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China’s 70-Year Itch

Where Does Xi Jinping’s Government Go From Here?
October 1, 2019
China’s 70-Year Itch
BEIJING, CHINA - OCTOBER 01: Chinese military march in in formation as they do a last rehearsal before a parade to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China at Tiananmen Square on October 1, 2019 in Beijing, China. Today marks 70 years since Mao Zedong announced the formation of the People's Republic of China in 1949. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Tuesday is a big and important day in China: The government will celebrate the 70th anniversary of Mao Zedong and his communist guerrilla army expelling the Nationalist Kuomintang  government of Chiang Kai-shek from the mainland to the island of Formosa, known today Taiwan. But while the Communist party puts on a good show, full of outpourings of praise and cacophonous trumpeting of the regime’s achievements, it’s a time of great uncertainty behind the scenes. 

In the past, these anniversaries were conducted in an atmosphere of confidence with the regime feeling secure in its hold on power.  But the past two anniversaries, the 60-year celebration in 2009 and this year’s 70th birthday party, have emanated anything but these sentiments.

The 2009 anniversary was presided over by Hu Jintao, the colorless and immediate predecessor to the current strongman, Xi Jinping.  Hu was suffering from “short-timers” syndrome, as he was only three years from retirement.

“Hu was transmitting a it’s-your-problem-now message of ‘I have brought the country to this point of pre-eminent development, economic growth and military power,’” said a long-time Beijing-based analyst of Chinese politics.  “It is now up to the people who take over to do at least as well as I have and to not make any mistakes.”

Kerry Brown, a Chinese politics academic at Australia’s University of Sydney explained to the English-language South China Morning Post in 2009 “this is the golden era of Chinese GDP growth and an explosion of productivity, and the era in which China, on aggregate, became a wealthy country.  But it is also an era of deepening social and structural issues, of political stagnation, and of the failure to properly solve the problems of all-round growth.”

A decade later these words seem more than prescient.  The nation that Hu handed off to Xi in 2012 was unquestionably a happier and more benignly viewed nation.  Today, the list of the country’s ills only seems to grow longer with each passing day.

A study released this week by the London School of Economics think-tank concludes although “China’s economy has stabilised after a sharp slowdown in the 2018/19 winter thanks to new stimulus measures, it is still fragile and faces important structural challenges in the next few years that could have pronounced political implications.”

Those “political implications” seem even more ominous when one considers how the same study assesses how the party’s ruling order is viewed by both its own population, as well as those watching Beijing’s actions from foreign shores.  “An unusual outpouring of dissent and criticism at home about the path and policies that Xi’s China has chosen has become more prevalent. Pushback abroad, not least in Hong Kong, also poses awkward issues for the government,” reads the same study.

Former Beijing Financial Times correspondent and a leading expert on the Chinese Communist Party, Richard McGregor, is even more direct when he writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs that “Xi Jinping’s overreach may come back to haunt him before the 20th party Congress, in late 2022…Xi has displayed remarkable boldness and agility in bending the vast, sprawling party system to his will.  Sooner or later, however, as recent Chinese history has shown, the system will catch up with him.  It is only a question of when.”

This creates a ruling order mired in anxiety, uncertainty and an overall fear of the future.  The mood is one of “simply hoping to get through this day—this 70th anniversary celebration—without there being some kind of a disruption, protest or other unforeseen circumstance marring the event,” said a foreign correspondent based in Beijing.

Seventy years seems to be a breaking point for one-party regimes.  In Mexico the Institutional Revolutionary Party was in power for 71 years (1929-2000); the USSR’s communist system lasted 74 years (1917-1991); and Chiang Kai-shek’s party held on for 73 years (from 1927 to 1949 on the mainland and then from 1949 to 2000 in Taiwan).  Only the Kim regime in North Korea, an almost religious cult-like radical Stalinist dictatorship now on its third-generation ruler, is still around to compete with the Chinese Communist party in longevity.

This invites some unflattering comparisons by netizens on the mainland, the community of bloggers, government critics, dissidents and others who post their grievances on the internet.  They are required to employ subtle language in their postings to keep what they write from being immediately deleted by the country’s heavy-handed internet censors. Thus, their somewhat unsubtle moniker they been known to use to in criticizing their country is “West Korea.”

Even besides the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, two other equally great potential disasters now confront the PRC’s communist rulers.  One is that competition with the US, both through the recent trade war and the increasing military competition that Beijing has engaged in are having concrete negative effects on the economy.  Most of the conditions that existed in the past decade—including a young and hungry labor force, rapid urban growth and demand for Chinese products—that fueled the nation’s double-digit growth no longer exist, leaving the regime with almost no levers to pull to jump-start a new economic upturn.

Another is that this generation of the country’s rulers are also even less scientific, less adequately informed about the outside world and less willing to take risks, which means little chance of the system being subjected to any meaningful reform.  This accounts for the fact that they have been vainly hoping that the Hong Kong protests will just eventually subside and disappear. They do not know what to do to resolve this dilemma, but somehow believe for now that taking no action that could upset the 1 October anniversary—deciding not to decide—is the best course of action.

Another example would be Beijing’s reticence to off-load the massive, expensive and unproductive state-owned enterprises (SOE) that are an increasing drag on the country’s modernization. The central planners continue to favor supporting these entities over private enterprise, leaving little left over for investment in the private sector.

Ironically, the Trump administration offered the government a way out of this morass by insisting that Beijing throttle back on its support for the SOEs – complaining that they were subsidized by the state and engaging in unfair competition.

“If Trump had really wanted to damage China’s economy what he would have said was ‘this state-enterprise arrangement you have is great.  Number 10 on the dial is not high enough—crank it up to 11,” said the same Beijing-based analyst. “Instead what he had been insisting on would have actually been a big step in the right direction—but a step no one is willing to take.”

That’s because maintaining complete control is still the overriding priority for China’s rulers. The SOEs are the mechanism by which they control the economy, just as the CPC is the means by which they control the media,, the internet, political dialogue (to the extent that there is any that is meaningful), etc.  They are loath to relinquish control and allow anything to be left to chance.

This pathological paranoia of total control even applies to the 70th anniversary parade to take place in Beijing.  An endless procession of military units have been rehearsing for weeks to put on a show of precision marching and displays of modern weaponry.  (None of it loaded, by the way, as the Communist leaders on reviewing stands do not even trust their own armed forces when gathered together in such numbers.)

The public at large is not invited and is kept back by police checkpoints and roadblocks.  Only invited and meticulously vetted VIPs can attend the event and must be scanned and checked before they take their seats.  In the run-up to this event, the government in Beijing has even banned the sale of a list of items by any store in the city centercentre, to include any kind of knife whatsoever.

This is another example of the regime pulling out all the stops to, as the correspondent who spoke to me said, just get through this day without some incident.  It might work for one day, one month, one year —perhaps a bit longer. But as the late Russian scholar Richard Pipes wrote in Foreign Affairs back in the 1980s, “muddling through one day to the next is a tactic—it is not a strategy.”  Words published only seven years before the collapse of Soviet communism. The question now is how much longer Beijing’s rulers still have left on their clock.

Reuben Johnson

Reuben F. Johnson is a defense technology analyst and correspondent for Breaking Defense and was based in Kyiv for two decades prior to the Russian invasion. He is currently based in Warsaw.