GEOFF MILLER. Xi Jinping’s China: this too will pass?

Xi Jinping’s first five years have produced a China in which the Communist Party is in more control of more things, and restrictions on dissent and the free expression of opinion have grown.  The recently concluded Party Congress seems to offer more of the same.  But how will this recipe stand with a population growing steadily more prosperous, better educated and more familiar with the outside world?

Commenting on the 19th Party Congress Kerry Brown, the noted British Sinologist, said in an article in “Inside Story” on 28 October that “one of the striking features of the Congress…was the fact that it seemed remote, highly elitist and introspective—an elite speaking its own dialect, focused on its own culture, and somehow unable to connect with the wider world.  The key ideological formulation that it endorsed, Xi Jinping thought…seems a bit retro.”

Speaking to the Lowy Institute on 27 October Joseph Kahn, the Managing Editor of the “New York Times” and a former reporter from China, said that Xi’s emphases and practices, e.g. imprisonment of human rights activists and dissidents like Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, ever harsher and more intrusive press and internet censorship, social tracking and the larger role of the party, including in the economy and businesses, have reversed the admittedly lukewarm trend towards liberalisation which Western observers had seen during the Jiang and Hu Presidencies, and which they had thought would continue.

If the Congress’s ideological outcome is indeed “a bit retro”, reverses prior liberalising trends, and stands for increasingly authoritarian and oppressive social control, it is tempting to speculate about its reception by the Chinese population.  Can they be expected to take on and believe in Xi’s plan for an ever more centralised, disciplined and thought-policed society, or are they more likely to regard it as simply the current reality, to be complied with out of prudence but without enthusiasm, with many of its intrusive aspects to be circumvented, and dumped altogether when that becomes possible?

The Party and Government have strong cards to play in seeking the Chinese people’s willing support, in particular economic growth, a marked increase in living standards and access to goods like education, and nationalism—in other words the components of Xi’s “China Dream”.

But if we believe in the validity and universal appeal of the Western values of freedom of speech and of political expression we must wonder for how long a population as able, individualistic, wealthy, well educated and knowledgeable about the outside world as the Chinese people have become will be prepared to put up with a system which essentially says “become technologically first-rate, build a pre-eminent economy, prosper, travel the world, bring the best of what it produces back home, but in terms of politics, just do what you’re told”.

This is in fact the situation which applied in the Republic of Korea in 1980, when Park Chung Hee was President, and in the end decided to suppress the widespread demand for more democracy that had developed as a result of the ROK’s growing prosperity and engagement with the outside world.  The democracy movement was suppressed then, but triumphed later; and in terms of engagement with the outside world, what South Koreans were doing in 1980 pales in comparison with what Chinese are doing now, with 300,000 Chinese students in the US alone at any one time.

What about propaganda?  By all accounts there is an upsurge in propaganda in support of Xi, the Party and the program, with slogans, posters, songs and media articles ubiquitous.  That can certainly have an effect while it continues, but again history gives examples of what can happen when such programs falter.  In Indonesia in the mid 1960s, for example, it seemed as if the whole country and population was in the grip of Sukarnoist, pro-Communist Party ideology.  But once the violent events of 1965 broke its flow it was as if people woke up, shook their heads, and said “what was all that about”?

So good luck to Xi, his theoretician Wang Huning, and the better parts of their “China Dream”.  Perhaps, with a bit of luck, not all of its obnoxious attributes will prove lasting.

Geoff Miller is a former Australian diplomat and government official.  He had postings in the Republic of Korea and Indonesia, and was Deputy Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Director-General of the Office of National Assessments.


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4 Responses to GEOFF MILLER. Xi Jinping’s China: this too will pass?

  1. Peter Lynch says:

    Western democratic government has evolved over many hundreds of years and has only started to vaguely approach the form we now know during the late eighteenth century. Much blood was spilled in the process and, even in supposedly advanced democracies such as the USA, there are still more than a few remnants of oligarchy embedded in the system. It is still clearly in a developmental stage. Chinese history, up to only a few decades ago, has been characterised by absolute rule by emperors whose subjects did not dare even to look at them. Despite the outward appearance of communism, Mao Zedong’s China was effectively a continuation of that autocratic tradition. Even so China’s rulers have faced innumerable rebellions throughout its history. The expectation that China could successfully and peacefully leap to our democratic system overnight, even it wanted to, a mere four decades after Mao is delusional.

    Since Mao’s death, Chinese governments deserve credit for have progressively moved their people toward a more open and freer society as well as dragging hundreds of millions of people out of severe poverty. Under Deng Xiaoping this liberalisation process gathered pace. The result was great economic success but also a massive increase in corruption and a proliferation of dissenting movements across the nation. These were initially somewhat tolerated so long as they didn’t advocate the overthrow of the government but the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 gave the government a mighty fright. It showed what could happen if the transition progressed too quickly. Predictably, given such a big glimpse of freedom after such a long period of suppression, a great many Chinese wanted it all at once. As well as the 300,000 protesters in the Square, there were revolts in more than 400 other cities at that time. The inevitable crackdown was disastrous for the Chinese government both at home and for their reputation abroad.

    Xi and his government have not forgotten the lesson learned at that time. He has clamped down hard on corruption, much to the chagrin of some western interests, and he has worked to suppress revolt and entrench the power of the Party. He allows criticism of his policies but not calls for the whole system to be dismantled, especially if the call is for it to be replaced by our very flawed democratic system. We can criticise China’s human rights record but we should be careful not to be too strident in our criticism. Despite endless cries that China is failing and on the verge of collapse, it continues to make amazing strides forward on all fronts despite occasional setbacks. We should not try to constrain Xi from getting on with the immense developmental task his government faces. Rather than assuming Xi is only bent on increasing his own personal power, we should perhaps consider whether he knows better than us just how quickly or slowly the move to greater freedom can be made.

  2. Paul Frijters says:

    Hi Geoff,

    I think the longevity of the one-network system that typifies the politics of China for many hundreds of years now should not be underestimated. China is not like us, nor like Russia. The separation of powers is a foreign concept for China, apart from a very brief flirt in a few cities in the early 20th century. Xi Jingping represents normality for the Chinese, the fragile power balance of his predecessors was abnormal.

    I don’t think the Korean analogy cuts mustard. The Koreans had a large US military presence since the 50s and had a separation of powers in their constitution for decades before the 80s.

    The issue of mobile wealthy Chinese traveling abroad and being able to see life elsewhere (and park their money there) will be very important in many dimensions, particularly for Australia, which is becoming the Switzerland of the Far East. Not the worst role to have.

  3. Ramesh Thakur says:

    Interesting thoughts. It would be just as interesting to learn, from someone who follows the internal debates among the Chinese themselves, on how much reference is made to the obvious dysfunctionality of so much of Western democracies to discredit liberal democracy as a model for anyone, let alone non-Western societies.

  4. Tony Kevin says:

    This is an interesting and generally plausible analysis but it lacks one essential ingredient – some recognition of the major impact of hostile outside political pressure, in hardening the resolve of Xi and Chinese elites generally to hold firm to a tightly disciplined, nationalistic political system. As I watched the angry Chinese public reaction to the highly dubious and manipulated ICJ Arbitration ‘Court’ decision against China on the South China Sea, I was reminded of the same dynamic in Russia since around 2007 – the more the West sought to demoralise and destabilise the Putin government, the more solid became its public support within Russia. Of course Chinese want all the Western good things Geoff Miller enumerates, but they are a proud people who remember well from their history the consequences of a China that let its guard down to the West in the nineteenth century – not so long ago. So the more the West presses and hectors China on the Korean situation, and on the South China Sea situation, the more it cements Chinese resolve to be strong internally and to build new international relationships that are independent of the West, eg Belt and Road, Shanghai economic cooperation initiative. Those in Russia who argued as Geoff Miller argues in the case of China, have been left with shrinking public support as a result of the clumsy and heavy handed Western assault on Russian sovereignty and national security. The West led by the US and Japan in this case, may be making the same mistake with China as NATO made with Russia . The ASEANS know better, not to press Chinese pride and sovereignty too hard.

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