With the United States adopting a neo-isolationist posture under President Barack Obama, could China fill part of the gap left by America’s declining influence in sensitive regions such as the Middle East?
The question has been debated here and elsewhere since the start of Obama’s first term in 2009. This week it was posed with greater urgency as China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) convened in Beijing.
The NPC is a peculiar beast.
Stripped to its core it is a plenum of the Communist Party and the backbone of a one-party state. By rubber-stamping decisions taken by the Politburo, it provides the pseudo-legalistic fig-leaf needed to legitimize the regime. However, it also functions as something of a parliament because, over the years, it has obtained the right not only to vet legislation proposed by the government but also to table new laws. At the same time, the NPC operates as interface between government and civil society with non-governmental organizations admitted as observers and allowed to lobby on a range of issues. The NPC is also a kind of jamboree in which a who-is-who of Chinese political, economic, military, and cultural elites come together to network and to perpetuate the illusion that they have a say in governing the People’s Republic.
The latest session is remarkable for a number of reasons.
It marks the transfer of power to a new generation in their 40s and 50s (the new party boss and President of the People’s Republic, Xi Jinping is 59). The session also included the largest number of members from non-Communist backgrounds, notably individuals representing ethnic and religious minorities. In fact a record one-third of delegates were not party members. More importantly, perhaps, the session broke with the tradition of focusing on high-sounding but irrelevant ideological pirouettes. Much of the talk was about economic growth, job creation, educational opportunities and, yes, curbing corruption—in other words, bread and butter politics of the kind that could make Mao Zedong turn in his grave.
The new leaders, to wield power for 10 years, are not distinguished solely by their relative youth. Labeled “Red Princes”, they are children of the Communist Party’s founding fathers. Though lacking in “revolutionary” experience, the new leaders are better educated, sometimes with degrees from expensive American universities. They are also wealthier than their elders ( Xi Jinping’s family fortune, managed by his sister, is estimated at around USD 300 million). Thus, they have a personal stake in preserving the neo-capitalist system created by Deng Xiaoping.
Because of personal experiences, many of the new leaders feel aversion to things ideological. Xi Jinping, for example, lived in a cave for two years after being banished from Beijing during Mao’s “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxuan, one of the founders of the Communist Party, spent years in prison, taunted by the Red Guard for having received a gold watch from the Dalai Lama during the latter’s visit to Beijing in 1954.
Well, now that everyone acknowledges China as a great economic power, could one also expect it to play a global political role?
For a number of reasons it is hard to answer that question with an emphatic yes.
To start with the political setup in China today remains fundamentally unstable. Traditionally, the Chinese are strongly attached to their state and have a deep rooted horror of chaos and/or foreign domination. There is little chance of the People’s Republic simply collapsing in the way that the Soviet Union did. However, China’s economic and cultural content is fast developing beyond the limits imposed by its Communist political frame. Sooner or later the frame will have to break to allow the content to grow. China will need to move out of the straitjacket imposed by the one-party system. The question is: how?
Another fault-line is the emerging duality of power.
China today boasts a new middle-class and a large stratum of wealthy individuals and families. However, the new economically empowered strata lack the corresponding political power their status warrants.
A third fault-line is formed by rising social tension. Last year, China witnessed thousands of strikes and local riots prompted by economic and social grievances. Thus it needs new ways to channel the negative energies created by three decades of chaotic economic growth.
Corruption represents yet another fault-line. Although corruption is often the inevitable companion of economic growth, it could, as is the case in parts of China, become a means of dispossessing large numbers of people through seizure of land, violation of environmental restraints and the crushing of small businesses.
China’s failure to pose the problem of minorities, especially the Uighurs, the Tibetans, the Mongols and the Manchus, represents another fault-line.
China appears unable to develop a credible and realistic foreign policy discourse. Its relations with none of its 14 neighbors, across 22,117 kilometers of land borders, could be described as warm. In fact, Pakistan may be China’s only genuinely friendly neighbor. Beijing has territorial disputes with Russia, India, Vietnam and Burma. Further afield it clashes with the Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan over many islands and atolls, not to mention its claim of ownership of Taiwan.
None of those issues were properly raised during the NPC. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao devoted 90 percent of his inaugural speech to enumerating past achievements. In politics, however, past achievements are often taken for granted while present problems and future dangers are highlighted.
No, China is not yet ready, even if willing, to play a global leadership role. The best one could expect from its new leadership is to steer their ship safely through the choppy waters ahead.