China – Unveiling The Unknown

China – Unveiling The Unknown

by Venu Gopal Narayanan - Thursday, June 25, 2020 03:36 PM IST
China – Unveiling The UnknownThe real China that India has to deal with. 
  • A close study of China’s political structure would reveal speculations of factions against Xi Jinping as immature.

    The Chinese have learnt to control and accommodate the natural process of rising heterogeneity in a rapidly-evolving society.

The strangest aspect of Sino-Indian relations is just how little our mainstream media covers the structure and functioning of the Chinese government.

The bloody clash at the Galwan Valley in Ladakh has brought this glaring omission to the fore. Twenty of our soldiers are dead in a border conflict, tensions are heightened, fighter squadrons have been moved forward to bases in Leh and Thoise, and yet, the effect is given greater prominence than the cause.

As a result, a curious public is left ill-informed, and too many questions are left unasked:

Who are we dealing with?How does the Chinese leadership think?What are the people like?What does China want?

It’s a long list for most Indians (like this writer), who’ve never been to China, don’t expect to visit that country any time soon, haven’t met many mainland Chinese, and have precious few, common, cultural reference points to draw upon.

To put it in perspective, most of us haven’t been to Australia either, but we know the WACA (Western Australian Cricket Association) pitch at Perth better than local Aussies, and that’s good enough for us to gauge that land. But China, and its leadership, remains a huge unknown.

One problem is the absence of reliable information, since the Chinese are past masters at drawing a veil over their country.

Nevertheless, we know this much: Xi Jinping is the undisputed head of a pure military dictatorship, and controls China through two principal bodies – the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) of the Communist Party of China, and the Central Military Commission (CMC).

Both government bodies are headed by Xi, have seven members each, and represent the generational compromises between so-called power factions in China.

An elaborate, Communist Party constitution (soaked enough in discretionary powers and Orwellian leeway to make a mockery of itself) provides the necessary legalities to ensure that whoever needs to be picked for a post, will be, without hindrance.

But it didn’t start out that way.

Until Deng Xiaoping ruthlessly junked Maoist and Marxist ideals lock, stock and barrel in the 1980s, to unleash China’s market-economy animal spirits, the bulk of the political leadership was drawn from a military background.

That was but natural, since Deng’s generation had known little else but war during their formative years – the Chinese Civil War of 1927-49, the Japanese occupation (of Manchuria first in 1931, and then a longer Sino-Japanese war from 1937-45), and the Korean War of 1950-53.

Yet by the 1990s, that generation was into its Red winter, and making way for the next – one which had few memories of old wars, but countless bitter ones of Mao Zedong’s many, many costly socio-economic mistakes.

In the process, the percentage of seniors with military backgrounds declined steadily. Their places were admixed by new profiles, reflecting the dramatic, demographic transformations China had undergone in the preceding half century. A predominantly-military elite made way for a civilian one.

Fledgling entrepreneurism from a booming Shanghai now jostled for leadership space, with career communist party functionaries who made policy, a military which never relaxed a vice-like grip upon the centre, and well-heeled dynasts who picked up the revolutionary baton to live the privileged lie of influential legatees.

In the absence of precise information, and distracted by far more dramatic events like the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, and America’s fresh, unipolar penchant for new wars with newly-concocted enemies, the next generation of China-watchers chose to label these rising, incipient lineages as factions.

It was a lazy-but-convenient classification, whose misleading inaccuracies remained irrelevant only because China had yet to become the lumbering Goliath it is today.

But China being China, the concept of power centres, or factions, takes on a rarer meaning there: traditionally, academicians, historians, and China-watchers have divided the powers that be into two cliques – the ‘populists’ (representing the rank and file of the Communist Party cadre), and the ‘princelings’ (descendants of revolutionary aristocracy whose forebearers made their mark during a quarter century of conflict).

Some analysts treat the national dynamics as commoners versus the Red Elite. Others, splitting hairs, recognise four groups: the Shanghai gang, the military, the princelings, and the Communist Youth League of China (the CYLC – a natural starting point for ambitious youngsters).

However, the problem with such analysis is that there is very little ‘versus’ in China, since most political succession plans are decided years in advance.

Indeed, the truth is that while these categories may appear visibly distinct, they are, in reality, invisibly indistinct, because they also overlap.

For example, Xi is simultaneously a princeling, and part of the Shanghai gang.

His father, Xi Zhongxun, was an officer in the revolutionary army, who gave Mao Zedong refuge at the end of the legendary ‘Long March’, and was in charge of the fabled ‘Yanan Soviet’ – the communist headquarters in the rugged mountains north of Xian.

That same, privileged, Xi Jinping was sent to Shanghai in early 2007 by paramount leader Hu Jintao, at a crucial juncture in the commercial capital’s history.

His job was to clean up the place, rein in those barons who had grown fat on the milk of Deng-ist kindness, and instill some much needed order. Xi was so successful that he was promoted to the Politburo before the end of 2007, superseding Li Keqiang (once a contender for the top slot, and now Xi’s deputy), as Hu Jintao’s future successor.

In that sense, then, whatever labels and classifications one may wish to create, at the end of the day, the power dynamics in China represent a fairly mature accommodation of traditional elites from various backgrounds – be it the party cadre, the moneybags of Shanghai, the armed forces, or the children of communist China’s founders.

That is because the past three decades of spectacular prosperity and progress have caused a blurring of lines, making it difficult to define or pigeonhole any one ‘faction’ in precise, unitary terms.

These intuitive inferences are backed up by a rather unique study, which mapped the rise of over 4,000 Chinese leaders between 1921 and 2016.

It shows that the relative strengths of the four traditional recruitment bases – the career Communist Party apparatchik, the parvenu industrialist, the military officer, and the old boys’ network – have by and large coalesced into a meritocracy of sorts, in which lineages function as periodic force multipliers rather than as standalone determinants of career growth.

One group feeds off the other fairly symbiotically, since everyone gets a slice of the pie.

More interestingly, the products of such a political system don’t possess any concrete ideological moorings of either the Marxist or Maoist variety. The sole motivators then, are the same ones through all of history – money and power; and in today’s China, one is almost the other.

This fluidity engenders its own differentiation, then, between differing dynasts of a lesser breed, with that hierarchy being determined by the leader of the day.

This is political compromise Chinese-style; and why not, when there are no ideological constraints, and when most interests are naturally aligned?

The outlier is the military, which has perforce become a purer meritocracy of sorts; we say perforce, because modernisation, current concepts of military professionalism, and absorption of advanced technologies, have placed a necessary emphasis on ability over party, or moneyed, links. This is not unique to China, but rather, a global, evolutionary process.

Indeed, as the Americans discovered to their chagrin during their endless ‘Global War on Terror’, the Colonel Blimp era is long over (a pejorative reference to senior officers who plan for the last war, using even older, outdated military notions). These radically changed needs of modern military strategy, and the changing nature of warfare itself, in a digital, no-contact world, means that a youngster needs to be smart, rather than networked, to get in, do well, and rise up the ranks.

And in China, that melding of military meritocracy with the other ‘factions’ is reflected in the membership of the Politburo: Xu Qiliang, also vice chairman of the CMC, is both the son of a peasant, and a former chief of the air force. In contrast, Zhang Youxia, the other vice chairman of the CMC, is both a veteran of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war, and the son of Zhang Zongxun, a communist general in the Chinese Civil War.

All of that notwithstanding, the further consolidation of power by Xi, under his mantle, means that the concept of factionalism, as a potentially divisive factor, has little value as long as state policy doesn’t conflict with the military.

Also, a gathering of the clans had already begun even before the Wuhan virus pandemic, since everyone was equally affected by the slowing of the Chinese economy.

The implications for India are thus manifold: the Chinese have learnt to control and accommodate the natural process of rising heterogeneity in a rapidly-evolving society, by tactful, artful compromise under the heavy hand of a captive state.

The old elite have co-opted the new elite, and made space for merit.

They know exactly what they want – global influence and regional dominance to ensure that the China growth story doesn’t falter.

That means nil compromise on continued patronage to Pakistan or North Korea, and zero tolerance for strategic imbalances in Tibet or the South China Sea.

This is what the Indian government has to deal with, and this is what the Indian public should appreciate, as the two largest countries in the world gradually discard a host of legacy issues, to fashion a truly Asian century.

Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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