China has a great deal to juggle at the moment as it tries to steer its open-yet-belligerent, free-market-yet-autocratic, closed-with-permeable-borders course in this, the New Millennium.
Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao proved themselves adept as jugglers. Though the reactionaries within the party prevented them pushing through reforms as they would have liked, they – as the leaders – managed to survive their period in office with their personal reputations, their personal popularity, relatively intact. Most people seemed to trust them. It was the officials beneath them who were blamed for the uglier initiatives, and probably with good reason.
Unfortunately, this gaining of power on the part of the reactionaries controlling everything from beneath seems, with the Presidency of Xi, to have put power very publicly into the hands of the reactionaries who, previously, remained faceless mandarins. Power consolidated, the juggler now has to contend not only with all those balls already in play, but burning torches he’s decided to throw up in the air along with them.
No one could be that adept.
More particularly, Xi most assuredly isn’t.
Or, perhaps, no one could be that foolish?
Let us consider surface appearances. Ignoring the lack of wisdom that sees him add flames to the juggling at all, consider Xi’s tenure so far. He came in a palimpsest. No one knew what to make of him. Some even thought him likely to be a reformer, or at least a compromise candidate agreed upon by the reformist and reactionary factions within the CCP. In their heralding of his premiership, many were willing to give him the benefit of any doubt, expressing their hopes that Xi would institute rational reforms. Most, perhaps, would have expected no real change either way. Few could have expected that Xi would prove proactive as a reactionary, but that appears to be what he is as the months roll on into his leadership and he unveils new initiatives which seem extraordinarily counterproductive.
Consider just two examples as indicative, one on the international stage, one internal; the South China Sea issue, and the internet.
To understand the issue with the South China Sea, it is necessary to consider the claim China makes upon it. As the map shows, it is extensive. Under previous administrations, the claim has been carefully played as an absolute in terms of public consumption, but negotiable behind the scenes. Presumably, by making a claim so ridiculously extensive, the hope was to maximise territorial concessions in terms of mineral resources thought to lie below the sea floor when negotiations were concluded.
If that was the intention, it was poorly handled. Through making the claim too public, in particular by tying it in very much with the nationalistic anti-Japanese rhetoric the Chinese have maintained since their invasion in the 1930s in order to rally the citizenry behind the government and making the Japanese claim the focus of attention, successive leaderships have been unable to enter into satisfactory negotiations with other claimants given that any concession, particularly towards the Japanese, would be seen as a national betrayal to the hated enemy.
Nonetheless, under Hu, there were occasional more public rumblings as to the claim not being absolute and, quietly, discussions were entered into with the Japanese in particular in considering how mineral rights in disputed territory may have been exploited and shared.
Xi Jinping has reversed all that. The new administration seems to have lost the plot altogether on this one and has, once again, returned to talking up the claim as absolute, making it a matter of public concern and doing all those other things through which successive administrations have had their hands tied in order, it seems, to serve no other purpose than to make those bonds still tighter.
To make matters still worse, the Chinese decided to set up a ‘no-fly’ zone in a disputed area with the Japanese. All traffic through the airspace was to inform Beijing of its flight plans or face the possibility of military action. This act was so extreme that first the Americans, then the Japanese, then others in turn made a very public point of defying the restrictions and China, unwilling to bring about a major confrontation with enforcement, shuffled from foot to foot then backed off.
However, they continue to be aggressive in their military manoeuvres in the South China Sea and, moreover, have instituted two new ‘national’ days to be marked as an act of patriotism; according to the Xinhua news agency, China’s effective government propaganda machine, “September 3 is ratified as Victory Day of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and December 13 the National Memorial Day for Nanjing Massacre Victims.” While no one wants to lessen in any way the suffering of the Chinese people at the hands of the Japanese, the Pacific War ended in 1945; the Nanjing Massacre took place in 1937. It is now 2014.
There can be no better illustration of how China loses control of its own people, even its own administrators by such tactics than the stronger stance out of Beijing leading one official in Hainan Island to try and enforce China’s claim on the South China Sea by attempting to stop Vietnamese fishing boats plying their trade in ‘Chinese’ waters. In this delicate game of cat-and-mouse, one suspects Beijing was less than pleased with this, and yet they can do nothing with it except ignore it, hope it goes away and pull the official to one side for a dressing-down. They can’t deny him publicly without undermining their own claim. Thus the cat is out of the bag, and we can probably expect confrontations between rival fishing boats and fleets out of each nation and Beijing will have no choice but to give such actions on the part of Chinese fishermen their tacit support.
The results have been painful in terms of egg-on-the-face with the no-fly zone, the question of fishing disputes now arising, and they are now set to get worse. The Americans have now been very public – given the degree to which the CCP has forced the Chinese claim onto the national stage – in insisting that the claim be clarified for once and for all. The Philippines, a major target of recent campaigns and rhetoric, is now to take the dispute to the UN and it seems likely that other countries will join in. The Vietnamese have already been warned off doing so. This is all, most assuredly, not what China would have wanted, and yet – as with the two new national days – they seem intent on making things ever worse for themselves.
So much for the mess made of international diplomacy. What of unrest at home?
Once again, at a time when the administration might have been expected to be more conciliatory as a pragmatic ploy, they have instead tightened things up with an increased arrest rate of individuals seen to be politically opposed and warnings sent out to those on the internet to be careful what they say. Users of Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, are unable to post anonymously, and those who make too loud a noise on issues that affect officials now face the possibility of arrest. This would seem counterproductive for an administration that claims to want to crack down on corruption. This seems, quite blatantly, to be a good way to cover it up. Most of the embarrassing tweets so far that have forced the government into action have indeed been in the exposure, directly or peripherally, of corrupt or other bad practice.
And yet, when we turn to the internet, it is here things become a little strange. Restrictions under Hu Jintao were severe, though not as severe as now. However, the leadership – again – was able to distance itself from it. Whether they supported it or not was at least open to question and again, much of the blame fell on faceless Mandarins lower down the chain with their own power bases in areas such as the propaganda department. Indeed, in one surreal incident, Hu Jintao used Twitter to start posting. One of the first people he fell into conversation with was the dissident artist Ai Weiwei who welcomed him. The obvious question was, of course, posed; if Hu was there, why not other Chinese citizens? Hu’s response was that it was his sincere hope that the net would indeed, in time, be so opened up to the citizenry. This seems strange from a man opposed to such an idea; he would have been better off sitting back, keeping quiet and staying out of it.
What is the difference now, under Xi, that is so strange?
Quite simply, Xi Jinping has just, very publicly, taken charge of the Chinese internet personally, which means any restrictions enacted point back, very directly, to the leadership. He has also pulled in Premier Li Keqiang as one of his two deputies, the other being Liu Yunshan, in charge of propaganda.
For young people in particular, there can be few issues more highly charged than the internet. Two of the few instances of the CCP backing down in the face of public opposition were when they tried to block all Google services, (an initiative which lasted barely a day given the outcry), and in an attempt to have all computers sold in China fitted with ‘nanny’ software that would monitor users’ site accesses, (an idea which was increasingly watered down until it was entirely abandoned).
On the surface, then, this looks like the most abominably foolish thing Xi could possibly have done in terms of taking direct credit as the national leader for a highly charged issue. All these flaming torches Xi is throwing up in the air that he must juggle on the national and international stage, dropping any one of which would precipitate disaster, as if he didn’t have enough to keep up in the air as it was. Indeed, it is so foolish, it raises a question.
Can he really be that foolish, or is this something else entirely?
I am one of those commentators who, in reading the runes, saw in Hu a reformer who was thwarted from below. In particular, the net seemed to play a large part in undermining his leadership as reactionaries put their lackeys in play to ramp up dissent, particularly – one suspects – a rising tide of anti-Japanese protests that were fulminated through the internet, protests that gave the leadership considerable concern, protests that seemed to coincide with a loosening-up of state media and the net and which miraculously ceased when those reforms were withdrawn and, indeed, when restrictions became harsher still, thus playing into the hands of the reactionaries in charge of, of all things, controlling information on the net.
So here’s the question. Is Xi paving the way for reforms? Is he indeed a reformer who doesn’t want to suffer the same fate as Hu in implementing such reforms? Has all the nonsense so far been to allow the reactionaries, in effect, to undermine themselves by permitting them to implement a series of successive and troublesome failures before wresting control from them? Is he, then, a reformer who has taken charge of the internet in order to be able to institute a purge?
It may seem to be a dramatic – even a melodramatic – suggestion, but let’s face it; the alternative, that this is for real, that the leader of China really could be so foolish as to put his own name to ugly and contentious legislation that must inevitably focus opposition upon the leadership itself, is equally wild, equally melodramatic.
Thus we have two theories, both highly unlikely, and no third theory by way of a candidate.
Time will tell.