The curtain has fallen on the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 18th Party Congress. Everything about the congress, from Chinese President Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) political report to the top leadership’s new lineup, falls short of what many hoped for in terms of reform. As the dust settles on the fierce power struggles that went on behind the scenes, will the party’s newly elected General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平) be able to shake off the trammels of the system and vested interest groups and take the path of reform? People are closely observing Xi’s words and deeds to see what will happen. This focus on Xi is a sign of people’s helplessness under a system in which powerful individuals make all the decisions, and that is precisely why China’s system is in urgent need of change.
People are paying particular attention to the short speech that Xi made when he took his place on stage with the other six members of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee after it was formally announced he would take over the post of CCP general secretary. Xi’s speech can be seen as a preface for his rule. Someone counted the number of times Xi mentioned “the people” in his speech. That he referred to “the people” many times — more times than “the party” — is an indication that he takes the public interest as a priority.
However, not much ever came of the “new three principles of the people” that Hu advocated in 2002 as a theme for the decade in which he and Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) occupied the country’s most powerful posts. Nevertheless, it is to be hoped that Xi can really do some good for “the people.”
Xi’s speech was relatively down to earth, like his personality. One worrying thing, however, is that he referred twice to the “great revival of the Chinese nation.” The phrase brings to mind the days when Germany and Japan where rising powers. Adolf Hitler often talked about the “German nation” and Japan’s leaders talked about the “Japanese nation.” Such talk is not a good omen, because both those regimes eventually led their nations into disaster.
The China of today is highly critical of Japan’s past aggression and invasions. Is this because China’s leaders understand that extreme nationalism can develop into militarism, or because China wants to take Japan’s place? China’s population, territory and resources are far greater than those of Germany and Japan combined, but the Chinese public is much more poorly educated than the Germans and Japanese were. That is the frightening thing.
Do the things Xi said reflect his true intensions, or were they just meant to please his cronies among the military leadership? Perhaps both. It is necessary to point these things out because outsiders usually lack a full understanding and experience of such matters.
Many of the incoming fifth generation of Chinese leaders are of an age where they may have been Red Guards during the 1966 to 1976 Cultural Revolution, in contrast to the previous leaders, who were more likely to have been on the receiving end of the Red Guards’ attacks. While the elder generation suffered great hardships during those years, the Red Guards’ experience was that they were a law unto themselves and felt as if they had the world in the palms of their hands. Notably, some of them were the children of high-ranking officials and as such were able to use their connections to join the army instead of being sent to work in the countryside. Without having suffered the same hardships as ordinary people, they took to heart chairman Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) bold call for world revolution. Some even slipped over the border to help the Communist Party of Burma in its insurgency.
Among the armed forces figures of today, Major General Luo Yuan (羅援) often calls for a war in the South or East China seas, while Major General Zhu Chenghu (朱成虎) once said that China could abandon everything east of Xian (西安) if it came to a nuclear war with the US. These men have clearly inherited Mao’s warlike character. Young officers like these, ranking up to the level of major general, are a powerful force in China’s military, and they might be keen to launch a war that they think could bring them promotion and wealth.
Since Xi’s family were targets of criticism and struggle during the Cultural Revolution, his experience is somewhat different from that of other new Chinese leaders, and he is not as arrogant and domineering as they are. On the other hand, former Chongqing mayor Bo Xilai (薄熙來) has a similar background, but he chose to follow a Maoist line. Will Xi influence the other new leaders, or be influenced by them, or will he follow the old adage that everyone has to make compromises? These are unknown elements that will influence China’s future.
Faced with these realities, sensible Chinese people should choose Western-style democracy rather than a “revival of the Chinese nation,” because the first in line to benefit from any such “revival” are powerful and corrupt officials. In fact those officials have already reaped great profits, which are passed down among their families from one generation to the next, while the great majority of working people toil away at grassroots level and suffer abuse at the hands of the rich and powerful.
Paul Lin is a political commentator.
Translated by Eddy Chang