It took one young, bold man in China to sharpen the wisdom of China’s legendary moderniser-par-excellence, Deng Xiaoping. That man was Wei Jingsheng.
It is well known that Deng presided over China’s perestroika and glasnost (gaige and kai fang in China) articulating ‘Four Modernisations’ encompassing agriculture, industry, science & technology and defence. Wei added one more to the list: ‘Fifth Modernisation’ or ‘democracy’. Deng is dead and Wei lives in political exile. While China continues to tick the bucket list of ‘Four Modernisations’—the ‘Fifth Modernisation’ never quite took off. But is the ‘Fifth Modernisation’ becoming more elusive than ever? China’s political landscape does tell a story, and here, there have been several significant political rollbacks in the last few years. Though China is no democrat and has never been one, in many ways it escapes being slotted as this way or that. The political system is quite intricate, underscored by informal rules, many neither codified nor backed by independent judiciary but followed in spirit. The hallmark is more or less a ‘quasi-formal’ political institutionalisation, with a ‘selectorate’ (over an electorate), entry and exit age-limit within the Party, official positions being ‘reliable indicators of political power’ and a ‘separation of responsibilities within the Politburo and its Standing Committee’.
China’s post-1978 and post-Mao, post-communist and post-socialist, magic political mantra has been ‘collective and consensual’ political leadership. Deng, despite his diminutive physical presence (Deng stood short of five feet) chiselled the political bottom line with delegation and devolution of powers and political players as equal team mates and team builders. Deng signalled that the ‘one-man’ era, circa Mao was clearly over. Today, the ‘one-man’ era appears to be making a comeback.
China’s Communist Party (CCP) has made a grand comeback as the locus of power, atop which sits President Xi Jinping. Xi heads the apex, powerful political body, the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) stacked with ‘loyalists’ or close ‘allies’. In political hierarchy, Premier Li Keqiang is deemed No. 2, but the Premier’s traditional mandate on the economy may be on shaky ground—given that Central Leading Group (CLG) on Comprehensively Deepening Reform and the Central Leading Group of Finance and Economy are both headed by Xi, giving Xi the final say over economic matters. Though officially ranked No. 3 in the hierarchy, Li Zhanshu may be (discreetly or de facto) China’s No. 2—a man whose friendship with Xi dates back to the time when both were in their early youthful 30s and were party secretaries of two adjoining counties in Hebei in the early 1980s.
Others in the hierarchy include an unflappable ideologue backing Xi’s notion of ‘cyber-sovereignty’ and a loyalist spearheading the anti-corruption crusade. The discourse on cyber-sovereignty (which means that every country has the right to regulate internet) may be reshaped in China, as the right to censor and curb the internet ostensibly for mass welfare. The new political dispensation at top dubbed as China’s ‘Super Seven’ (seven members at the apex) may lead to greater harmony in the inner wheels. But unlike yesteryears, ‘collective leadership’ is like the car stepney that has fallen off. Today, the PBSC no longer has checks and balances by way of ‘factions’ seen earlier—but a clear-cut, complete allegiance of loyalists and allies. The other significant reversal that The Straits Times indicated (Singapore, October 28, 2017) was that the decade-long established protocol of voting system to pick top 25 candidates for the Politburo (in 2007), later extended to voting for the members of the apex PBSC (in 2012) from a list of 200 candidates, a ‘vote-based recommendation approach’ was dropped in favour of the ‘consultation mechanism’.
Another highlight is that the anti-corruption campaign is still running with no signs of being out of breath. At the beginning of the Nineteenth Party Congress in October, rising star Sun Zhengcai (Party Secretary of Chongqing municipality) was unceremoniously shown the door. The anti-corruption campaign began in 2012, with the arrest of what has been called the new ‘Gang of Four’ (Zhou Yongkang, Ling Jihua, Xu Caihou and Bo Xilai) being rounded up, also understood as a way of removing inconvenient opposition. However, it has extended its reach to net 1.4 million cadres which spares no one: ‘tigers’ (vice-ministerial rank and above) to ‘flies’ (low level officials and cadre) to ‘spiders’ (Chinese corporates) to ‘foxes’ (officials who have absconded overseas with ill-gotten money). Indian tycoons sitting in London, amongst other places, should be thankful that they are not Chinese. But, of course, there are unconfirmed rumours in China of political resistance heating up at the grassroots. The recent suicide of a top-ranking General also raises the uncomfortable question as to whether it was a case of ‘ritual suicide’ or the Chinese version of the Japanese ‘seppuku’ (harakiri). Has the persecution gone too far?
Finally, after Xi, who? In recent times, China has after several aborted political successions where designated successors clearly showed a mind of their own—came to devise a staged and ‘staggered succession’ whereby successors are identified ahead or in advance and prepared for the top job with a place at the PBSC. Two candidates are earmarked: One for the top job (General Secretary, President and Chairman of Central Military Commission) and the second as China’s No. 2, as the Premier (Head of the State Council). At this Congress, the baton was to be passed on to the ‘sixth generation’ (born in the 1960s) successors, but that did not happen. The rationale for Xi’s centralisation of powers is to be seen in the context of China’s creaky bureaucracy that lives on low salaries and high spirits. Unlike Singapore’s bureaucrats who are amongst the best paid in the job, Chinese mandarins live a precarious existence on thin budgets, guanxi and performance. Chinese bureaucracy works on the principle of vertical (from the top to down below) and horizontal (at the local level across several actors) lines of authority. In recent times, local Party committee (horizontal line of authority) had fallen back on ‘jugaad’ both good and mostly bad—we know what chief ministers, their cronies and extended family can do in India. In response, Xi as the ‘anti-bureaucratic crusader’ strengthened the vertical line of authority and trimmed local control—both bureaucracy and disciplinary inspection are under tight control. The errant dogs now have one master.
This thinking has also percolated through Chinese State Owned Enterprises (SOEs)—with what analysts call ‘bidirectional entrance and cross appointment’ where it is ultimately the Party that calls the shots. This may explain the rise and rise of the Wanda Group and Alibaba which may have aligned with what the Party seeks and the fall of others such as Wu Xiaohui, the CEO of Anbang Insurance. Finally, what is significant is what observers have long observed/attested as the ‘golden rule’ of political success in China: the Party must control the pen; the Party must control the gun.On the latter count, Xi has lent support to the modernisation of the PLA by 2050 at the Nineteenth Party Congress in October 2017. Earlier, Xi took the lead in establishing a comprehensive National Security Commission (in 2013) with a ‘comprehensive approach to National Security’. Xi has also indicated, in August 2017 on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the PLA, on creating a new military strategic command and also emphasised that the PLA ‘resolutely safeguard’ the CCP and the socialist system.
It appears that Xi has an extraordinary mandate with centralised locus of power and responsibility over ideology, economy, politics and army. While the impact of these changes on the future trajectory of domestic politics will be better judged in the future, this may also be the harbinger of unknown tidings to the fate of ‘Fifth Modernisation’.