China’s military crossroads

by Brahma Chellaney

At a time when China’s economy and society are under considerable strain and the country is embroiled in increasingly tense border disputes with its neighbors, the relatively peaceful once-in-a-decade political transition in Beijing has helped deflect attention from the underlying turbulence in the Chinese system.

The fact is that China is at a turning point, and the next decade under the new leadership of Xi Jinping is likely to decisively shape the country’s trajectory.

Power transition without bloodshed and chaos is rare in Chinese history. From the first Shang Dynasty, political change in Chinese history has usually occurred through violent means, with force also being employed to retain power.

Chinese analyst Xiao Han has called this the “ax gang” (fu tou bang) tradition, with the ax being the symbol of power since ancient times. But in modern times, as Mao Zedong once famously said, “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

The People’s Republic of China — born in blood in 1949 — has pursued endless domestic witch hunts and political purges. Mao and Deng Xiaoping, between them, got rid of at least five anointed successors who were discarded abruptly or died either mysteriously or under detention.

The first leadership transition without turmoil or bloodshed was in 2002, when Jiang Zemin stepped down in favor of Hu Jintao. Xi’s ascension was preceded by a vicious power struggle that led to the ouster and disappearance of a rising star, Bo Xilai, and the swift conviction of his wife for the murder of a British national in what probably ranks as the mother of orchestrated trials.

Power in China may not flow from the barrel of a gun to the extent it did under Mao — who was responsible for the death of countless millions — yet it is significant that Xi has risen to the top with close military ties and support. What sets Xi apart from China’s other civilian leaders is his strong relationship with the military, which regards him as its own man.

Xi, as he rose through the Communist Party ranks, built close links with the military as a reservist, assuming leadership of a provincial garrison and serving as a senior aide to a defense minister. His wife, Peng Liyuan, is also tied to the military, having served as a civilian member of the army’s musicale troupe.

The real winner from the appointment of the conservatively dominated Politburo Standing Committee is the military, whose rising clout in policy has already created an increasingly assertive China.

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. With the incidence of rural protests increasing officially by more than 10 percent a year and separatist unrest growing in the sprawling Tibetan plateau, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, China is now the only important country whose annual internal security budget surpasses its national defense spending.

The rise of a new dynasty of “princelings” — those related by birth or marriage to earlier Communist Party luminaries and with widespread contacts in the military — is another indicator that nationalism and militarism will likely strengthen in China. The princelings like Xi, numbering in the hundreds, dominate the new Standing Committee and play a key role in the government and economy, in spite of their internecine power squabbles.

An examination of the new members of the 205-member Central Committee, the 25-member Politburo and the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee shows that political patronage and family connections were critical factors in their selection.

Indeed, the new leadership lineup is pretty much what the foreign media reported beforehand, suggesting that despite a secretive selection process, some party bosses had an interest in leaking out the information in advance of the official announcement.

Another striking feature is the dominance of ethnic Han men in the party’s upper levels in a country that claims to represent 56 nationalities and trumpets gender equality. Although the restive ethnic-minority homelands make up more than 60 percent of China’s landmass, there is not even one token minority representative in the Politburo.

These developments have important internal and external implications. Internally, with several reformers losing out to old conservatives in the power struggle for top positions, prospects for major reforms look bleak.

The factional infighting, recently witnessed for the slots in the party’s upper echelons, is even more intense at the provincial level, making bold policymaking difficult despite greater social instability and slower economic growth.

The messy politics is an important driver of the flight of capital and professionals from China.

Since the Deng era, China has dumped the Marxist half of Marxism-Leninism but retained the Leninist part. Dictatorship is one thing that is not open to reform. China’s corrupt, faction-ridden political culture and bloody history, in any event, are conducive not to political reform but to political revolution.

China’s internal politics has an important bearing on its external policy. Stepped-up internal repression and aggressive external moves to change the territorial status quo in China’s favor are two sides of the same coin.

The stronger the military has become at the expense of the civilian leadership (every Chinese leader since Mao has been weaker than his predecessor), the more muscular Beijing’s approach has been toward its neighbors. Recent revelations about how some senior civilian leaders have amassed vast wealth even as their privileged children remain unbound by law or consequences only help to accentuate the party’s legitimacy problem.

The leadership transition, far from cleaning up or stabilizing China’s politics, thus may actually allow the People’s Liberation Army to increasingly call the shots. We may see more military generals speak out of turn on strategic issues and undercut the foreign ministry, already the weakest branch of the government because it is often overruled or simply ignored by the military and security establishments.

China’s future is likely to be determined not by its hugely successful economy, which has turned the country into a global player in just one generation, but by its murky politics and the PLA’s growing sway.

In this light, China’s neighbors and the U.S. military would be wise to brace for a less restrained China championing ever-expanding “core interests.”

Brahma Chellaney is the author of “Asian Juggernaut” (Harper, 2010) and “Water: Asia’s New Battlefield” (Georgetown University Press, 2011), which won the 2012 Bernard Schwartz Award.