BEIJING – Only a few hours in this capital of a country with 1.3 billion people are enough to pose the question of whether the control of the Communist Party may not be cracking under the growing strains accompanying the exposure of its economy to the outside world.
Stalin perhaps had it right: “building socialism in one country” required sealing the Soviet Union off from the world except for the occasional transfusions of technology and capital to keep the experiment from collapsing under its weigh of waste and inefficiency. Of course Lenin had it right, too, when he predicted that if “The Revolution” did not come in Germany and the West, the Soviet regime would turn into an Oriental despotism.
But the incredible expansion of the Chinese economy during the past two decades was based on offering its low wage workers to the multinational companies for investment and technology transfers. But that bargain has also been accompanied by exposure to the digital revolution in all its forms.
It is increasingly clear despite a reported expenditure for “internal security” – including the Great Chinese Firewall for controlling the internet access – the Chinese cannot quarantine their population against universal ideas of freedom and justice. It’s no secret Chinese hackers invent new ways to avoid the blocks for access almost as quickly as the censors lay them on.
But the arguments over censorship have recently taken on a new public stance. A recent row between the government censors and a popular controlled media outlet in China’s southern Guangdong Province was only the tip of the iceberg. And it ended in a draw with the censors purging some of the staff but backing off somewhat from its initial repression.
Perhaps, too, that while the Communists have been successful in destroying many of the old feudal forms that dictated a certain reticence in the face of authority and power, it has been a doubled-edged sword.
Everywhere the exuberance of the Chinese personality is apparent – including behavior in crowds where no holds are barred. Interestingly the contrast with public demeanor in Taiwan is striking. One Taiwanese even complained the growing numbers of Mainland tourists are bringing erosion of local customary public order to the island.
Does this mean the Beijing leadership will lose control in the same sort of cataclysmic implosions that took place in the Soviet Union and Central Europe in 1990? Some students of China’s 3500-year history recall dynasties have usually crumbled over an extended period when corruption, leadership failure and rural revolt finally brought on their death – occasionally aided by ”barbarians” waiting at the gates to take over but quickly becoming Sincized.
But as former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pointed out to Chinese interlocutors, Beijing today faces no external threat as in the past. And there is still no answer to his question: against whom is Beijing, still a poor country in so many ways, constantly increasing a military budget and expansion of its armed forces.
Is this simply the creation of a classic “new class” feathering it nest with dual use commercial enterprises or is there a dedicated, aggressive new technocratic officer corps determined to revenge China’s 200-year history of humiliation at the hands of European and Japanese aggression? Or both?
Some observers inside and outside China are putting great stock in Xi Jinping, Beijing’s new Party, government, chief of state and chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission, who is to be formerly enthroned in March.
Xi has demonstrated an almost Western style baby-kissing campaign style. He has courted the military who are increasingly assuming a greater role in the country’s affairs. The PLA representation, for example, in the recent rubber-stamp Party Congress was more than three times all other parts of the political spectrum.
It helps that Xi’s wife, a People’s Liberation Army officer, has been a popular singer. And he has made corruption his number one public speaking topic, announcing new rules about officials meeting new requirements for transparency about their holdings. Opinion polls, for what they are worth in an authoritarian environment, have consistently called it the most important issue for most Chinese.
Whether, indeed, the long march up through the Party’s bureaucracy has somehow spared Xi of the mediocrity characterizing his outgoing predecessor and he will blossom into a charismatic figure giving content to oft promised reforms remains a question only time will tell. But it will take more than good public relations to meet what even some Party spokesmen have called a crisis of the regime.
Having abandoned Marxist-Leninist-Maoism, in all but name, the regime has made rapid economic development its raison d’etre. Skeptics point out both the two legs of the rapid expansion of the gross national product, rapidly expanding exports and a vast expansion of infrastructure, are in trouble. China’s markets in the U.S. and the European Union are suffering, the slow recovery in America and the continuing crisis of the Euro. The growing level of debt by China’s government banks and particularly by local and regional government units which characterized the last decade’s monument building will have to be curtailed.
Most observers agree with Xi that corruption has now become an economic as well as a moral and governance issue. But anti-corruption campaigns have long been a weapon in intra-Party conflict, and as often as not, when it has been publicized or punished, that has been the case.
The recent expose by a New York Times writer of corrupt practices by the family of outgoing Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was seen by Chinahands as just such a maneuver. And the dossier was seen, rightly or wrongly, as something handed the reporter by Wen’s enemies rather than the work of an unusually intrepid reporter. Wen had been increasingly outspoken in his denunciations of corruption and his call for “reform” as his time in office was expiring .and obviously had stepped on some powerful toes.
Half a billion Chinese now have access to the internet, with 6 percent able to reach non-Chinese language sites. With the number of smart phones increasing at a rate faster than any other place in the world, the problem of suppressing criticism and outright dissidence is bound to grow. That will present new challenges for a Communist Party which has rejected all suggestions of giving up its monopoly of power. And a leadership which however sincere has not solved – as the Soviet Party did not in 60 years – the problem of how the Party dictates to the country as whole body politic but somehow institutionalizes freedom of expression and dissent within the Party itself in order to refine its governance.
Sol W. Sanders, (firstname.lastname@example.org), writes the ‘Follow the Money’ column for The Washington Times on the convergence of international politics, business and economics. He is also a contributing editor for WorldTribune.com and East-Asia-Intel.com.