At A Crossroads: Why China Has To Reinvent Itself To Remain A Great Power

N V Subramanian

Oct 28, 2016, 06:32 PM | Updated 06:31 PM IST

Chinese President Xi Jinping (Greg Bowker - Pool/Getty Images)
Chinese President Xi Jinping (Greg Bowker - Pool/Getty Images)
  • Jinping’s backers are preparing the way for extending the Chinese president’s term beyond the ten-year, two-term limit.
  • They are planning to do this by projecting Jinping as an anti-corruption crusader with a reference to how corruption brought down the Soviet state.
  • But it’s not as simple as that. Jinping is currently leading a China that needs to rethink, re-imagine and reinvent itself if it has to remain a great power.
  • The wire services have transmitted a curious story from the Global Times which should make professional Sinologists sit up.

    The Communist Party of China (CPC) is in the midst of critical discussions about governance and preparing the way for Chinese President Xi Jinping to rule beyond 2022 when his ten-year, two-term limit is reached. Any extension of the term would block future successions and bring trouble to Jinping from those left behind. Jinping is neither Mao Tse Tung nor Deng Xiaoping to be able to crush mass dissent without substantial backlash.

    That the backers of Jinping sense trouble for him appears very much the case from their rather outlandish comment published in the Global Times. They are reported to have said that corruption brought down the Soviet state and system and that Jinping’s anti-corruption crusade in the CPC will restore the party to health. There is admission contained in the statement that the party is no longer healthy.

    Be that as it may, the reason for Soviet destruction spread by Jinping backers is not just self-serving but plain untrue in the timeline of events as they unfolded. The USSR went down because it could no longer keep up the arms race with the West and, at the same time, strike the balance between defence spending on one hand, and social and economic investments on the other. Not being a democracy, its nationhood was not truly expressed throughout its far-flung territories, a large proportion of which were occupied. The Soviet Union, in other words, self-destructed for classical reasons. Previous to it, other great powers have careened down the same path of destruction.

    Mega corruption in Russia is strictly a post-Soviet development and contributed little to its downfall. Once Boris Yeltsin ascended to power, the structured breakup of the Soviet Union designed by Mikhail Gorbachev was abandoned in a fit of madness, and the state went into free fall. State assets were grabbed by Soviet party officials who were in the best position to do so and combined a talent for grubby deals. The West happily partook in the loot until the rise of Vladimir Putin put an end to it. But probably Russia is even more corrupt today than in the short, inglorious reign of Boris Yeltsin.

    Where the Russian example is still more self-serving for Jinping and his backers is that it does not comport with China’s traditional narrative for the Soviet collapse. Xiaoping and his chosen leaders at the time of the Soviet collapse blamed Gorbachev for privileging Perestroika (political reforms) over Glasnost (policy reforms). Faced with the Tiananmen Square rising, China offered the prospect of vast economic prosperity to its restive population as a trade-off against political reforms. The Chinese leadership was determined not to repeat the Soviet blunder.

    The fact that party corruption today is a major plank for Jinping reveals the rotten underbelly of China’s growth story since the Tiananmen Square unrest. Corruption is a direct function of China’s opaqueness, controls and absent market economy. China is, whether or not it acknowledges it, in the Boris Yeltsin phase of Soviet collapse. And, according to this writer, this situation inevitably obtains from China’s ruling ideology of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.” If Xiaoping was not concerned about the colour of the cat as long as it caught the mice, who can complain if the cat has also become corrupt? It goes with the slogan and the times.

    Jinping cannot clean up the CPC as long as wealth creation remains predominantly in the hands of the state. Before long, his anti-corruption crusade (if it is not a public relations stunt) will consume the party and eat into the vitals of the state. On the other hand, mounting corruption will increase wealth disparities and remind post-Tiananmen generations of broken promises of the state. The decline of the Chinese economy will further increase the restiveness of the population.

    Jinping has three options before him. He can continue with the present tinkering. It will not fetch him more than two terms and even those would be fraught. Option two is progressive market reforms. Jinping has tried this for two years and it has not worked. The third option is to admit that things are not working and move to effect limited political reforms in the manner attempted in post-Soviet Russia. Jinping could consult his best buddy Putin.

    What will not work for Jinping, his backers and China is to deliberately falsify history. Xiaoping had to deploy a considerable portion of his political capital to save China from the Tiananmen Square rising. Jinping would be hubristic to put himself at Xiaoping’s level. China has to rethink, re-imagine and reinvent itself. If it does not, the forces of history will shape it as they wish. Modern history has been full of cruelty to decadent great powers.

    This piece was first published on News Insight and has been republished here with permission.

    N.V.Subramanian is the Editor of and writes on politics and strategic affairs.

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