The Chinese dragon is on a rampage as never before. Much of world’s products and services needs get manufactured in China. Much of world’s FDI flows into the belly of the dragon. As economy booms, it is bound to usher in a smooth transition to democracy. And a democratic China will serve as a role model for the dictatorships elsewhere in Asia, inspiring them to evolve into a vibrant democracy themselves. Moreover, it is only a question of time before China is able to utilize its financial muscle into creating for itself a world-class military infrastructure. If it is not already one today, surely the day is not far when China will emerge as a serious rival to the USA. But all this is looking at the brighter side of things from the Chinese perspective.
There can be an entirely different ending to the Chinese juggernaut. As state enterprises go bankrupt in rapid succession, employees pour into the streets rioting for jobs that don’t exist. Peasants starving in the countryside start pouring into the cities and join the rioters. The communist elite launches a Tiananmen style crackdown, which fails to quell the protests and unrest spreads even further. The frightened leadership decides that the only way to tackle the unrest is to create an international fracas that would remove people’s focus from domestic issues. The People’s Liberation Army starts to menace China’s neighbors. In the climate of political uncertainty and war, International companies that have invested billions in China lose much of their investment and that leads to a global financial meltdown.
The scenarios described above are just two of innumerable ways in which China could unravel. But one thing is certain, whatever its final dÃ?Â©nouement, China is today all set to make its mark on the world. The most important event of the last decade is the change of guard that happened in Beijing less than a year ago. September 19, 2004 saw what was probably the first peaceful transition of power in communist China. Jiang Zemin, 78, stepped down as the chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission. National President and CCP chairman Hu Jintao, 61, formally took over to become the commander-in-chief of the People’s Liberation Army in addition to his other jobs.
Though the transition from the Jiang to Hu has been a smooth one, it was a long drawn out process. In 2002 Jiang Zemin had yielded his Communist Party Chairmanship to Hu Jintao, and the state presidency he yielded in March 2003. But Hu Jintao’s control over China was seen as incomplete as Jiang Zemin had retained for himself the all-powerful post of Central Military Commission’s chairman. This post gave Jiang complete charge of the 3.5 million strong PLA, thereby conferring on him the power to meddle in all aspects of Chinese politics.
Because of his lack of control over the army Hu Jintao was widely viewed as a weak figure overshadowed by Jiang. In Television clips and newspapers of the state run media, Hu was receiving much less importance than the Jiang. Given the communist mantra of the party having absolute control over the gun, there was suspense amongst the Chinese and in the international community over who really controlled the country, Jiang or Hu. But September 19 has seemingly settled the issue once and for all; China analysts are busy proclaiming that Hu era in Chinese politics has finally begun. Though what the Hu era entails for China and for rest of the world no one can say for sure.
It’s disconcerting that so little is known about the man, who is going to be ruling a vital country like China, for, as it seems likely, a long time to come. All we seem to know is that he has a liking for tennis and ballroom dancing and that he has a photographic memory. About his political views absolutely nothing is in the public domain. If there are instances of his liberal attitude, then there are also those where he has acted in a hard-line fashion. It is possible that Hu Jintao is trying to play it safe by holding his politics close to his chest. After all, he has reason to be cautious. Even slightest indiscretion in policy matters, could lead to Jiang Zemin, who still continues to wield considerable power, and other party seniors getting antagonized. That could lead to a serious power struggle at the top. And power struggles in China tend to get bloody.
A Culture of Gun and Fear
China does have a serious gun control problem. Despite the years of economic liberalization, the soaring economy, the increasing international clout, China continues to remain a one party dictatorship, where whoever controls the PLA, which happens to be the world’s largest army, gets to wield the maximum amount of power. So the lingering squabble over the control of armed forces in the top echelons of China’s communist party should come as surprise to no one.
The ex-communist dictator Mao Zedong is mostly to blame for creating a situation where the gun and not public opinion was the determining factor in politics. There was massive military intervention into the political sphere during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). ‘Power grows from the barrel of the gun’ and ‘loyalty comes only from fear’, are oft-quoted aphorisms from Chairman Mao. By politicizing the military Mao brought series of disasters on the country but his own political clout only increased after every disaster. He was ruthless with those who crossed him. Some of his closest comrades, who over a period of time fell out with him, fared worse than many of his enemies in the battleground.
Gun and Fear formed the key to Mao’s power and it continues to form the key to the power of those that have followed him. When Deng Xiaoping arrived on the scene, he imprisoned Mao’s wife till she died, to avenge his own purge by the infamous gang of four. Jiang Zemin proved his mettle and instilled fear through breaking the so called Beijing Gang and by incarcerating the capital’s party secretary, Chen Xitong, and few others who had crossed him at some point of time. Now Hu wields the gun, if not fully then to a substantial measure. So the million-dollar question is- how does Hu Jintao plan to assert his authority? Will he follow the path chalked out by his predecessors and make an example out of someone, preferably from the Jiang camp?
China Under Hu Jintao
However, it is not necessary for Hu Jintao to resort to gun and fear to assert his authority, he could do it in other ways. One way for him could be to take a new look at the policy followed by Jiang Zemin and chart a fresh course wherever necessary. Huang Weiping, director of the political research center of Shenzhen University says, ‘We are unlikely to see a major shift in policy, but gradually Jiang’s influence will fade. Jiang is not powerful enough to play the role of Deng.’ But while avoiding to rock the boat too much Hu Jintao will surely try to make sure that he does not go down in history as another faceless, middling, despicable communist who blindly followed the path charted out by his predecessor.
Corruption is a big issue in China. Hu could make a dent in Jiang’s legacy by declaring a war on corruption. Under Jiang’s 11-year reign corruption and nepotism gained new heights. Jiang saw to it that his sons attained supreme positions in Chinese government and his sister, once an ordinary teacher in a provincial college, has grabbed the plum post of head of China’s Forestry Academy. What is Hu going to do about corruption and nepotism? One thing is certain, if he is not seen to be acting in a decisive manner the popular resentment is going to be focused on him.
There could also be a substantial change in the way China deals with the emotive issue of Taiwan. Jiang Zemin’s Taiwan policy of ‘verbal attack and military threat’ has proved to be a thorough failure. His tenure of leadership has seen Taiwan slipping further away from the mainland. Unlike his predecessor, Hu, it is said, does not favor jingoistic saber rattling and is for ‘thrifty reunification’, without the costly military exercises that in any case scare no one.
Regarding the all-important issue of China-US relationship, Hu is as ambivalent as ever. Though the secret speech titled ‘Changes in Sino-US relations’ that he gave on April 1, 1994, Hu Jintao did shed some light on his perspective. But again, the question is was he espousing his own views or was he blindly reading from a text prepared by the party bosses. In that speech, he said:
The whole Party and the whole army should make full preparations and should be more profoundly aware that Sino-U.S. relations will not be in a normal state in the near future, in the next few years, and even for a longer period to come, and further worsening and confrontations may occur. According to the global hegemonist strategy of the United States, its main rival at present is the PRC. Interfering in China, subverting the Chinese Government, and strangling China’s development are strategic principles pursued by the United States. While facing hegemonism, power politics and the aggressive anti-China strategy pursued by the United States, we have no room for any choices. We must sternly and explicitly tell the United States and declare to the world also, that the normalization and development of relations between China and the United States can only be made on the basis of the two joint communiquÃ?Â©s signed by the two governments.