SINGAPORE — A China that is willing to take ideological and political risks is emerging not only in affairs involving Hong Kong and Taiwan but also in the increasingly troubled relations with Tokyo and Washington.
The source of this risk-taking in the fourth-generation Chinese leadership was President Hu Jintao’s consolidation of power over the Communist Party, government and military last fall when he took over chairmanship of the Central Military Commission from former President Jiang Zemin following a surprising internal power shift in Hu’s favor. This risk-taking China has manifested itself in at least four ways:
Hu’s leadership shows that it is willing to take risks ideologically. The Communist Party of China (CPC), touted today as “open-minded, progressive, responsible, democratic and competent,” has embarked on a major image-building effort vis-a-vis the Chinese public. Jiang had laid the first cornerstones of such a “socialist revival” with his “Three Represents,” which today are formally enshrined in the party’s constitution. Consequently, entrepreneurs were officially admitted into the CPC at the 16th Party Congress in autumn 2002.
In autumn 2004, the CPC hosted a Beijing meeting of Asia-Pacific political parties, some of which had disputed with the CPC. Moreover, a rumor has been circulating in Vietnam that, just before the 16th Congress, a Chinese delegation was dispatched to Hanoi and Vientiane to sound out its “brother” communist parties on eventually dropping “Communist” from the party’s official title. If true, such a radical move at the 17th Congress in 2007 or beyond could revolutionize Asian socialism, but it remains to be seen whether Hu can take this ideological risk.
Politically, Hu wants to be known as the “people’s President” following the “autocratic Jiang.” At the recent National People’s Congress (NPC) in March, television covered most of the proceedings in an obvious attempt to open up the world of Chinese politics further. The CPC then announced that “political patriarchs” would conduct public hearings and media briefings. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao did so after the NPC, showing that he was perfectly at ease taking questions at a press conference.
Having come to power during the SARS epidemic in spring 2003, the new team is more attuned to the benefits of public relations, sound public governance and transparency. The recent visit of Chinese leaders to AIDS patients is significant inasmuch as the leadership had systematically denied the extent of AIDS in China. Wen’s appeal to build a “harmonious society” was almost an admission that stability is not fully assured at this stage in Chinese society.
On Hong Kong, Beijing risked interfering in the democratic process when it advised the government of the Special Administrative Region to withdraw unpopular legislation in the midst of mounting protests. In a separate political twist, China probably would not have “counseled” the departure of Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa in March unless Hu had felt assured that his predecessor (who installed Tung in 1997) could not thwart the move. Meanwhile, Beijing went on a charm offensive to win the hearts and minds of Hong Kongers with political overtures to the opposition democrats and economic proposals.
Taiwan and cross-straits relations present another facet of risk-taking for Beijing that is apparently paying off. After Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian failed to clinch a decisive majority in parliamentary elections in December, Beijing adopted a milder tone and presented economic carrots to the Taiwanese public, including more chartered flights, an offer to immediately open up the “three links,” and a unilateral offer to open the vast Chinese market to Taiwan’s agricultural and fishery products.
Moreover, China softened wording in the antisecession law and successfully wooed opposition leaders Lien Chan and James Soong to visit the mainland, wisely sidelining the independence lobby.
Last, Beijing’s relations with Tokyo and Washington also must be seen in the context of increased risk-taking. Hu’s intent to improve relations with Japan was demonstrated when Beijing sent its top Japanese-speaking diplomat (Wang Yi) to Tokyo as ambassador in the wake of the disastrous Asian Cup fiasco in Jinan and Beijing last summer, when anti-Japanese sentiments flared. Hu apparently has sought to reverse Jiang’s previously hostile attitude toward Tokyo, but has been stymied by anti-Japanese demonstrations, including a public campaign to oppose Japan’s bid to get a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. China’s leadership naturally wants to avoid being accused in public of succumbing to Tokyo.
Beijing’s leaders have come out more defiantly against Washington, especially since the second-term re-election of President George W. Bush, even as they preach the need for multifaceted cooperation with Washington. This “double diplomacy” is Beijing’s biggest gamble in dealing with the world’s superpower before its own stars shine.
China has made diplomatic inroads into the Middle East, Africa and even Latin America, once considered America’s backyard under the Monroe Doctrine.
Beijing is expected to take more risks as it selectively opposes and competes with Washington in key strategic areas. Chinese scholars openly vaunt Beijing’s increasing control of Washington’s financing through its purchase of U.S. Treasury bonds; similarly, Beijing resists American advice to re-peg or revalue its renminbi or indiscriminately open up the sensitive textile sector.
Japan should expect bold political moves to come, as China continues to emerge as a regional and world power.
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