Authoritarianism undiminished in China

Authoritarianism undiminished in China

Communist Party of China at 100

Performers dressed as rescue workers gather around the Communist Party flag during a gala show ahead of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. Credit: AP Photo

China’s sole ruling party, founded in 1921, four years after the Communist Party of the (now former) Soviet Union and on identical Leninist lines, turns 100 on July 1.

It persists in calling itself the Communist Party of China (CPC) although since a few years after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, and under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, it began pursuing pro-market reforms.

Deng coined several phrases to defend his policies: “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”, “Let some people get rich first”, “To get rich is glorious”, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice” (meaning State planning and the market must stand the test of economic development), and “When you open the window, flies and mosquitoes come in” (i.e., pro-market reforms inevitably lead to corruption).

In 1992, Deng used the term “socialist market economy” and ordered the kickstart of development that had slowed following the crushing of the student-led pro-democracy movement in 1989, an event mourned and remembered worldwide to this day.

Read more: Xi Jinping stresses loyalty as Chinese Communist Party prepares for 100th anniversary

Result: double-digit economic growth for over three decades and China’s emergence as the world’s second-largest economy after that of the US. Another result: smashing of what had been known as the “iron rice bowl”, i.e., guaranteed salaries and benefits, including housing, etc., in the large public sector.

Not only did a private-sector bloom, but starting from the early 1980s, parts of the public sector were sold off by party apparatchiks, and the proceeds pocketed.

All silently witnessed by an entity named the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, controlled by the CPC. Hundreds of thousands of workers’ struggles have been taking place all over China every year, rarely reported except in provincial media, i.e., those that briefly escape the central censors’ gaze.

Meanwhile, the CPC’s policies as regards those not from the majority Han ethnicity make it seem like the Bharatiya Janata Party on steroids. The latter’s progenitor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, may still be dreaming of an ‘Akhand Bharat’ stretching from lands to the east and west of the current boundaries of India, but the CPC already rules over vast stretches that had been independent of Han China until the mid-20th century, i.e., Southern Mongolia (or what Beijing calls Inner Mongolia), East Turkestan (Xinjiang) and Tibet. The three regions make up two-thirds of the map of China today.

The CPC is tolerant of homegrown Daoism and Chinese Buddhism but frowns upon Tibetan Buddhism. While the CPC requires its members to be atheists, it reserves for itself the right to choose the next “reincarnation” of the Dalai Lama, the highest spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists. In 1995, when the Dalai Lama chose six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th Panchen Lama – the second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism – Beijing named another, Gyaltsen Norbu, as proxy and the former has never been seen again.

Several well-documented reports in the western media say that a million or more Muslims in East Turkestan have been put in concentration camps. The plight of Muslims elsewhere in China is the same as that of Christians: they function under strict State surveillance. Beijing disallows the Vatican to name bishops. Thousands of ‘underground’ Catholic churches abound, as do Protestant ones, and are frequently subject to raids.

Under its current General Secretary Xi Jinping, the CPC appears to have gone back in part to the authoritarian ways of Mao Zedong, albeit without some of the disastrous experiments and campaigns of the Mao era such as the Great Leap Forward (1958-60) when farmers were ordered to "over-fulfill" quotas, leading to a crippling famine, or the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when Mao urged young people to "bombard the headquarters" and called for the removal of "revisionists" through violent "struggles". 

However, unlike in the Mao era when he and his trusted lieutenant, Premier Zhou Enlai, were engrossed with minding domestic business or the consequences of extreme policies and generally ignored happenings in the neighbourhood, save for the Korean War (1950-53) in the very early years of the People's Republic of China and the 1962 war with India, the Xi era CPC pursues what has come to be known as "Wolf Warrior diplomacy" (after a film of that name depicting an aggressive confrontational stance on the part of Beijing). Thus, Beijing rode roughshod over once free-wheeling Hong Kong, last year imposing a national security law that all but in name ended the "One Country, Two Systems" formula Deng had promised the former British-ruled territory. And Chinese fighter aircraft have recently intensified sorties over Taiwan, which Beijing claims as one of its provinces.

What of the future? Few serious China-watchers would venture to predict. One of them, Gordon G Chang wrote a book titled The Coming Collapse of China in 2001. Twenty years have passed, and China and its ruling party have only grown stronger. The CPC underwent several upheavals and purges, in almost every decade until the 1980s, as noted above but has been relatively united since 1989 when a deep split amongst its leadership got reflected on the streets of Beijing in the form of a student-led pro-democracy movement that was put down with the help of tanks and armoured personnel carriers.

Of course, there are a number of destabilising factors. To mention but two: economic slowdown and recent changes to the party’s succession process.

So long as the economy was growing apace and the middle class was seeing its wealth multiplying, its stake in not rocking the CPC boat held. Whether the party can command loyalty as income rises decelerate remains to be seen.

As for succession, Deng had put in place a system whereby the party’s politburo, consisting of about 20 members, and the standing committee, made up of five to nine leaders, partly renew themselves every five years, with those above 65 retiring and the General Secretary holding office for two terms.

Xi Jinping has now disturbed that arrangement. Younger leaders aspiring for the highest post will therefore be a restive lot. Together, with a populace prevented from voicing its concerns over myriad issues, including massive corruption that the party itself admits to, they make for a recipe for instability.

Back in 1989, the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the CPC, as well as the government-controlled Xinhua (New China) news agency and other party-controlled media had carried a number of reports and articles supportive of the then ongoing pro-democracy movement, for a few days.

They were able to do so because the then CPC General Secretary Zhao Ziyang was on their side, until he was airbrushed out of the picture in official narratives: In May 1989, when the party was deeply split over how to handle the pro-democracy movement, Zhao went on a scheduled visit to North Korea amidst the drama, only to find himself vanquished on his return.

Xi might want to watch his back.

(The writer was the Press Trust of India’s Beijing correspondent 1988-94 and was on the Agence France-Presse’s Asia-Pacific Desk in Hong Kong 1995-2006)

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