“Fair is foul and foul is fair” (Macbeth)
Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar (to be published in the IPCS Web journal)
In 1981, five years after Mao Zedong’s death China adopted an official verdict on his life, it called Mao a great revolutionary whose contributions outweighed the cost of his mistakes (Zhisui Li). Literature and history of later years have, however, suggested otherwise. Mao through his purges, social upheavals and programmes during the “great leap forward” and the “cultural revolution” was directly responsible for the death of 38 million people (Chang and Halliday) in the former while the latter accounted for 20 million (Ye Jianying , vice chairman CPC). The consequences of the two ill-advised policies was total collapse of the economy that threw China back to primal conditions, socio-political anarchy, massacres and famines of monstrous proportions. These tragic episodes hardly qualify to be “light-weight” blunders. By the same logic that puts in balance ‘contributions against mistakes’, mankind could possibly take an alternate view of the Hitlers of this world! If at all there is a truism revealed, it is how excessive power, drives its wielder into an illusory world where grand visions forebear even more grand outrages.
Thirty-seven years later another event of great geopolitical significance passed into Chinese history endorsed by China’s rubber stamp lawmakers. The Constitutional provision that limited the President’s tenure to two 5 year terms was abolished as it paved the way for Xi Jinping to be anointed President for life, General Secretary of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Central Military Commission also for life.
The tenure system was created by Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping to prevent an encore of the excesses of Mao’s rule. Aim being to promote institutionalised collective leadership and peaceful transition of power. Both of Deng’s successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, were leaders who stayed the course of collective leadership. They further propagated the terms articulated by Deng of “hiding one’s strengths and biding one’s time”. The tenure arrangement paid off, at least until 2012; then Xi assumed office.
The international scene, has noted how China’s posture has been turned on its head from the Deng days, gone was the maxim to “hide capacities and bide time, to maintain a low profile and abjure leadership.” Xi, in his words, has sought to strengthen the party’s control over a modernizing society and restore China to what he considers its rightful place as a global power and, indeed, rejuvenate the nation. Further, Xi’s Thought and political theory, “on socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” was, in imperial fashion, added to the Preamble of the Constitution as the new political doctrine. Xi’s message encapsulated in “His Thought”, resonates with many urban entrepreneurs and the “money bags”. Central theme is the promise of national glory bound to the nation upholding his absolute leadership even while promising that people will run the country (Buckley). It is never clear whether his constituency is the worker and the peasant (which it certainly appears not to be) or the Chinese netizen; at which time there is an apparent cleavage in society which underscores the unreality of ‘His Thought’. Nevertheless, the propaganda mills link Xi not only to Mao Zedong, but to Confucius as well. Awkwardly, Mao’s thoughts were implacably in contradiction to Confucius’. History reminds us of Mao’s yearning to “smash the grip of Confucius on China and ignite revolution”.
Xi has, in the meantime, initiated military measures to persist with claims within the 9-Dash Line in the South China Sea (SCS), precipitate a territorial embroilment in the Ladakh/Arunachal region of India, begun a global infrastructure plan called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), drastically reorganized and modernized the military, beefed up domestic security and enforced ideological purity in schools and the media — all parts of his vision of a rejuvenated China on the world stage that stays faithful to its Communist and Confucian root. Willy Lam, Xi’s biographer in a rare admission declares “at any rate Xi is susceptible to making big mistakes because there are now almost no checks or balances, he has become emperor for life.”
Xi’s hold on power is now implicit; even the big question of how he chooses to wield it is becoming apparent. In the SCS, claims defined by the 9-dash line have been judicially de-bunked by an International Tribunal at The Hague in 2016 and historically the claim’s ancestry has been discredited by the fact that Zheng He’s seventh and final voyage ended in 1433, significant as they must have been, all Chinese maritime activity in the region was thereafter banned by royal edict. Yet, Xi has ordained ownership of 3.6 million square kilometres of the SCS, and he has shown no qualms of using military power to make fast his hold.
In Ladakh, ever since the Doklam crisis of 2017, three factors would appear to have played on Beijing planners: First, the growing pugnacity of the “Quad” (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) and the coalescing fall-out it has amongst the littorals of the SCS. In addition, hindrance that Quad’s intrusive presence poses to progress of the maritime segment of the BRI must cause some misgivings. Second, the rapid pace of, long neglected, infra-structure development and Indian military build-up along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh and Arunachal is an augury of response to any military misadventure. Third, the BRI is critical to the generation of a Sino-centric global order, India’s steadfast rejection of the continental segment on grounds of sovereignty infractions undermines the very idea. The three seen together have, no doubt, aroused Beijing to use their military to test India’s resolve.
Is there a favourable presumption that may be made with regard to Xi’s motives, that, in fact total power in his hands (in a variant that may trouble Lord Acton) may be for the good of China? The turbulence that we are witness to in the SCS, the brinkmanship in Taiwan and Ladakh, strife in Hong Kong and Tibet, intentions to revise global governance, the Uighur atrocities, illicit trade practices, a cavalier approach to international conventions and an illusory security architecture predicated on a “community with a shared future” (China national defence in a new era white paper July 2019) are disconcerting and would suggest anything but making agreeable assumptions about intent.
As Xi mulls over his next power play – whether to falsify geography, misrepresent history, devise another “debt to lease’ mercantile trap, trample over one more international convention or even initiate a hot engagement; he would do well to fully understand Orwell’s words, that nations like human minds cannot so easily be torn to pieces and put back together again in new shapes of your own choosing.