August 16, 2018

China - Chinese politics

How to read summer grumbles about China’s swaggering leader

N THESE populist times, a head of state whose summer break shuts down much of a busy beach resort might expect a few grumbles. It says much about today’s China that—as Communist leaders arrived for an annual summer gathering in Beidaihe, north-east of Beijing—no peep of dissent could be heard on the town’s packed public beach, in clear sight of the fenced-off leaders’ district with its turreted villas, pine woods and empty, sandy shoreline. Several holiday-makers nervously insisted that they were “unsure” whether President Xi Jinping or any other bigwigs were in town.

Where the great helmsman swam

This was an implausible claim. Communist leaders have been coming to Beidaihe each summer to meet, swim and scheme since the 1950s, when Mao Zedong would alarm aides by swimming far into the soupy waters of the Bohai Sea. When a reporter visited on August 5th the town was full of tell-tale signs that the meeting was under way, starting with bare-tummied Chinese tourists in rubber rings dodging Red Flag limousines with number plates from the People’s Liberation Army Central Military Commission. Offshore, a coastguard corvette sat at anchor. China’s high-tech security state has reached Beidaihe, too. In addition to civilian, paramilitary and plain-clothes police patrolling main streets, all cars, drivers and passengers entering town had to register at a checkpoint bristling with number-plate readers and surveillance cameras. Even families entering a public park offering (distant) views of leaders’ villas had to place identity cards on digital scanners and squint into facial-recognition cameras.

Amidst this odd jumble of cavorting children and scowling guards, the few Chinese bold enough to discuss the meeting expressed approval. National leaders deserve their rest, ventured a Beidaihe resident sitting with his wife on a bench. “They need their health so they can solve problems,” said the 80-year-old retired businessman, who gave his surname as Xu. Unprompted, Mr Xu’s wife offered praise for Xi Jinping, calling him a good man who had brought China great stability. Populous China cannot afford foreign notions of freedom, volunteered Mr Xu, pointing to nearby hordes of swimmers. Without rules, who would save them if they got into trouble, he asked? As for America’s combative president and his trade war: “I couldn’t care less,” Mr Xu declared. “We’re such a big country.”

Though hardly a scientific survey, such a snapshot of provincial public opinion—combining a widespread reluctance to talk politics with outbursts of praise for Mr Xi—is a useful corrective. For in Beijing, a three-hour drive inland, this has been a febrile summer, filled with talk of brewing revolts against the president. Mr Xi is also Communist Party chairman and head of the Central Military Commission, and wields more power than any leader since Mao, filling party, military and security posts with allies and using a vast (and popular) anti-corruption drive to purge rivals.

No evidence that Mr Xi’s position is in peril has come to light. Yet the capital’s political classes, including Chinese academics who advise the government, business leaders, foreign diplomats and journalists, have spent weeks swapping rumours of bruising internal disputes about how to handle a trade war with America and generally protect a slowing economy. Some predict that Mr Xi and his inner circle will face unprecedented criticism at gatherings such as Beidaihe. Many rumours have a recurring theme: namely, that retired leaders such as Hu Jintao, his predecessor, Jiang Zemin and the former premier Zhu Rongji, are demanding an end to propaganda campaigns exalting Mr Xi as the “eternal core” of the party and “the country’s helmsman”. Such sycophancy revolts a lot of older, educated Chinese, reminding them of the personality cult around Mao that so harmed China. Related rumours have such elder statesmen demanding a reversal of last year’s decision to allow Mr Xi, in effect, to rule China for life, by abolishing the ten-year term limit that applied to his post as president. Finally, Beijing seethes with talk that retired and serving members of the government accuse Team Xi of ill-judged boasting about the country’s rise, as when state media talked up a “Made In China 2025” plan to dominate such high-tech sectors as robotics and artificial intelligence. Xi critics blame such bragging for provoking a backlash across the West.

This summer’s wildest rumours, involving purported plots against and sackings of senior figures, probably reveal more about the longings of Xi critics than anything else. They also point to the downsides of opacity. Beidaihe’s very agenda is a secret. Comings and goings of leaders must be guessed at from sightings of motorcades and presidential trains, and terse state media reports of side events at the resort. In an age when America’s president tweets his innermost thoughts, China-watchers spent the summer counting fawning references to Mr Xi on the front page of People’s Daily, to see if they had become less numerous (they had not).

It is true that by playing the all-knowing father of the nation, dispensing guidance on everything from military strategy to the building of public lavatories, Mr Xi is vulnerable when things go wrong. It is genuinely damaging that China’s leaders look paralysed in the face of Mr Trump’s attacks over trade. But it is also the case that somebody cannot be beaten by nobody, and Mr Xi faces no obvious single challenger. What he does face is widespread disgruntlement among political and business elites. Mr Xi has not just accrued power for himself, in part by locking up a lot of corrupt officials. He has spent six years making explicit the primacy of the Communist Party, a state-above-the-state that operates a parallel chain of command at every level of government, from the smallest village to the largest ministry or state-owned enterprise. Communist Party secretaries and party committees are increasingly visible, as they sideline bureaucratic figureheads, from city mayors to provincial governors, right up to the premier, Li Keqiang, who runs the State Council, a body that oversees many government ministries and agencies. A recurring theme of Beijing rumours has Mr Li and the State Council apparatus ready to stand up to Mr Xi and his inner circle, and rebuke them for such errors as bungling relations with Mr Trump. That seems a stretch. At any rate Mr Li has been damaged by a scandal involving defective vaccines given to hundreds of thousands of children, dampening such talk.

Outsiders can be forgiven for being puzzled by government-party rivalry, not least because most government officials are party members. The contest can be partly understood as a clash between ideologues, who seek political control over the economy and all arms of state power, and technocrats who believe that the state must loosen its grip for China to thrive. A revealing joke in Beijing elite circles describes how Deng Xiaoping, father of the past 40 years of reform and economic opening, assembled two teams, one comprising the country’s best technocrats, and the other China’s most ingenious Marxist theoreticians. Deng asked the first team what policies the economy needed, and commanded the second team to define those policies as socialist. Reform-minded elites fear Mr Xi has reversed that process.

Amid the rumours some facts lurk. Team Xi did misjudge Mr Trump, wrongly assuming that this businessman-president, so charming in private with Mr Xi, could be bought off with the sort of tactical concessions that China has long used to placate angry foreigners. At a dinner for a foreign leader visiting Beijing this spring, sources relate, Mr Xi and aides confidently predicted that trade tensions with America would not escalate because both countries had too much to lose, while Mr Trump’s threats were called so much theatre. Other insiders say Team Xi was getting advice from the wrong Americans, notably business titans with long China careers, and putting too much faith in such Trump aides as Steven Mnuchin, the treasury secretary.

Petitions to the throne

Yet Xi critics can be correct without posing him any tangible threat. Chinese intellectuals have been transfixed by a coruscating, erudite essay by a Tsinghua University law professor, Xu Zhangrun. The essay, which draws on centuries-old traditions of scholars petitioning the mighty, condemns the Communist leader for his draconian security policies, for eliminating term limits on the presidency, and for reviving Maoist-style propaganda, political campaigns and purges. Mr Xu charges China’s ruler with breaking the bargain underpinning the post-Mao era, that the people will tolerate one-party rule as long as they are left alone to seek prosperity and personal contentment. But its bravery is tinged with something close to snobbery. As masterfully translated by Geremie Barmé, an Australian sinologist, Mr Xu calls urban China “all very comfy and petit-bourgeois”. It is a telling line. Many Chinese reformists of the sort that foreigners meet loathe Mr Xi’s upending of post-Mao norms. But their grumbles are eerily similar to those that can be heard at Washington dinner parties, when academics or veterans of the Bush and Obama White Houses deplore Mr Trump and those voters taken in by him. Those Beltway critics don’t wield much clout.

If one charge sticks this summer, it may involve out-of-control propaganda. State media have stopped talking about Made in China 2025, and have carried editorials about the dangers of hubris, especially when China remains dependent on foreign technologies. A propaganda chief has reportedly lost his job. In Beidaihe a large portrait of Mr Xi can be seen inside a military compound, but no others are easily visible. A slogan at the town entrance reads, “Hold High the Great Banner of Xi Jinping New Era Socialism Thought with Chinese Characteristics”, but other slogans are more generic. One Western expert reflecting on this febrile summer wrote an essay asking whether we have reached peak Xi Jinping. Nobody knows. But China may have reached peak boasting.