After a year or so, Mr. Xi Jinping is scheduled to become the President of China. Will Beijing become more liberal and reasonable? The signs are hopeful. Hope arises from two factors. The state of China is one. The personality and background of Mr. Xi is the second. Consider both factors in that order.
Chinese economy is in transition. From a virtual slave-labour, export-driven economic model Beijing is being compelled to change with shrinkage of the export market. The rise of the Internet has made its middle class better informed, assertive and questioning. It has also made its labour force more demanding. All these argue for expanding the domestic class of consumers to create a requisite domestic market that can offset loss of exports earnings. That compels better wages for workers. This is what Beijing is undertaking.
Nevertheless the transition is not entirely smooth. The habits of exploitative party officialdom die hard. The central government has to discipline its party cadre at the same time as it has to deal with public protests. The US Atlantic monthly has reported that according to research by the Chinese Academy of Governance the number of protests in China doubled within four years after 2006. Over 180,000 occurred, described as "mass incidents." The uprisings are mostly against official corruption, officials grabbing land, Tibetan demands for autonomy, and air pollution. The Atlantic wrote: “Late last year, the residents of Wukan - angered by a land grab by corrupt officials - rose up and briefly seized control of their village. After several days, the government gave in, admitting to mistakes and vowing to crack down on corruption. Villagers were also allowed to hold their first-ever secret ballot elections, apparently free from Communist Party interference.” Compounding these problems are the movements for autonomy in Tibet and Xingjian.
Will Mr. Xi as President overcome all these challenges?
Going by his background and experience Mr. Xi might prove to be the best bet. Mr. Xi is one of the favoured “princelings’ – the children of the Chinese political elite that participated in the Long March and later ran the government, the Party and the Army. His father was a revolutionary General. The toughest nut to crack in order to liberalize China will be of course the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The PLA liberated China. It helped establish the government. That makes the PLA not the creature of the government but its creator. Army generals treated themselves superior to ministers and there have been numerous instances when the PLA acted on its own apparently without clearance by the government. That has been noticed and noted by the west. The PLA owned its own business enterprises to achieve independent funding. Many generals became billionaires in their own right. The Pakistan army learnt its lessons from the PLA.
Mr. Xi’s experience renders him best equipped to address these challenges. Along with his father he was a victim of the Cultural Revolution. From the cloistered life of a princeling he was driven to the uncommonly hard life of the peasants in the countryside. Mr. Xi therefore has seen first hand both sides of the street. He should empathize with the demands of low paid workers and peasants forcibly deprived of their land. He has an added advantage to deal with the PLA. Not only is the PLA leadership being transformed by likeminded princelings who seek to professionalize and modernize the Chinese army; Mr. Xi is literally married to the PLA! His wife is a Major General and also a popular opera singer. Mr. Xi's daughter is preesently a student in Harvard. It remains to be seen if China under Mr. Xi will abjure its present hegemonic approach.
The sign of meaningful change in China will come of course from how Beijing addresses the Tibetan question. Up till now China has been ruled by Mr. Hu Jintao who under Deng Xiaoping authored the hard repressive approach in Tibet. A reversal of policy would have been seen as loss of face for Mr. Hu. That perhaps might explain Beijing’s inexplicably rigid approach to Tibet even though Dalai Lama has unambiguously accepted that Tibet is part of China. Mr. Xi will have the opportunity to start on a clean slate in both Tibet and Xingjian. It remains to be seen how he uses his opportunity.
New Delhi must formulate its contingency strategy on the possibility that Beijing’s stance might change within the next two years. Given the abysmal kowtowing displayed by North Block up till now, there is little hope of any sensible strategy being adopted by the government. China desperately needs the Indian export market. Conceivably it could soften its approach towards New Delhi. That is why New Delhi must remain resolutely clear about its core interests to be protected. More than the Sino-Indian boundary dispute is the basic question whether Beijing is prepared to recognize India’s legitimate sphere of influence. Beijing must reconcile itself to a consolidated South Asia. If it does, Beijing will have to stop arming and encouraging India’s neighbours to oppose New Delhi.
Recently London’s The Economist approvingly quoted an Indian official saying that there was no merit in the “string of pearls” theory about China encircling India. That is the kind of stupid, ill informed nonsense that New Delhi must ignore regardless of however reputed might be its source. Chinese nuclear know-how and missiles for Pakistan were not aimed against Washington or Moscow.
The litmus test for meaningful change in Beijing will come of course from how it addresses the Tibetan question, and from its future attitude towards Arunachal Pradesh. With public opinion in China growing stronger, thanks to the Internet, there is hope that some democratic values, if not democracy, might take root. Recently an article by a retired PLA official advised Beijing to learn not only from the west but also from India, despite its poverty. The author lauded India for standing firm on Arunachal! His article online drew a huge response of 250,000 comments, mostly approving. That provides hope.