By Kumar David –
The Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) constitutes the power elite of the Party and is the ruling council of the country. The seven members of the standing soon to be ratified at the Twentieth Party Congress are Xi Jinping (age 69), Li Qiang (tipped to be the next Prime Minister, age 63), Zhao Leji (anti-corruption tsar, age 65), Wang Huning (Marxist theoretician, age 67), Cai Qi (General Secretariat to manage day to day party affairs, age 66), and Ding Xuexiang (Xi factotum and loyalist, age 60)
Four members of Standing Committee will be removed. Among them is current Premier Li Keqiang and members Wang Yang, Han Zheng, and Li Zhanshu. The latter two were expected to step down, having passed the informal age limit of 68 – a requirement not extended to Xi. Wang Yang and current PM Li Keqiang, both 67, could still have continued in the Standing Committee or 25-member Politburo for another five-year term but were pushed out to make space for Xi loyalists. In an acutely embarrassing and unchoreographed incident former Chinese President Hu Jintao was escorted out of the Congress. There is speculation about what’s going on, it could simply be ill health; he is very much a party man and unlikely to rock the boat in a last-minute drama, nevertheless since he has not issued any statement from his place of recuperation we need to wait and see.
I have worked and travelled extensively in Hong Kong and China for 40 years and here is my assessment of the relationship between the CCP and the people. The vast majority, even anti-communists agree that an abrupt internal collapse of the CCP or its sudden fall from power at this moment would lead to domestic chaos and a weakening of China internationally. Most will also agree that China is not democratic and wish to see more democracy but have different views about what democracy in China should look like. The reasons for being vary of a power vacuum are obvious. For three and a half millennia when central power collapsed or a dynasty fell, there was chaos on a gigantic scale. Millions of lives were lost and the land was devasted as warlords and aspirants to power battled it out.
Take just the last two centuries starting with the Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864 between the Manchu Qing Dynasty allied with its Han beneficiaries, against the Hakka-led Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of the self-proclaimed “younger brother of Jesus Christ”, Hong Xiuquan. Devastation was extreme, it is estimated that 20 million perished. It also marks the beginning of China’s “century of humiliation” since imperialist powers gained control of all the country’s power centres. Then came the Boxer Uprising (1899-1901), an anti-foreign, anti-colonial and anti-Christian uprising which was crushed by the imperialist powers with the loss of over 100,000 Chinese lives, Beijing was occupied and the Imperial Court banished to Xian. The humiliation goes on in the twentieth century. The 1911 Revolution established the Republic of China identified with Dr Sun Yat Sen, but the gains petered out in internal factional brawls and foreign intervention – Japanese in the North and American in the South and East. Then the Nanjing Massacre or Rape of Nanjing of 1937 when 300,000 to half a million Chinese were massacred by the Imperial Japanese Army. In the meantime, Chinese administrations all over the country were collapsing and the Communist Party had been formed in Shanghai in 23 July 1921 by Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Chen Duxiu, Zhou Fohai – 57 Chinese and a few Russian Comintern representatives.
This was followed by the Long March, the civil war and liberation in 1949 (“The Chinese People have stood up”) but hardship did not end. I do not need to detail recent history but enumerate the Great Leap Forward (1958-62 where the best estimate of death from famine is 30 million) and the decade-long (1966-76) Cultural Revolution where the loss of life was not as large as in the Great Leap Forward but political conflict tore the country apart in Mao’s mentally declining years. The Sino-Soviet conflict, the Gang of Four and June 4 Tiananmen Square are well known recent history.
One can appreciate why Chinese people, whatever their views of the Beijing government, communism or the Party shudder at the thought of instability and disorder. My personal reading of many Chinese friends is that they cannot forget the humiliation of the last two centuries. However, there is something far more than the notion of “Chinese nationalism” that Westerners reduce it to. My friends not being philosophers do not state it thus, but it is civilisational rather than nationalist. Apart from China (and Hong Kong) there is a flavour of this in all Chinese communities across Asia, Taiwan Province, Singapore (obvious in Lee Kwan Yu) and the hundreds of China Towns in the USA. The resonances overlap sentiments deeply rooted in three and a half millennia of unbroken civilisation. These are civilisational resonances, deeper than nationalism. My blunt metrices may not make sense to Chinese friends or befuddled foreigners!
Let me move on to something more prosaic that I can write about with confidence, China’s material and economic prospects for the next decade. Whether measured by a PPP yardstick or in nominal dollar values it is very likely that the size of the Chinese economy will surpass the United States in say a decade. The advantages of competent state direction in the initial decades of post-colonial modernisation are bearing fruit. The difference from a basket-case like Sri Lanka is the word competent. Whether under the leadership of the Communist Party, or in say Singapore, Taiwan or South Korea (each for different reasons) the directive-modernising role of the state was different but nowhere was as mismanaged, incompetent and corrupt as in Sri Lanka. But that’s a different story.
That China will catch up and surpass the US economy in size in about 10 years, even if long-term growth in the former is constrained to 4% and falls to 1% in the US, is simple arithmetic. The entire capitalist world including especially the Euro Block and Japan is of course much larger than the US alone and even a China-Russia cooperative strategy will take much longer to reach par. (I argued the prospects for China-Russia economic cooperation in the closing paragraphs of ‘Putin’s Last Stand’ on 16 Oct 2022). Size does matter but it is not the only attractor; there are other factors; technology, investment, military focus and another crucial qualitative aspect. The bread-an- butter technology picture, is mixed. China seems to be pulling ahead in AI and hard technology for industrial expansion. While the West is hell bent on denying China access to the best in computer-chips and military know-how, there may be ways round this such as joint-ventures and theft of intellectual property. Russian science and technology are no pushover and China-Russia cooperation can yield results. This therefore in not a closed chapter.
American and Western military superiority is also a concern for China. The West spends far more on military research and technology, the US has special agencies such as the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and its aircrews have hugely more training in the air. Some shortcomings can be addressed, for example military R&D can be increased, an agency similar to ARPA created, though catching up in aircrew training is a tougher job. Still, I grant that the gap can be narrowed.
In closing I would like to look beyond a decade or two and peer past the middle of this Century. The state directed phase is building railways, airports and highways; it is encouraging massive soulless public housing projects by private developers who are lining their pockets with millions of Yuan and dollars. The nagging question on the horizon however is what after the dirigisme phase as served its purpose and is past its use-by date. How is post-dirigisme society, technology and innovation to organise itself?
Marx speculated that “in place of the old bourgeois society, with its class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”. And speculated (much abbreviated) in the German Ideology “Each man has a particular, sphere of activity from which he cannot escape. He is hunter, fisherman or critical critic, and must remain so but in a society of plenty he can hunt in the morning, fish in the evening and criticise after dinner without being hunter, fisherman, or critic”. Only if society has progressed to plenty is unencumbered freedom possible; perhaps a century into the future.
But leave aside flowery expectations and ponder the immediate circumstances of post-dirigisme China. Innovation is not automatic. Productivity enhancement in China is falling behind and raises questions about what the nature of the freedoms essential for the future. Society has to be set free to flourish.