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For observers and practitioners of foreign policy, the big news coming out of China is the completion of Xi Jinping’s ascension to the top post of both the Chinese Communist Party and the military on Thursday. As Xi and his six colleagues, including premier-to-be Li Keqiang, take their seats on the all-powerful Standing Committee, several questions are dominating China watchers and policymakers in Washington. Will Xi be able to consolidate his power over all the important organs of the state – military, party, and government? Is he an economic and political reformer? Will Xi soften China’s policy and approach toward Japan and Southeast Asia?
These questions reflect the profound anxiety in Washington’s foreign policy circles about China’s future. Many are concerned that the party and government is not in control of the People’s Liberation Army. All outside observers agree that China has to make tough choices to reform an economic model designed when the West had seemingly unlimited resources to consume cheap products. And, given the revelations of astounding corruption within the party, political reform is the best and yet most difficult cure for deepening instability. No one, not even the few at the top of the party, knows the answers to these questions.
Observers of China often attach far too much importance to any signal that suggests the nation might be moving away from one-party dictatorship. For example, some might say, since Xi was the party-secretary of Fujian province, he must be more open to reform and he must be softer on Taiwan, which sits across from Fujian. Or what about his trip to the US earlier this year? He took in a Lakers game and loved it, charmed the citizens of Iowa, and came off as less stiff and more charismatic than Hu Jintao. China optimists grasp at these data points in the great hope that finally someone in China will see the need for reform. My own take: don’t hold your breath. Reform will come only when enough people in China get sick and tired of the corruption and abuses of power by the CCP. Xi did not sign on for the job in order to lead a collective suicide.
But another more fundamental point should concern us as Xi begins his reign—that he is not running one but many Chinas. Just a quick scan of news stories about China also shows that Washington’s concerns about China are not foremost on the minds of other nations or centers of power around the world. On the same day that the leadership transition was reported, here are some other headlines about China from around the world.
And on it goes. Washington’s China—that of foreign and economic policy makers—is very different from the China of the technology community, or China as viewed by Australia, Chile and Abu Dhabi. The China that bullies Japan over the Senkaku islands looks far different from the China that is scared of its own people. China is a place where Apple’s products are assembled and bought, but also a place that rich people are left to buy real estate elsewhere, just in case.
There is nothing particularly new about the notion of many Chinas. And one could argue convincingly that there are many Americas too. But the question that ties all of these news strands together is the following: what keeps the country together? For America it is a creed and a shared set of first principles. But what is it for China? As the country becomes more dynamic socially and economically, the calcified party state is going to have to come up with a set of answers to that question. All we can do is wish Mr. Xi good luck in trying to keep all the Chinas together, and to ensure that we have a plan in case he does not succeed.
For more on China, check out Dan Blumenthal and Phillip Swagel’s latest book, An Awkward Embrace: The United States and China in the 21st Century.
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