China’s New Mao

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Irawan Ronodipuro INDEPENDENT OBSERVER

This past Sunday, China’s Communist Party, or CCP, reached a momentous decision.  Signaling a significant break from the past that will change the face of Chinese politics and reverberate beyond its borders, the state-run news agency Xinhua reported the party proposed removing from China’s Constitution a two-term limit on the president and vice-president. Although the amendment will have to be ratified by the National People’s Congress scheduled for early March, there are no signs there will be any resistance.

Before, only Mao Zedong, the revolutionary founding father of China who ruled for nearly thirty years, was unfettered from constitutional checks on his power.   Now, more than four decades after Mao’s death, Xi Jingping—China’s president, party general secretary and chairman of the party’s central military commission—who is compared by some to modern-day strongmen such as Russia’s Putin and Turkey’s Erdogan, is set to become China’s paramount leader for life.

In retrospect, Xi’s ambition to become China’s New Mao is not totally surprising.  Soon after becoming president, Xi’s authoritarian instincts were clearly on display for those who cared to watch.  Seemingly nostalgic for Maoist China, Xi made a trip to Xibaibo, which was once the headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army during the Civil War.  For communist diehards, it is a sort of Mecca for Mao devotees.

When he first came to prominence Xi rolled out his grandiloquent nationalist and populist vision of realizing the ‘Chinese Dream’, the equivalent to U.S. President Donald Trump’s slogan of Make America Great Again, which has been based around policies ostensibly aimed at restoring order and prosperity to a nation he has oft described as being riddled with corruption and economic decay.

While it may be true Xi’s massive anti-corruption campaign has led to less graft and bribery, Xi’s tough stance has undeniably served his political ambitions by supplying him with a more pliant nexus of elites willing to bend to his will.   China experts say Xi’s campaign is nothing less than a massive purge of opponents, akin to Mao’s Cultural Revolution.  So far, Xi has disciplined dozens of members of the powerful CCP Central Committee, over 1.3 million government officials at high and low levels have been brought down by corruption and disciplinary charges, and an unknown number of those purged have been sent to their deaths or indefinite detention in China’s gulag.

In his bid to consolidate power, Xi has also dispensed of the rules and norms requiring a consensus on policymaking that were introduced by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s.  Deng did so for a specific purpose: to prevent the re-emergence of a Maoist-like dictatorship that, in the minds of most Chinese, had disastrous consequences.  Regardless, Xi has made it clear that he has little time for consensus-building; by creating small working groups and committees, mostly led by Xi himself to oversee decisions on economic policy, national security and military reform, he has made himself into China’s ultimate decision-maker.

So far Xi has managed to convince the political elite to grant him a perpetual presidency, in part out of fear for their careers or worse if they were to dissent, and in part because they believe he is the right leader to deliver on economic growth and political reforms to ensure the legitimacy and longevity of the Communist Party.  In short, politicians are banking on Xi’s ability to keeping the party in power.

Given Xi’s rise as a modern-day Mao, we must ponder the implications for the for the rest of Asia.  For the immediate future, we can be sure Xi will not adjust his aspirations for China becoming the regional hegemon.  If there is any doubt about this, one need only refer to his three-and-a-half hour speech in last year’s Communist Party Congress; talking in glowing terms about what he described as China’s ‘New Era’, Xi spelled out a 30-year vision for China which would, he said, provide “a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development.”

In terms of policy, Xi will undoubtedly continue to grow his country’s trade relations with East Asia and push to realize his signature One Belt One Road initiative.  But herein lies the danger: whilst increased trade and investment brings increased economic benefits, we should also be wary of China’s exploiting its economic prowess to influence, cajole and if deemed necessary punish her neighbors in serving its strategic interests.

On the military side of the equation, we can also be sure Xi will continue to oversee the Chinese military’s drive for modernizing its weaponry and an expansion of their presence in the Indo-Pacific region. Xi’s military will persist to develop air force bases, radar facilities and missile shelters on islands in disputed waters of the South China Sea.  And the opening of a naval port in Djibouti is more than likely the beginning of China building a dominant military presence along a large stretch on the East African coast of the Indian Ocean.

Beijing’s propagandists and Xi himself paint a picture of China in its past and present as a benign nation with scant hegemonic ambitions. Yet the Chinese navy and coast guard forays in the East and South China Sea tell us an entirely different story.  Chinese port developments in nations across the entire expanse of the Indian Ocean run counter to the official narrative of a rising hegemon with little appetite for dominance.  And then there is Xi’s saying China has never engaged in colonial conquests which is, in fact, a spurious claim:  over the millennia Chinese dynasties invaded modern Xinjiang, Mongolia and Tibet, culminating in what constitutes modern China.

Like other hegemons, including the United States and Russia, great powers rarely stay confined to their own borders.  Under Xi’s hold over China, we can be sure his vision of a ‘New Era’ will have a very long and substantial impact across Asia and even beyond.