Specialists and experts often go wrong while making political forecasts. Buried in a welter of facts and statistics they tend to lose sight of the simple truth. Political events are dictated by social and economic trends. But they are equally influenced by the politicians who govern them. Politicians are people. They seldom fail to leave their human imprint on the direction of events.
Many years ago when the Cultural Revolution erupted in China, London’s The Economist initially accepted the official Chinese version to describe it as a conscious effort by Mao Zedong to ideologically purify the Chinese people. “Rot!” I told the Economist’s distinguished correspondent based in Delhi at that time, the late Emily Macfarquhar. “No politician in power will invite disorder to purify politics. This is a power struggle!” Sure enough, a couple of weeks later the Economist changed tack to assert that a power struggle was on. Emily graciously acknowledged that I had been right. Emboldened by that experience and armed only with sketchy and stray bits of information I venture to assess the impact that China’s new President Mr. Xi Jinping might exert on politics.
The first aspect to note is the role of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The PLA liberated China. After liberation it established the government in Beijing. It had therefore assumed a pre-eminent role towards the government not dissimilar to what the RSS has adopted towards the BJP. The elite Hans who led the PLA first joined the army and only subsequently the Communist Party. No PLA chief has served under the Chairman of China’s all powerful Central Military Commission (CMC) as the Vice-Chairman since Deng Xiaoping. Deng had participated in Mao’s Long March and could exercise the requisite moral authority over the PLA.
Jiang Zemin who followed Deng had never served in the army. Although an urbanite in a town bordering Shanghai he was adopted by an uncle who had served in the PLA. When Jiang became Chairman of the CMC it was not the chief of the PLA but only the deputy chief who served under him as Vice-Chairman of the CMC. Hu Jintao who followed Jiang was of rural stock. The same formula was followed by the PLA. Not the chief but the deputy chief of the PLA was appointed Vice-Chairman of the CMC. The other aspect about the CMC worth noting is that not since 1976 has an incoming President simultaneously been appointed as the Chairman of CMC. There was always a transitional period during when the predecessor continued as Chairman of CMC while the new President settled down.
The role of the PLA has been crucial. It has often taken the final decision in foreign policy overriding the government in Beijing. Even since 1978 when Deng embarked on his economic reforms the PLA role has magnified and acquired negative characteristics. Nuclear proliferation, subversion, creation of fifth columns in foreign countries, and even promotion of terrorism to further political goals has been traced to the PLA. PLA officers monopolized China’s booming export trade to become rich and corrupt. Jiang Zemin recommended that the PLA should desist from economic activity. His recommendation was ignored. The relationship between the PLA and the government in Beijing therefore is crucial for properly assessing China’s future role.
Mr. Xi Jinping has become for the first time since 1976 the President and Chairman of the CMC immediately on assuming office. Mr. Xi comes of distinguished military lineage with his father being an important General serving under Mao. Mr. Xi’s wife is a popular and accomplished opera singer entertaining the PLA. She also holds rank in the army. It will not surprise therefore if Mr. Xi can exercise moral authority over the PLA as his last two predecessors could not. It is worth noting whether the present PLA chief consents to serve as CMC Vice-Chairman under Mr. Xi. All this points to the probability that Mr. Xi might exercise greater authority and power than his predecessors did. But how would Mr. Xi use the power that has devolved on him?
For a start Mr. Xi’s father fell from grace because he was too conciliatory towards Tibet. Mr. Xi himself having been forced to work in the rough rural environment during the period of his father being out of favour is likely to encourage in him an egalitarian and humanist approach. This could be crucial in the manner he approaches unrest in Xingjian and Tibet. Insofar as China’s global role is concerned much will depend upon how Beijing resolves differences with Washington.
Undoubtedly the west has historically exploited the Third World. But the west has also made huge positive contributions. Colonialism was the first step towards globalization. It helped transfer modern institutions and technology to the Third World. In that sense there is cultural empathy with the west even among peoples of the formerly exploited nations. That argues for a conciliatory and inclusive role towards the west by the rising Asian powers while effecting the transition to redistribute political and economic power more equitably across the globe. That calls for a statesmanlike approach devoid of notions about retribution. Would Mr. XI adopt such an approach? His daughter studies in Harvard. One doubts if he would have sent her there if he had implacable hostility towards the west.
Finally, there is China’s role with its neighbours, particularly with India. Despite the considerable nonsense spouted by Beijing’s apologists pointing out errors of judgment that Jawaharlal Nehru or his successors might have made in their dealing with China, it is an incontrovertible fact that Beijing has adopted a hostile and negative approach towards India. It has armed India’s neighbouring countries to encircle it, it has helped Pakistan become a nuclear power to counter India, and it has encouraged separatist tendencies within India’s Kashmir and Northeast. How might Mr. Xi approach his policy towards India?
The world has changed and it is changing very rapidly. The Chinese are a very pragmatic people. It would be plain daft for them to continue with their bullying tactics when things in the natural course are going their way. They would know that a superpower that is loved will always be preferred to a superpower that is feared. It would make sense for the Chinese to adopt an inclusive and cooperative approach towards the rest of the world in order to exploit their nation’s growing power. I believe that Mr. Xi Jinping given his family background and his personal experience will first of all, as he has already indicated, focus on addressing the issues of corruption and inequality within China. That would help liberalize China.
The outgoing President Mr. Hu Jintao asserted that China will never adopt the western model of democracy. It does not have to. It is entirely possible for a single party democracy, even a party-less democracy, to function as effectively and justly as a multi-party democracy. I believe that Beijing’s push towards democracy with Chinese characteristics will come not from the vision displayed by its leaders but through the sheer force of technological advance. Transparency in governance will become increasingly unavoidable. This, then, is what I expect Mr. Xi will deliver. I could be wrong of course. Events may dictate otherwise. But till now there is room for optimism.