FOREIGN AFFAIRS by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Will President Xi Jinping be China's Gorbachev?
, August 30, 2014
China’s Communist Party controls everything. With a membership of 82.6 million, it is the world’s biggest political party.
Political scientists like to draw the distinction between “cadre parties” and “mass parties”. Cadre parties, like the Chinese Communist Party, are not open to all who wish to join them. Membership is the privilege of a carefully selected elite. Mass parties encourage all who share their beliefs to join, such as — in theory at least — the Australian Labor Party and Liberal Party.
Zhou Yongkang, China’s Himmler
The Chinese Communist Party literally has the power of life or death over its citizens, as the courts are answerable solely to the Party.
So, when China’s newly-installed President Xi Jinping moved against Zhou Yongkang — one of the most powerful men in China — it was a very serious matter.
Zhou (pronounced “Joe”), China’s former domestic security chief, was known as “China’s Himmler”. He also controlled China’s petroleum industry. He rose through the ranks of the oil industry, and along the way collected a substantial fortune, said to be in the hundreds of millions of Australian dollars.
Previously, it had been assumed that an official of Zhou’s stature was untouchable. China depends on a form of collective leadership exercising a balance of power. Until the jailing of Bo Xilai, due to his role in corrupt practices in Szechuan Province, it had been assumed that high officials were untouchable.
The fall of Bo, however, was the writing on the wall for Zhou, as he had been seen as Bo’s protector. Zhou’s downfall may have been the result of his accumulating too much power, not too little. By being too powerful, he threatened to upset the balance of power.
The move on Zhou showed that President Xi was prepared to attack the “tigers” as well as swatting the “flies” — that is, the powerful officials and the lowly bureaucrats. Xi’s move to take down the “tigers” makes him popular with the ordinary people. Membership of the Communist Party is by invitation only, and the vast majority of people are excluded from membership and therefore cannot share in the spoils of office. The public is disgusted by the stench of corruption issuing from the Party.
Xi and his sidekick, Wang Qishan, who runs the anti-corruption campaign, are entirely serious about purging corrupt elements in the Party. Since the start of the year, the Party has reportedly purged over 200,000 officials, as part of Xi’s drive to smash factions opposed to reform.
“But the two men also seem to think that graft poses an almost existential threat to the Communist Party’s rule. And probably they are right,” reports The Economist in an article headlined “Corruption: No ordinary Zhou” (August 2, 2014).
However, once a purge of this magnitude gets underway, it is difficult to stop. Mikhail Gorbachev did not set out to destroy the Soviet Union, but to reform it. But once the forces of reform were unleashed, it proved to be impossible to restrain them.
The public media in China has been hinting that a bigger fish than Bo was in Xi’s sights, and it could only have been Zhou, who was one of the biggest fish of all.
According to former U.S. ambassador to China, J. Stapleton Roy, President Xi is concerned about “becoming a Chinese Gorbachev”, that is, “pushing ahead [with] reforms in a way that loses control of the process”.
New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos says that Chinese people “now have a thicker conception of the good life”, adding: “[Xi] recognises that his single biggest threat is not from overseas.... His biggest threat is at home.
“He has to build the legitimacy of the Communist Party in an age when communism doesn’t exist, and the party has been dishonoured by its own actions. That’s a heavy lift, and he has to figure out how to do it” (AsiaSociety.org blog, November 8, 2013).
A failed economy could threaten the existence of the Communist Party. Since Deng Xiaoping set the agenda with his 1992 trip to South China, China’s economy has been focused on export-led growth and greater reliance on the free market. Deng’s famous quip, “To get rich is glorious”, gained wide currency and became the guiding light for a new generation of Chinese.
Now the economy is slowing in relative terms. Whether it can be transformed from one based on growth led by exports and capital works to one based on domestic consumption has yet to be seen. Xi is also the first paramount leader not personally selected by Deng to control China.
Just how much the Communist Party still seeks to control society emerged in the last few weeks with a campaign against dog ownership.
Dogs are regarded as a “Western influence”. Although Mao condemned dog ownership as “elitist”, many Chinese people like dogs, particularly the elderly. It is true that in certain areas of China people eat dog meat, but household pets rarely end up in the pot. Most Chinese people are genuinely fond of their pets and, if the Communist Party moved to purge these “Western influences”, it would make the Party very unpopular, especially among the middle classes.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer, who spent several years in China and has visited most of the country’s provinces and major cities.