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Emperor Xi’s China is done biding its time

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By Tobin Harshaw
Bloomberg View

MAO ZEDONG once insisted that “the people, and the people alone, are the motive force in the making of world history.” Then again, he’s also the guy who said that poverty is good, a world war is nothing to fuss about, and that reading books can be a bad thing. In other words, take him with a large grain of MSG.

One person who seems to be doing exactly that is Xi Xinping, the president — and now, likely president for life — of Mao’s China. This week, his puppet Communist Party Central Committee looked poised to abolish the 10-year term limit on his job, which is a strong hint that Xi thinks the individual can be a pretty effective motive force on history all by his lonesome. And if you want to disagree, he has a remorseless “anticorruption” task force to persuade you otherwise.

So, what does the enthronement of Emperor Xi mean for China, the US, and the Asia Pacific region? For enlightenment, I decided to talk to somebody who’s not only an expert on all things China, but also has sat across the table from Xi as an equal: former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Rudd, now the president of the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York, is a lifelong China scholar, proficient in Mandarin since his student days in Australia and Taiwan. And those days haven’t ended — last year he began studying for a doctoral degree on contemporary China at Jesus College, Oxford. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion:

Tobin Harshaw: So, it’s obviously not typical for a former world leader to go back to school. Can you tell me why you decided to get an Oxford degree, and why you thought studying Xi’s China in that way was something you needed to do?

Kevin Rudd: Well, I’ve been a student of China now for 40 years, since I first started studying Chinese language and history and politics at the Australian National University at the end of the Cultural Revolution. But with the rise of Xi Jinping, there is something about China’s current rise which makes it fundamentally important to understand his particular world view.

What do I mean by that? It’s that China is an authoritarian political system. We know that. Xi Jinping brings an extraordinary level of personal political power to what is already an authoritarian system. And as I’ve been predicting for some time, he’s going to be a leader for a very long time into the future. And that’s now been confirmed by recent constitutional changes. Therefore, understanding his own particular view of the role of the party, the role of the country within the region, and what China seeks to do in the world at large, I think now demands quite concrete and detailed studies. So, that’s why I’ve gone back to school and why I’m doing the primary research on Xi Jinping’s world view.

TH: And, in a nutshell, can you tell us what exactly that view is? And maybe how it differs from the view of Deng Xiaoping and the intermediary presidents they’ve had since the 1980s?

KR: Well, if I could answer your question in a nutshell I wouldn’t be spending three years doing the research, then writing it up and maybe turning it into a book. But let me try to give you a haiku, to mix our East Asian metaphors, about how we best get a take on Xi Jinping’s world view probably in three points. For 35 years or more now, there’s been a trend in China. These politics initiated by Deng are meant to normalize the functions of the Chinese state, as opposed to the party always dominating the state. Xi Jinping has turned that trend around, and we now see an assertion or re-assertion of the party’s absolute power. That’s the first point.

I think the second trend that clearly emerges is that Xi Jinping’s view is that the party and only the party, and only under his leadership, can hold China together as it undergoes this greater transition into becoming a global great power. And, in the course of the next decade, become the largest economy in the world. Therefore, he sees his leadership in the party as being central to that.

And then third, I think it’s this: We see, also, the reassertion of the importance of ideology within the country. There is less space for domestic political dissent over which way China is going domestically or internationally. There’s now more of a predisposition to have a central party line. These are big changes from the past. And finally, to sum up the question on China’s view of itself in the world, we’ve been told for a long, long time that Deng Xiaoping’s action was this: “Hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead.” Xi Jinping in his last five years turned that on its head, and now we see consciously and deliberately a more overtly activist Chinese foreign policy and security policy and international economic policy in the world at large. All these things are new.

TH: So, you said earlier in the week, and then you repeated now, that you weren’t surprised by this power move on term limits. Is that last point why you saw it coming?

KR: Well, the ability of Xi Jinping to consolidate personal and political power has been there for all of us to see since the events of 2012-13, when he emerged as general secretary of the party and president of the country. This involved considerable internal struggle at the time around forces connected with Bo Xilai, then party secretary in Chongqing and perhaps the only other previous senior Chinese Communist Party political family to offer one of its own as the next and future leader. So, he’s been in the power-consolidation business from the get go.

As for his current constitutional changes: the abolition of term limits and, most critically, the entrenchment of what’s called Xi Jinping Thought into the Chinese Constitution, and more broadly, the new institutional arrangements which consolidate party and political power at the center. These are reflective very much of what he set out to do five years ago.

TH: Can you very briefly describe what Xi Jinping Thought is?

KR: Xi Jinping Thought is less a body of ideological concepts than an assertion that he has parallel political status to Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. That’s his core political point.

If we were to delve deeply into the publications for which Xi is responsible and ask how does that differ from Marxism, Leninism, Mao and Deng thought; or how does it differ from Jiang Zemin’s theory of what is arcanely called The Three Represents (how you bring entrepreneurs into the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party) or Hu Jintao’s Theory of Scientific Development (which was about how you incorporate sustainability into the framework of China’s economic development), there will not be anything that’s fundamentally incompatible. It is a statement primarily of his personal political authority early in his political career.

TH: We are under the impression that Xi’s very popular in China right now. There are, I’m sure, many Chinese old enough to remember the chaos that ensued at the end of Mao’s reign, and we’re often told that younger Chinese want some sort of new freedoms or additional liberties. Do you think there’ll be any shift in public opinion against him for this term-limit move? Or do you think he has entrenched himself as the nation’s father sufficiently?

KR: Well, China’s political system, which is an authoritarian structure and unapologetically so, does not permit organized dissent. And also, the strength and power and authority of its security apparatus are organized in a way that dissent is simply not possible at any scale. I think Xi Jinping will be very conscious, however, that by abolishing a term limit on the presidency, which was inserted into the Chinese Constitution in 1982 after the Cultural Revolution, that that will attract a lot of comment, criticism, and attention from across the ranks of the party itself. But it’s unlikely that these will become manifest in any political challenge at this stage toward his continuing political authority.

TH: But by that you mean there’s going to be more ruffled feathers inside the party elites than with the public at large?

KR: The party at large will have a view that this is Xi Jinping — he’s the leader. And there’s a Chinese four-character phrase which says, “Bow your head and listen to the organs.” As for the public, and the public will have a range of different views, but in the large part, they are concerned about their standard of living, their ability to get a job, whether air pollution is under control, or that they have a good and positive life compared with what they had before.

But, in intellectual circles and in certain private-sector entrepreneurial circles, questions will be raised about whether this has a significance broader than term limits itself. In other words, does it signal a bigger turn to the left in Chinese politics in respect to the economy? That I think will be the question alive in Chinese domestic politics as discussed below the surface in this period.

TH: And by “the left” in this context, you mean greater government control?

KR: Well, “left” in the Chinese vernacular means greater party control over the organs of the state and greater party control over the ability to have dissenting views within the framework of the Chinese Communist Party on the country’s future. “The left” within the economy means a repudiation or, shall I say, backsliding on the market basic and the micro reforms that were introduced by Deng in the period since 1978. Or, more recently, a backsliding of what was announced as China’s market-based reforms, phase two, in the party’s reform document of 2013.

TH: So Bloomberg View has as a columnist James Stavridis, the former four-star admiral who was the supreme allied commander of NATO forces, and he wrote a long column on the pluses and minuses of this latest decision, for China and the US. One thing he predicted was that if we have an “Emperor Xi,” that this will give China some short-term, asymmetric advantages vis-a-vis the US. For example, it’s an assuredness of consistency of policy, as opposed to democracies which change leaders and change policies and kind of whipsaw back and forth. Also, in China, the same people who are planning the ambitious strategic plans today can carry them out over the decades ahead. Do you agree with that? And what does it mean for the rest of the Pacific Rim?

KR: I think when we look at the relative advantage and/or disadvantage that China’s political system and Xi’s current role within it has, I think it’s a question of short- and long-term considerations. In the shorter term, the argument is correct that China has absolute political control at the center; that it has a clear policy direction about where it wishes to head on the economy; and in its relations with neighboring states — all 14 of them — its wider approach to the Asia Pacific region and China’s increasing role in the institutions of global governance. That’s true. However, in the longer term there is always an inherent question about the trade-off in the stability of the political system.

In the West, for all of our faults, we have a system of not just checks and balances but bi-regular elections, an automatic process of political stabilizers that is a self-correcting system within a peaceful framework. For China, what has bedeviled it in most of its post-1949 history, has been the instabilities that arise from leadership transition. We saw some of this in 2012-13 and the subsequent purges. We’ve certainly seen it in the events of the late 1980s with the purge of first of Hu Yaobang and then Zhao Ziyang. And then of course we saw in the purges of the Maoists in the period after 1976 and again in 1978.

TH: Jim Stavridis calls democracy a “safety valve” in times of stress. Inevitably, things are going to go wrong in China. The economy can’t keep chugging along at seven percent to 10% growth forever. How do you feel, over the long run, a virtual dictatorship is vulnerable to downturns like that?

KR: John Maynard Keynes famous reminded us all that, “In the long run, we’re all dead.” So, it hangs on a definition of what the long run is. I think the Chinese political system, at present, is a strong authoritarian system with no obvious signs of large-scale internal dissent within the leadership elites. And, secondly, from the public at large, no particular interest to returning in the mass protests we saw in the events of 1989. We see that over the next five years. We see that possibly beyond that as well.

But here’s the caveat: With China’s continuing economic reforms it creates its own what the Chinese would describe as “contradictions.” Within its own system that gives rise to a middle class, it gives rise to people who have a range of experiences and economic autonomies, which they never had before. And then people who begin to think much more independently. And that number continues to grow. But what point does it reach a critical mass whereby the pre-existing political system is challenged? That’s impossible to tell. But they’re the two sets of dynamics at work.

TH: Let’s jump quickly to China’s neighbors, of which you were one for quite a long time. How do you think the region as a whole, and Australia specifically, should react to the prospect of a new Chinese dictator?

KR: For regional states around China and across the Asia Pacific region including Australia, this is not the sound of one hand clapping. That is, the analysis will always be on “what is China doing?” And secondly, what is the US doing, and its closest allies? And therefore, all countries in the region have their eyes fixed in both directions at once. I think it’s fair to say that when the region looks at US policy today there is a general scratching of the head as to whether this administration or the US for the long term will remain comprehensively engaged in security and economic terms across East Asia.

You have a president who is avowedly protectionist. He has turned his back on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which brought together 12 open liberal economies across East Asia led by Japan. And he has raised question marks about the long-term validity of security relationships with some of America’s traditional allies in the region as well. If I was to give it a phrase, it’s a feeling of strategic uncertainty. And the problem with that is if you feel uncertain about whether America’s going to be there in force in the future, then people tend to make other adjustments towards other emerging powers in the region.

That leads to the other half of the equation, the second hand clapping. And that is China. And what we’ve already seen across Southeast Asia, I think, is a range of countries already beginning to make a number of accommodations towards the Chinese leadership.

TH: As in the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte.

KR: Exactly. And we see it in certain other countries as well. But underpinning this dynamic is one core unassailable fact: that China has become the indispensable economic power across East Asia. It is the No. 1 trading partner, I think, now of every country across East Asia, and the US is lucky to make it into the top 5 or 10. And where the economy goes, ultimately, so goes political influence and so goes foreign policy influence and so goes security policy influence as well. What I sense is a slow and steady strategic drift across the wider East Asian region and slowly in Beijing’s direction.

TH: Last month I interviewed the Australian foreign-policy mandarin Hugh White, whose recent article proposing that the US has already lost the battle for the Pacific has caused quite a kerfuffle everywhere. Do you have an equally dire prognosis right now? Do you think that the US has already been defeated?

KR: Hugh White is a headline hound and will always be in pursuit of the strongest, most strident position possible in order to get run. He’s become Beijing’s darling and Washington’s nemesis. Now there’s an element of truth in the slow sense of strategic drift Hugh describes, but to conclude that the US “has lost the battle for the Pacific” is designed, as I said, to provide color, movement and drama around his particular proposition.

Furthermore, it’s empirically incorrect. It doesn’t deal with the question of what the US in a post-Trump world will do in the Asia Pacific region. Will America embrace a further version of Hillary Clinton’s vigorous regional engagement? Or will Trump’s isolationism infect the rest of the Republican Party and, in turn, infect the Democratic Party and point it in a direction of a more isolationist America into the future? That’s an open question, not a closed question.

TH: Okay then. So, another thing that’s gotten a lot of attention here is Graham Allison’s book on the Thucydides’ Trap, which postulates that a rising power like China and an established one like the US are on an unavoidable road to conflict. Do you buy into that theory? And do you see Xi’s positioning himself as a dictator to make major conflict more or less likely?

KR: Often the problem with Western analyses of what China is doing or, more broadly, what’s unfolding in the China-US relationship, is too binary. It’s either this or that. And the truth is, in international politics, it’s usually an ungodly cocktail of several factors and several ways of explaining the reality. But I think Graham Allison has added enormously to the clarity of the international debate on US-China relations by putting Thucydides’ Trap into contemporary terms. And his hypothesis is not that war between China and United States is inevitable but that history, in the 16 case studies he’s looked at over the last 500 years, would cause us to be cautious about what happens when a rising power challenges an established power and that challenge gets to a certain threshold.

But there’s another trap in the literature, as well, of which we need to be equally mindful. Graham Allison’s colleague at Harvard, Joe Nye, has written eloquently of what he describes as the “Kindleberger Trap,” referring to what happened in international relations in the 1920s and ’30s. After the First World War, Britain was globally exhausted with the economy depleted because of the effort involved in the war. But the United States, rather than stepping into the breach, because of the American Congress’s reaction to Woodrow Wilson’s internationalism, decided to embark upon 20 years of isolationism.

What did we end up with? A strategic vacuum globally with no one quite certain who was going to fill that vacuum. And as a result, we saw the rise of German Fascism, Italian Fascism, and Japanese Fascism. Now the Kindleberger Trap is about what happens if no one occupies the position of underpinning an international rules-based system. So, my argument is that we see elements of both Thucydides and Kindleberger at work in what’s happening now in the China-US relationship across the Asia Pacific region and, more broadly, globally.

TH: And nothing’s written in stone?

KR: Not since the Ten Commandments, and very few of the Ten Commandments were fun.

TH: All right. Last question: Unlike most other Oxford students, you’ve actually shaken hands with the world leader that you’re studying. What did you make of Xi, the man?

KR: Over the years I’ve probably spent five, six, seven hours in conversation with Xi Jinping either directly on the telephone or in smaller groups. What do I make of him personally? I think he’s a person of extraordinary intellect in the sense that he is well read in terms of his own country’s history but also in international history. He comes to the position with a well-defined world view, which is the subject of my particular study at Oxford at present. But secondly, he’s a guy of extraordinary self-confidence. This is a fellow who never uses briefing notes in his discussion. He is confident enough to range across any subject that you lay on the table. And therefore, he’s the sort of political personality with whom — assuming the US president has a comprehensive and integrated world view — you can productively deal.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

 

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security, education and food for Bloomberg View. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper’s letters editor. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.