Root for Xi Jinping

Economic reform aimed at bolstering national security and power agendas is the norm in Asia these days, from India’s election of Narendra Modi to “Abenomics” in Japan. China has embarked on perhaps the most ambitious set of reforms, and is attracting Western critics loudly hoping for it to fail. But I think we’re all better off if China’s reforms largely succeed.

Since the March, 2013 plenum meeting of the Communist Party under newly anointed leader Xi Jinping, China has pursued simultaneous transformations in economics, finance, state-to-market relations and politics. Xi has made himself the most powerful Party chairman since Deng Xiaoping, at least on paper, in order to knock heads and implement tough changes.

Inevitably, some US commentators are eager to see Xi fail. A good example is an article by Joseph Bosco, a former aide to Donald Rumsfeld and now a think-tank China hand in Washington. Published by The Diplomat, Bosco says the West should worry about any campaign that enhances the effectiveness and power of autocratic China, particularly in light of China’s new, sometimes bloody-minded assertiveness.

Bosco is right to zero in on Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, which is at the heart of everything going on in China today. He argues that the inherent nature of corruption in an opaque regime means any such effort will be half-hearted, and therefore fail to restore the Party’s image among most Chinese people. Therefore, Bosco warns, it will enable China to purge the most corrupt elements out of the military, rendering it more effective without risking a real political opening.

This may all prove true, but a US posture of actively wishing for Xi to fail is not going to improve matters. There are also reasons to think it would be good for Xi to succeed.

The status quo is dangerous. There is no civilian oversight of the PLA (and nor will there be) but it is meant to be an arm of the Party. But the various branches often engage in faits accomplis, pursuing agendas that are independent of those of the State Council or the seven-man Standing Committee of the Politburo. The regime’s opacity means it is never clear if aggressive moves by the military reflect Party policy, or force the Party to catch up and reassert control.

This leads to dangerous accidents, and makes it harder for the US and its allies to respond because intent may not be clear. If Xi can impose greater control and discipline over the armed forces, it should reduce the likelihood of PLA adventurism, and also make the Party more accountable to military acts (at least as far as other countries are concerned).

Tighter Party control may also, in theory, help ease the PLA out of certain fields where its presence is a hindrance. One obvious area is control of Chinese airspace: the PLA’s smothering blanket control prevents the development of a proper commercial aerospace industry, and serves as a brake on economic efficiency. A less overbearing military means greater opportunity for ordinary people.

I say Xi is powerful on paper. He is of course powerful, but lately the economic side of his agenda has stalled. Hard choices continue to be deferred in order to maintain GDP growth figures via foolish lending through state-owned banks and their dodgy investment products. I take the view that the world is better off with a stable, prosperous China, not one teetering on the edge of financial crisis.

The anti-corruption drive may consolidate Xi’s hold on power so he can force through important changes – or it could spiral down a never-ending tunnel. It’s not like there’s a lack of corruption to chase, and the more that gets unveiled, the greater the risk to the Party’s legitimacy. All of that military efficiency that Bosco fears may end up directed to the internal ministry’s paramilitary police, rather than deployed to the Pacific Ocean.

If I wanted to take an uncompromising view, sure, it would be easy to agree with Bosco and say the US should only support Chinese reforms that open the country to liberal politics. Of course I would much rather prefer a policy package of glasnost.

But that ain’t on the cards, and I think real decision-makers in the West should deal with the China that exists, not the one in their dreams. Chinese power is real and its nationalist, even xenophobic, character is durable. The ultimate destination of Xi’s anti-corruption purge is hard to discern – these manias have a tendency to eat their own – so instead of making assumptions about its success, the US and its allies should to find ways to cool tensions while sending clear signals about their capabilities and intentions.

 

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