Xi’s China enthrals us as a flying economic phoenix, all fairy golden feathers—but all that glitters is not gold.
A couple of years ago came this Chinese film American Dreams in China. At the risk of overgeneralising, this film was akin to the Bollywood film 3 Idiots—young, feel-good and insightful. In the Chinese film, three friends with big American dreams are stuck in the stasis of China—dreaming America but struggling with the grim realities of China, desperately seeking a window of escape. The film was a runaway hit in China—it struck a chord with a sizeable chunk of the audience. In the manner of Indians who have lived the times of Krishi Darshan and Chitrahaar, good old Ambassador cars and frayed ration cards, many Chinese lived through the times of ration coupons, Pigeon brand bicycles and the struggle to master English and go to America. But why dream America when you can dream China? Or so says Xi.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has made America come to China via ‘Chinese Dream’, a fundamental plank of China’s future goal of achieving ‘xiaokang shehui’—or make China an upper middle-income country by World Bank standards by 2021 (centenary celebrations of the Communist Party of China, CPC, 1921-2021) and a modern socialist country by 2049 (centenary of the Chinese Republic). The goal of ‘xiaokang’ is now enshrined in the 13th Five Year Plan (2016-20).
The ‘Chinese Dream’ merits attention because it is organic and indigenous: we have not heard of the ‘Japanese Dream’ (even when Japan was in its prime), nor have we heard of the ‘East Asian Tiger Dream’ (when they roared). There has been no ‘Indian Dream’ either, but piecemeal dream tickets have been plenty, in the manner of ‘roti, kapda aur makaan’ and ‘India Shining’.
Xi’s steps towards achieving a well-off society have been on the mark. Besides the 13th FYP, there has been a shift from export-led growth towards ‘supply-side’ economics—geared through China’s domestic New Urbanisation Plan (2014) and the global footprint of belts and ladders across the global map via One Belt One Road (2013), partly a clever ploy for China’s oversupply. Pushing China from below to up the value chain, from imitator and copycat to innovator ‘Make in China 2025’, has received attention and there is a vision to make China an innovation power by 2050.
All this is not empty talk or illusory. China’s economic growth in the first quarter of 2017 has been 6.9%—the highest in East Asia. Growth is expected to be 6.5% this year—in sync with Xi’s ‘new normal’, lower but higher quality growth. China’s Head of the National Statistics Bureau has said, “The full year number could turn out to be even better.” It appears that much more than Abenomics (after Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, 2012) and Likonomics (Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, 2010), it is Xinomics that is alive and kicking.
But herein lies the paradox of ‘Chinese Dream’—because the ‘American Dream’ is much more than just economic well-being, an idea that is as complex as the ‘idea of India’, but there is no mistaking that democracy (transparency, accountability, rule of law, among others) is the fundamental plank.
On this count, Xi’s ‘Chinese Dream’ may be falling short. In the last five years, China-watchers have been dismayed by increasing centralisation of powers in Xi in the manner of circa Chairman Mao—so much so that the Time magazine wondered if Xi could be called Chairman Xi, and that was no compliment.
The post-reform (post-1978) period has seen what astute American Sinologist Richard Baum called ‘Burying Mao’. In fact, Deng Xiaoping famously told (journalist) Oriana Fallaci that Mao’s contributions were 70% correct and 30% in error. The errors included Mao’s personality cult (remember the Little Red Book?), ‘red’ songs that extolled Mao (such as The East is Red) and an unprecedented centralisation of powers in Mao—who stood above all else. Party Congresses came to an abrupt halt.
Deng ‘buried’ Mao by putting an end to the personality cult, letting the operas and songs praising Mao rest in the boondocks and began restoring established structures and procedures, such as the convocation of Party Congresses, with the Third Plenum of the Congress announcing the future economic direction of the Party (and state). In fact, Indian Sinologist GP Deshpande (better known as GPD) and historian Wang Gungwu spoke about China’s rupture from the Mao years under Deng—and that came a fine compliment. Some of these norms and conventions, a ‘quasi-formalisation’ of sorts, had been followed by his successors—until Xi.
Sinologists have indicated recent trends that appear a throwback to Mao’s times; for example, the centralisation of powers. Zheng Yongnian (East Asian Institute, Singapore) likened Xi to a ‘class monitor’; Willy Lam (Jamestown Foundation) alluded to the creation of several Central Leading Groups such as the Central National Security Commission (CNSC) and the Central Leading Group on Comprehensively Deepening Reforms (CLGCDR) on top of existing bodies—all groups headed by Xi, thereby giving Xi unprecedented ‘jurisdiction over the army, the police, and all foreign policy and national security agencies in the Party and government’ enabling control over the ‘pen and the gun’.
In 2016, Xi was anointed the ‘core’ of the Communist Party.
The Mao years saw front-handed eulogies to Mao. Now, it appears that there is a ‘Xi Fan Club’ in China. Bo Zhiyue (New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre) noted that ‘Grandfather Xi is Our Big Friend’ (written by a certain Han Shengxun) is being sung by primary school children (in Yangjialing, Yan’an).
Famously, David Shambaugh (George Washington University) wondered if the ‘endgame’ of communism was coming with intensified political repression being one telling sign.
Political cadres have been at the receiving end (of the 85 million Communist Party members; 55 million are cadres) of extralegal detention with cadres being detained and interrogated at a ‘designated location at a designated time’ without being given a chance to defend themselves. The Human Rights Watch (2016) noted that the system facilitated ‘serious human rights abuses’.
The China Story (Yearbook 2014) published by the Australian Centre on China in the World noted a change in the manner punishment to non-cadres was being meted out.
In 2013, CCTVs began airing confessions made by ‘people accused but not convicted’ wearing orange prison clothes—‘Orange was the new black’, as Joanna Yoon wrote. China File (chinafile.com) covered the trend of ‘televised confessions’ with Jeremy Goldkorn (founder of a blog, Danwei.org) noting that this form of ‘ritual humiliation for the victims … was a powerful way for the party state to communicate which behaviours it finds unacceptable’.
Anti-corruption has been a major plank of Xi’s agenda. But netted in the anti-corruption ring have been foes, not friends; rivals, not relatives. Critics wondered if Xi was serious about the campaign to net ‘tigers’ (corruption at higher levels), then how could Bloomberg’s allegations (2012) concerning Xi’s sister Qi Qiaoqiao, brother-in-law Deng Jiagui and niece Zhang Yannan be ignored?
With the Nineteenth Party Congress round the corner, these voices are making China-watchers uneasy. What if Xi finds ways and means to remain beyond his two terms (beyond 2022)? Would Xi be the benign patriarch ‘behind the scenes’ as Deng once was (who retired in 1987, but loomed large until his death in 1997)?
Xi’s China enthrals us all as a flying economic phoenix, all fairy golden feathers—but all that glitters is not gold. What makes us uneasy is that such a road to success puts the inalienable value of democratic ideals on the back-burner. For the three friends in ‘American Dreams in China’, this normative question would make the road to ‘Chinese Dream’ such a long journey.