic order.

The PLA’s growing political clout has been manifest in the sharpening power struggle within the party. In recent weeks, an unusual number of senior military officers have published articles in official newspapers calling for party discipline and unity, and alluding to the military’s role in containing the infighting.

Another development is the increasing tendency of military generals to speak out of turn on strategic issues and undercut diplomatic strategy. The simple truth is that the Foreign Ministry is the Chinese government’s weakest branch, often overruled or simply ignored by the security establishment, which is ever ready to upstage even the party.

China’s internal politics has a bearing on its external policy. The weaker the civilian leadership has become, the more China has been inclined to discard Deng Xiaoping’s dictum tao guang yang hui (conceal ambitions and hide claws). China has lately taken pride more in baring its claws than in retracting them.

Under any plausible scenario, a restrained and stable Chinese foreign policy may become more difficult.

Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of “Asian Juggernaut and Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”