Two remarkable documents emerged from China last week, notes ChinaFile: the first is the essay “A Thousand Yes-Men Cannot Equal One Honest Advisor”—available here in Chinese and translated here into English—which appeared on the website of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. The second is an open letter calling for Xi Jinping’s resignation, penned by a group describing themselves as “loyal Party members.” What, if anything, do these documents suggest about the stability of Xi’s regime?
The document on the website of the CCDI is more significant than the open letter, says Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:
Asking a leader to resign is a sign of opposition, and in a party of 86 million it is not necessarily a sign of danger that a few members have ideas of their own. The CCDI document, however, is an act of remonstrance: although it emanates from a posture of loyalty to the leader, it presents a more serious challenge. Chinese political tradition gives great value to “loyal remonstrance”, in which one warns a powerful figure as a way of serving him, at the risk of one’s head. Remonstrance comes from within the leader’s camp, rather than from opponents. And, as the historical and literary allusions in the document suggest, it comes about when the leader is in great danger—from himself.
IN THEORY Chinese officials receive promotions based on their performance against a range of targets: delivering strong growth, maintaining social stability and, until recently, enforcing the one-child policy have been the most important, The Economist notes:
But scholars debate the extent to which the system really does reward those who excel according to these (in any case flawed) metrics. Some believe the emphasis on merit is real, and helps explain the country’s stunning economic progress over the past 35 years, albeit at the cost of things that count for less in appraisals, such as clean air. Others reckon that connections to the right leaders matter more for those trying to advance their careers. New research, however, suggests a third option: that those who get ahead are adept not at stimulating growth nor at currying favor, but at cooking the books.
China’s struggle for a new normal
This year’s China Development Forum and papers prepared by scholars working at the State Council’s Development Research Center confirm that the country confronts four principal challenges, notes FT analyst Martin Wolf:
The first is how to transform its pattern growth, quantitatively and qualitatively. The second is how to manage the inevitable slowdown in underlying growth relatively smoothly. The third is how to manage China’s interface with the world economy. The last is how to manage its domestic political evolution.
The envisaged transformation of China into a prosperous market-oriented economy creates a big political test, notes FT analyst Martin Wolf:
Beijing must be decisive and yet responsive to the needs of the people. At present, it seems strangely indecisive on the economy and yet increasingly authoritarian on the politics.
Only a fool would consider political instability anything but a disaster for China and the world. Equally, the desire of President Xi Jinping to attack corruption and so strengthen the legitimacy of the Communist party is understandable.
It is hard, though, to believe that an innovative and outward-looking China can be contained indefinitely within the straitjacket of an all-powerful party-state. Its political institutions must surely move beyond the “democratic centralism” invented by Vladimir Lenin a century ago.
In the Western press, the strength of ideology among China’s leadership is often downplayed, notes China Digital Times:
The Party is cast as simply a bunch of stability-loving capitalists who still call themselves a “Communist Party” out of force of habit. But this is a country whose leadership refers to the internet as “the primary battlefield for ideological struggle” and sees the nation’s media as a tool to “protect the party’s authority and unity.”
Little Space for Uyghur, Tibetan Grievances
It’s already been many years since anyone seriously asserted that continuing political liberalization would be the certain result of economic growth in post-Mao China. One might propose, however, that we are seeing something somewhat opposite: as economic indicators turn downward the post-1989 idea that if left to its authoritarian ways the CCP will continue to deliver economic progress and better lives is no longer taken for granted, notes analyst Elliot Sperling:
In this environment, the lashing out at scapegoats and the tightening of the space available for dissident speech and action in the PRC is unquestioned. ….If this sort of reaction is now familiar, it has long been evident in the way the most aggrieved of China’s “minority nationalities” …have been treated. The troublesome incorporation of Uyghurs and Tibetans into the PRC has been particularly fraught since the inception of the PRC, essentially as a result of the late-19th-early-20th centuries’ structuring of Chinese identity in such a way that Uyghurs, Tibetans and Mongols have come to be viewed as indisputably Chinese (rather than subjects of China). Thus, their centrifugal impulses—real or perceived—invariably seem threatening to a regime for which the unification and of China has, since 1949, been infused with legitimating significance.
In this environment dissent and grievances from Uyghurs and Tibetans are not seen simply as expressions of discontents that might be redressed. They are, rather, threats to the stability of the regime and the nation, Sperling suggests.
The core assumption has been that the delivery of economic development and modernization will ultimately “buy” the loyalty of such ethnic groups as the Uyghur – a strategy that was intensified with the institution of the Great Western Development campaign (GWD) in 2000, adds analyst Michael Clarke:
While this approach has delivered economic development to Xinjiang it has not alleviated the underlying causes of Uyghur (and other ethnic minority) disaffection with rule from Beijing. …. Frequently it has had the reverse result of aggravating already discontented populations and such negative results are predictable when the development efforts do not take into consideration local people’s attachment to their historical homelands, to their cultural traditions (including religion), and to their language….A further disjuncture between the theory and reality behind the OBOR is to be found through an examination of the ‘new Silk Road’ narrative itself.
“Yet, the core challenge for Beijing is that such transnational connectivity, while holding the potential to enhance China’s influence across its Eurasian frontiers, is also likely to create opportunities for the transmission of unregulated currents antithetical to its core goal of integrating Xinjiang” he adds.
The foremost aim of Chinese authorities’ “Uyghur terror-threat” mobilization outside Xinjiang is stability among the Han majority, China specialist Tom Cliff suggests:
Initially confined to Xinjiang, China has significantly expanded “anti-terror” mobilization across the country. Urban police forces are rapidly being augmented with paramilitary units, and equipment including armored cars and semi-automatic weapons. The Chinese authorities employ a discourse of “anti-terror” to justify the militarization of the streets in Han-majority regions. Taking such assertions at face value is, I believe, problematic…
The discourse of Uyghur instability has spread beyond Xinjiang not least because the need for a discourse of Uyghur instability has spread beyond Xinjiang.
Analysts Leland Miller, John Lee, and Eric Brown discuss the viability of the Chinese authoritarian economic model (above)