Xi Jinping: a hardline nationalist in control of China?Posted: December 14, 2012
Last week the New York Times ran a story on how Ling Jihua’s attempt to cover up his son’s death in that Ferrari crash may have severely weakened Hu Jintao’s position during this year’s CCP leadership transition.
It might just be me and my island-centricness, but this story certainly didn’t seem to be following the inverted-pyramid rule, for only those readers who persisted to the very last paragraph (or read the Sinocism China Newsletter) would have learned that:
By September, party insiders said, Mr. Hu was so strained by the Ling affair and the leadership negotiations that he seemed resigned to yielding power. As Mr. Hu’s influence faded, Mr. Xi began taking charge of military affairs, including a group coordinating China’s response to the escalating row with Japan over disputed islands.
Given both the vital role Ling had played in managing the logistics of the General Secretary’s day-to-day activities, and the likely emotional toll of the death of a close associate’s son, this idea of a Human Jintao feeling the pinch is logical enough.
Although the Times‘ sources say Ling’s replacement as CCP General Office Director, Li Zhanshu, arrived in July, the public announcement of Ling’s reassignment from the post was only made on September 1. Then Noda reached his agreement with the Kurihara family to make the purchase on September 4. Could all this explain Xi Jinping’s lack of a public appearance between September 2 and September 12? If i were gearing up to take over as CCP General Secretary in a few months’ time and then found myself taking charge of the country’s response to a rapidly-escalating crisis, i’d have trouble finding time for photo ops.
If the New York Times sources are correct (and if the paper has accurately reflected their words), then the response that Xi was coordinating was probably laid down by Hu Jintao. The China Leadership Monitor’s rock-solid Michael Swaine has discussed, on the basis of “knowledgeable Chinese observers”, the PRC’s decision-making system in international crisis situations. The process is believed to start with the General Secretary convening an enlarged Politburo Standing Committee meeting, with trusted advisers and, if there are “significant military issues” at stake, the two Central Military Commission Vice Chairmen with or without their staff.
“The purpose of this initial senior-level meeting,” Swaine writes, “is to understand and determine the features and significance of the crisis, and to agree upon a set of principles and guidelines for handling it.” This is believed to be the point at which China’s basic objectives, interests and “thresholds for certain actions” are worked out.
If this is how PRC leadership developed its response to Diaoyu in 2012, then such a meeting would have taken place well before September. It could have taken place in April after Ishihara’s original announcement that the Tokyo government was planning to buy the islands, or in July after Noda publicly indicated that the Japanese central government was considering making the purchase. More likely, it would have been whenever China’s diplomats or spies reported convincing enough evidence that Japan was actually going to go through with the plan. Whatever the precise timing, the CCP knew about Japan’s nationalization plan months in advance, so the initial meeting laying down the “set of principles and guidelines for handling” the crisis would almost certainly have been convened and chaired by Hu Jintao.
According to Swaine, when the crisis is a relatively slow-moving one, as Diaoyu 2012 was, the relevant Leading Small Group (in this case Foreign Affairs) is often assigned the task of overseeing the ongoing management of China’s response over the weeks and months that follow. However, an additional ad hoc working group dedicated to the crisis may be formed if and when the General Secretary deems it necessary. The Times‘ sources told the paper that by September Xi Jinping “had began taking charge of military affairs, including a group coordinating China’s response”, suggesting this may have been the case. If Swaine’s description of ad hoc group formation applies to Diaoyu, then the working group Xi took over would also have been set up by Hu Jintao.
Most importantly, the Times‘ sources do not seem to have intimated that Xi taking over the Diaoyu response resulted in a noteworthy shift in policy. This also supports the idea that the existing reactive, non-military approach to the crisis was subject to strong consensus.
If the tolerance of this year’s anti-Japan street protests was, as the previous post suggested, a foreign policy tactic, the sequence of events described by the New York Times make it likely to have been a Hu Jintao-backed initiative because the mobilizations actully began back in mid-August, before Xi Jinping is supposed to have taken over. The PRC under Hu has form in using anti-Japan demonstrations to its advantage in the international arena. (On the other hand, the switch from Hu to Xi sounds like it happened somewhat progressively so by mid-August Hu may already have been weakened such that he was unable to suppress the protests even if he opposed them. This would have offered the chance for contending groups within the leadership to improve their positions. The next post will consider such alternative explanations for the protests.)
The basic continuity between Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping’s foreign policy stances contradicts the China-watching media’s rather more dramatic narrative of a nationalist hardliner now in control of China. On Thursday, for example, the FT told the world:
On foreign policy, Mr Xi, who is due to replace Mr Hu as president in March, has adopted more nationalist rhetoric than his predecessors.
So what exactly has Xi said that has been “more nationalist” than his predecessors?
While Deng and other leaders stressed that China should keep its head down and “bide its time” in international affairs, Mr Xi has spoken emphatically of the “great revival of the Chinese nation”.
This idea that Xi’s “great revival” talk indicates he will run a hardline foreign policy is hasty to say the least. What evidence is there linking the great revival discourse with foreign policy aggression?
Chiang Kai-shek, ostensibly the inventor of the national humiliation/revival discourse, justifiably wanted to abolish extraterritoriality but he didn’t try to drive foreigners into the sea. Instead, he allied with them against his domestic enemies, the Communists. Under Jiang Zemin, we are often reminded, the CCP (re-)introduced nationalism to “fill the ideological vacuum” after the abandonment of communism. But Jiang pursued national revival (which he called 振兴 rather than 复兴 until late 1997) by focusing on domestic development, encouraging increased foreign involvement in China’s economy, and officially enshrining the low-profile taoguang-yanghui foreign policy principle more often attributed to Deng.
And of course Hu Jintao, Xi’s allegedly less “nationalist” predecessor, mentioned “the great revival of the Chinese nation” 23 times in a single speech last year, and 9 times in his report to the 18th Party Congress in November.
The great revival discourse, as Gregory Kulacki recently pointed out, has important socialist elements that outside observers often overlook when they assume China has simply abandoned its founding ideology:
The aims of the Chinese Renaissance are fairly modest; to achieve the status of a “basically modern” nation whose citizens enjoy a “medium level” of economic development by the middle of this century.
Such a pragmatic, domestic orientation is readily apparent in Xi’s use of the concept. His repeated emphasis on the great revival began with the crackdown on corruption he outlined in the first Politburo group study session after the 18th Congress: “A mass of facts tells us that if corruption becomes increasingly serious, it will inevitably doom the party and the state!” Xi is quoted as saying (NYT translation, with exclamation mark re-inserted from the Chinese original). Clearly, foreign policy assertiveness is not the only means for Xi Jinping to demonstrate his credentials as a leader who rules for the people.
To me it seems equally possible that Xi Jinping’s “nationalist” rhetoric, backed up by already-conspicuous action against corruption, will give him breathing space to lead China to pursue more cooperative relations with the US and/or lower the temperature in its territorial disputes, if and when he decides it is in the PRC’s interests. That would follow a similar logic to Nixon in 1972, whose staunch anti-communism is generally assumed to have been crucial in enabling him to make his breakthrough trip to China. A more recent precedent is perhaps Shinzo Abe in 2006, who warmed relations with China after coming to power, despite a hardline reputation and some tough talk on foreign policy during the election campaign.
It is not a good time to be making this argument. Thursday’s fly-past by a China Maritime Surveillance (civilian) plane over the Diaoyu Islands is a sign that i may be proved completely wrong in short order. The FT’s Simon Rabinovich claims that because Xi Jinping visited the Guangzhou Military Region this week and talked about the need for China to have a strong military (also not new), there is “little doubt about who was behind the order for the Chinese surveillance flight”. As a unilateral escalation by China, this would mark a clear break with the previous policy of advancing in maritime territorial disputes via fierce responses to external provocations.
To this point, however, Xi Jinping has been continuing with Hu Jintao’s foreign policy. After all, it is Hu Jintao’s 18th Congress Work Report that is being cited by self-interested PRC policy players as the basis for intensification of a range of maritime activities, from strengthened patrols to inter-provincial cooperative fisheries facilities and construction on disputed islands. For a CMS force pushing hard for upgraded aerial surveillance capacities, as well as state aircraft status, it could easily justify a flight or two to Diaoyu and back.
As the immediate crises over Scarborough and Diaoyu have passed, and the new leadership settle down to concentrate on their overwhelmingly important domestic agendas, central coordination of China’s foreign policy actions may have slackened, allowing the five/nine/eleven dragons of the China Seas to recommence their stirring routines.