Fri, 31 Mar 2023

Hong Kong [China], March 13 (ANI): Strained relations between China and the USA have taken an even frostier plunge during the first annual session of the 14th National People's Congress (NPC), which ended on 13 March. Chairman Xi Jinping has signalled that he will not make any placatory moves, despite China being caught out over the spy balloon saga and its alleged contemplation of supplying lethal aid to Russia's war against Ukraine.

The nine-day series of choreographed meetings saw Xi cement his dominance over the five-yearly transition of leading lights in the government. Of course, Xi had already confirmed his preeminence over the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at the 20th Party Congress last October, but this latest session demonstrated Xi's control of the legislature and executive branch of government as well. It culminated in an announcement of the president and vice president of China, and appointees to the State Council. Xi received a third five-year term as president, but that was a foregone conclusion. Naturally, the vote was 2,952 in favour, with not a single objection. Xi was unanimously returned as head of the Central Military Commission too, which controls the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

Xi and other candidates who were awarded posts are believed to have been unopposed in a predetermined, highly secretive election process. Han Zhen, former executive vice president of the State Council, was appointed vice president of China, a largely ceremonial position. Xi has total monopoly on power, and he is using that to persuade China's population to resist the West and plant seeds of war preparation. Xi warned in a speech, "Western countries led by the United States have implemented all-round containment, encirclement and suppression of China, which has brought unprecedented grave challenges to our nation's development." Subsequently, Xi called for the country to "more quickly elevate the armed forces to world-class standards".

Alongside regime security, a priority for Xi is to fortify China and its economy to handle prolonged tensions and strategic competition with the West. Instead of forging closer ties with the world as Deng Xiaoping once did, Xi is erecting a great wall once again around China. This is not to say he is closing the door to foreign trade, but he is circling the wagons to prevent foreign influence and to reduce reliance on the outside world. He is intent on making the populace fear the USA as a threat, and for the CCP to give them a sense of security.

The USA, Xi argues, is China's enemy, as he manipulates public opinion to his own ends. It is patently clear that the Deng Xiaoping era of reform and opening up that commenced four decades ago is truly over. Xi has demolished many tenets that Deng worked so hard to implement after the chaos of Mao Zedong. An example is collective leadership, where Deng sought never to return to the excesses of one-man dictatorship.

With CCP officials in charge at every level during Mao's reign, the results were disastrous. That is why Deng ceded a degree of control, allowing the government to manage the economy and administer the country. Now, however, those in government are mere office managers with rubber stamps, while Xi decides everything. Xi has blurred the line between party and government, narrowed opportunities for the private sector, done away with term limits for himself as leader, and centralized decision-making.

Xi is directly confronting capitalism with his own model. Furthermore, he is boldly promoting aggression in the face of unexpected black swan events and gray rhinos, the latter a phrase that refers to highly obvious yet ignored threats. Xi has shunned the power-sharing approach of his forebears, and clamped down on factional competition, corruption and policy drift. Obedience and austerity are his watchwords, while he remains suspicious of market forces, the West and seeks a return to absolute party control, even over foreign companies operating in China.

On 6 March, Xi introduced a 24-character phrase that could become China's new foreign policy mantra. In the face of challenges, Xi urged China to "be calm, stay determined, seek progress and stability, be proactive and achieve things, unite [under the CCP banner] and dare to fight". Compare this with Deng's 24-character strategy of "observe calmly, secure our position, cope with affairs calmly, hide our capacities and bide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile, and never claim leadership".

Interestingly, Qin Gang was elevated to the State Council just two months after being named as new foreign minister. It took Wang Yi five years to achieve the same after he was appointed foreign minister. This is yet another indicator that the foreign affairs system has been elevated in China's thinking. Yet Qin Gang wasted no time in creating a combative tone for relations with the USA. He warned in his very first press conference, "If the United States does not hit the brake, but continues to speed down the wrong path, no amount of guardrails can prevent derailing, and there surely will be conflict and confrontation." His harsh, undiplomatic language showed that China's "wolf warrior diplomacy" is alive and well.

"Such competition is a reckless gamble, with the stakes being the fundamental interests of the two peoples and even the future of humanity," Qin intoned. Demonstrating the same flair for mistruth, Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Hua Chunying recently tweeted, "With China and Russia working together, the world will have the driving force toward multi-polarity and greater democracy in international relations, and global strategic balance and stability will be better ensured." Russia and China leading the charge to greater democracy? Such twisted logic defies explanation. One can only be reminded of George Orwell's statement, "War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength."The first session of the 14th NPC saw ministers and ten members of the State Council executive committee appointed. The State Council is a body that manages 31 provincial administrations and 26 ministries. While the Politburo is the body that possesses real power, the State Council has previously enjoyed some leeway in implementing central government policy, including economic affairs. This has changed, however. Xi ensured that the council executive committee's top ten members are all brand new first-timers, representing an unprecedented turnover of personnel. Indeed, Xi has assembled a team of senior party apparatchiks loyal to him. Technocratic skills are not necessarily their most important characteristic, but ideological purity and personal fealty are.

As Cheng Li, Director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, and Mallie Prytherch, a research assistant at the same institute, noted: "Loyalty to Xi was clearly the first and most important criterion for elite promotion, as demonstrated by the makeup of the Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee." The ten members of the executive committee are: Li Qiang as premier; Ding Xuexiang as executive vice premier; He Lifeng, Zhang Guoqing and Liu Guozhong as vice premiers; Wu Zhenglong as state councillor and secretary general; Shen Yiqin as state councillor (incidentally, the only female); Qin Gang as state councillor and foreign minister; Li Shangfu as state councillor and national defense minister; and Wang Xiaohong as state councillor and public security minister. Li Qiang had no experience as vice premier, yet he has been elevated to premier.

However, a plus from Xi's perspective is that Li ruthlessly imposed COVID lockdowns on Shanghai. The US-based academics Cheng and Prytherch wrote of commonly perceived trends in the State Council's make-up: "Namely, 1) Xi is surrounded by 'yes men'; 2) the new leadership is preoccupied with state security and social stability over economic issues; and 3) policy priorities in Xi's third term focus on the development of state- owned enterprises at the expense of the private sector. These views have truth to them, but they should be subjected to a more balanced and foresighted analysis." The two academics examined each premise in depth. Firstly, is Xi surrounded by "yes men"?While the authors acknowledged that loyalty to Xi is a prerequisite for promotion, "Every member of the State Council will be within Xi's circle of trust, but each member differs in their degree of loyalty. New factions and new splits between loyalists will arise as they compete to fulfill Xi's priorities. Additionally, since Xi has surrounded himself with people whom he considers deeply trustworthy, he is more likely to give them room to manoeuvre, implement experimental policies and make their own governance decisions. Moreover, one may argue that elite recruitment in China, while not primarily driven by meritocracy, rarely allows inept officials to reach its highest ranks." What about the second premise that the leadership is preoccupied with state security instead of the economy?Certainly, Xi in last October's report mentioned "security" a startling 91 times, whereas the "economy" warranted only 60 mentions. Cheng and Prytherch noted: "The makeup of the State Council reflects the renewed focus on state security and sociopolitical stability. Half of its members have a security or military background, including Wang Xiaohong, who spent his entire career in the public security apparatus." However, it is the case that most incoming members have extensive provincial-level experience in economic leadership. It should be remembered that social stability and economic livelihood are firmly intertwined in China too. With China experiencing just 3% economic growth last year, this is far less satisfactory compared to the 8-10% that most middle-class Chinese are used to.

What about the premise that Xi will focus on state-owned enterprises (SOE) rather than the private sector in his third term? Four members are defense industry technocrats: Zhang Guoqing spent much of his career at Norinco; and Liu Guozhong and Wu Zhenglong were educated as military engineers. Cheng and Prytherch assessed: "The State Council's balance of leadership experience in both industrial policy and market reform ensures that SOE development, while a priority, may not necessarily come at the expense of the private sector. Yet Xi's assumption of full control of the party-state has created a vulnerability: He and his handpicked leaders must deliver on their promises.

Xi will be lauded for his accomplishments and blamed for his failures. To escape the middle-income trap, China's leaders will strive toward the goal of "common prosperity" - primarily to enhance the Chinese middle class." The academics believe the State Council's leadership "will be vigorously tested in the coming months and years as to whether it can successfully frame 'common prosperity' as neither anti-market nor anti-growth. Rather, China's emphasis on domestic economic growth and support for the middle class necessitates market dynamics and openness. There's more going on in China's leadership than conventionalmedia caricatures suggest; the outlines of the new State Council may be visible, but the picture has not yet been painted."In his farewell to senior officials, state-run CCTV failed to air outgoing Premier Li Keqiang's remarks that appeared to make a dig at Xi. Li warned, "Heaven is looking at what humans are doing. The firmament has eyes." Literally, Li Keqiang was praising the work of State Council workers and urging them to continue under the new premier, but a deeper meaning was present. The State Council was once a Li stronghold, but now it is Xi's entirely. Li repeatedly referred to the "people's voice" and "people's power", with hints of scepticism at Xi's policies that have frittered away the people's role and caused decline in the State Council. Li, from the opposing Youth League faction, has impeded some of Xi's policies, so it is highly likely that the latter's policies will be implemented more quickly now that Xi controls the State Council. Instead of taking advice from local government, think tanks and stakeholders, Xi will more easily push through his own agendas.

Yet this could prove dangerous, as local officials fail to vocalize objections or raise contrary ideas. Xi has created an echo chamber, where officials are too afraid to voice dissent. At the same NPC session, Li Shangfu was confirmed as national defense minister. Unfortunately, he has been under US sanctions since 2018 over China's purchase of Su-35 fighters and S-400 air defense systems from Russia. This will make it extremely difficult for him to meet with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin! (ANI)

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