Monday, 4 September 2017

North Korea's Nuclear Test Isn't Terrible for Xi Jinping

What a difference a detonation makes.

Sunday morning’s explosion of a hydrogen bomb by North Korea is seen by many observers as terrible news for Beijing. The Chinese leadership had been pressing Pyongyang in recent days to halt its nuclear program, and stop ratcheting up tensions in the region, so a lot of analysts see the blast as a major setback.

The event is also presented as especially embarrassing for President Xi Jinping in particular, coming on the eve of a keynote speech he was to deliver at the major BRICS summit--Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa--in the southern Chinese city of Xiamen. As one analysis put it, “President Xi Jinping does not like surprises.” According to the story headline, “The timing of North Korea’s nuke test could not be worse for China’s Xi.”

But all of that is highly questionable.

First, how does anyone know what Xi likes or doesn’t like? Apart from his inner circle, there’s no evidence whatsoever about Xi’s reaction—either what it was, or what it had to be. Given the paucity of information about Xi’s personality and how he reacts in person, claims like that are rash at best, misleading readers into thinking that someone has insight in Chinese leaders that's in fact undemonstrated.

Moreover, how does anyone know that Xi would have been surprised—given that there were all sorts of signals that another test of some sort on Pyongyang’s part was likely to occur?

After all, North Korea’s state media ran news of a visit by Leader Kim Jong Un to the Nuclear Weapons Institute, and claimed that the country had a hydrogen bomb capable of being mounted onto a new intercontinental ballistic missile. Given the long-standing military ties between the two countries, is it really probable that no one in Beijing knew that a demonstration of some sort might be forthcoming? Was China’s intelligence apparatus so inept that they were completely taken aback by the event? Why the unsupported presumption of surprise when it’s just as likely that there were indicators, signals, signs of something about to occur? To assume that Beijing and Xi were stunned is just that--an assumption, one that is contrary to how the relationship between China and the DPRK has usually been depicted. There's not a lot of logic in any of that.

Just as curious are the claims that the recent test is terrible for Xi.

Quite the contrary, it could well turn out to be a gift.

Of course, the prevailing Party line is about stability before the 19th Party Congress, and maybe if everything stayed quite until mid-October, that would be wonderful. But this is the real world, and insofar as the 19th is concerned, these conclaves aren’t nearly as scripted as some observers seem to believe. Events happen, and Chinese officials know that, which is why there’s still so much posturing and positioning going on. It's a dynamic situation, so changes are to be expected--and some officials here (Xi included) might even be seeking opportunities to make more of them.

Equally important to consider is that China’s leadership and policymaking apparatus isn’t a monolith by any means—which is why referring to the policies pursued towards Pyongyang’s nuclear program as “China’s policies” is simplistic and misleading. Just because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs decries the test doesn't mean that they're in charge, or that they represent the majority view here.

There are Chinese analysts who are insisting that North Korea’s recent tests are a major disruption are surely right—from their perspective, one which wants a return to the Six Party Talks and reflects the views of particular parts of the bureaucracy.  

But Xi and his supporters may have rather different views.

They could look to turn the increased tension to their advantage—that is, their policy agenda—by arguing Pyongyang’s effort to become a nuclear power is another reason why China needs to be more than just another major power. Beijing must dominate the region, they can insist, because it can’t stop North Korea (or protect it) without a more assertive foreign policy, and China needs to continue to rejuvenate the military to make it capable of carrying out its new goals. Xi clearly sees China as the preeminent power in the area, and he appears to be very much a unilateralist where regional matters are concerned. Pyongyang's nuclear test doesn't undercut him, but actually aids he and his allies in making arguments that are hardline.

Moreover, Xi and his people can contend that trying to be the mediator clearly hasn’t worked for Beijing: It hasn’t halted Pyongyang’s progress, only postponed the reckoning again and again. They can argue it’s now time to make a decisive choice to oppose American-Japanese aggression (as some see it) and support Kim (which is what at least some of China’s hardline media appears to be urging). Those officials and advisers insisting that Beijing’s best play is continuity (being a responsible regional partner) can be cast by opponents—such as Xi and his people--as outmoded and out of touch, should they choose to do so.

So whether this was a surprise or not, it could turn out to be more of an opening than a setback for Xi and his camp, a further chance for his sort of China to start suiting up, and for Xi to demonstrate yet again how he’s the sort of leader the nation needs to have around, perhaps even longer than usual—someone unafraid to pursue a new agenda, and not subject to all that shocks and awes others. Kim's test is just the sort of examination that Xi excels at. There's not a lot of reason to think that Xi's suddenly on his back foot.

Anyway, that’s in Beijing. Some locals here in Jiangsu think that Kim and North Koreans generally are crazy, while other residents see That Dear Leader and his followers as actually quite clever. Of course, more than a few don’t much care, as they see themselves untouched by Beltway issues here or abroad.

Just as important, a handful admit that they really don't know what’s going on, or how it will all turn out. They say that it’s too early to draw any conclusions.

How insightful of them—though nobody should be surprised.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Is Politics Really In Command of the Chinese Military?

There’s a very long essay this morning on civil-military relations in Nanjing Daily, entitled “Politics Builds A Fighting Force: Consolidate The Original, Open The New, Forever Forward” [政治建军,固本开新永向前].

Pretty much every major Party and military media outlet is running the piece, which isn’t surprising given Beijing’s deepening control (read: centralisation) of news here.

What is striking is that someone here seems to feel the need for such a lengthy essay to appear.

The reason is found in what problems the essay propounds.

Like many similar expositions, this one proceeds—at least at first—chronologically, highlighting the evolution and certain achievements of the People’s Armed Forces. While the piece refers to the faith in the measures being undertaken to “build a world-class military” [建设世界一流军队], it’s clear that the Party leadership thinks that the Chinese military needs to respond to two political challenges.

The first challenge is from outside powers messing about with Chinese society.

“There’s an undercurrent surging of ‘color revolutions’ and “cultural transmutation [文化转基因],” the essay intones, echoing claims by Beijing hardliners that foreign forces are trying to subvert Party authority over society. 

According to the editorial, “anti-China forces are intensifying efforts to do everything possible to get Westernization to take root in China, trying to pull the People's Army away from the flag of the Party.” And because Chinese society itself is becoming more diversified, “hostile forces are accelerating ideological and cultural infiltration [文化渗透], the essay warns. Therefore, “officers and soldiers must always maintain political firmness and ideological and moral purity, and enhance their immunity [政治免疫力]” to such influences, including those who engage in “online distortions of our party and army history, and attempt to discredit our heroic martyrs and other heroes.”

To mention this issue signals that the military’s methods of combatting this threat have thus far fallen short.

The second problem for China’s armed forces, according to the essay, is that military corruption hasn’t gone away.

The essay reminds readers that “an army is always faced with two kinds of tests: One is the battlefield and the life-and-death duel with the enemy; the other is the risk of being destroyed by their own camp. [一支军队永远面对着两种考验:一个是战场上与敌人的生死对决,另一个是阵营内被自己打垮的危险.]

The second struggle isn’t done yet, though the piece is at pains to point out the progress made in identifying large-scale graft by the upper echelons, and gives the current Party leadership well-deserved credit for confronting the level and scale of corruption among some high-ranking officers. What’s still in process, according to the essay, is the construction of a comprehensive system of supervision—that is, institutional oversight by the political powers-that-be.

Whenever State media highlights circumstances and conditions, they’re almost always actually identifying illnesses. So while many in the international media are looking at China’s rising military capabilities, the Party leadership remains concerned about the institutional shortcomings of the armed forces here.

The way to address those deficiencies, according to the essay, is for the military to “intensify command consciousness” [强化号令意识]—that is, strengthen the armed forces’ allegiance to the Communist Party.[1]

That this matter needs more than just mentioning implies that questions of loyalty and support for the Party core evidently remain. If this essay is coming from Xi’s camp, then he and they are uneasy, and probably a bit unhappy. What direct action—if any—might be forthcoming isn’t made clear.

Still, this essay has a larger meaning. It could well be the start of a series of pronouncements—conclusions, really—about what was discussed at the Beidaihe meetings and what was agreed on there. Identifying what’s been resolved—and what hasn’t been—should indicate what sort of Party Congress the 19th session is going to be. Already, it’s looking less simple and straightforward than some might have wished.

[1] “The Party's absolute leadership of the armed forces is the essential distinguishing feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” [党对军队的绝对领导是中国特色社会主义的本质特征.] Later in the essay, there’s a particularly pointed reminder that the armed forces here belong to the Party, not the nation, and thus the need to continue to fight against “military nationalization” [军队国家化]. Apparently, that debate isn’t dead.

Monday, 28 August 2017

In Nanjing, Stability Suddenly Slides Back In

China’s Communist Party will hold its 19th Party Congress later this year—an event where a major power struggle will occur and Chairman Xi Jinping will emerge with even greater authority (and possible longer tenure) than he enjoys presently.

Well, that’s at least according to the Establishment Narrative, which portrays Chinese politics as a cage-match, where all leaders are basically back-stabbers and spend all their time wrestling for even more influence than they already enjoy, neglecting policy in preparation for the main event.

But matters outside China’s Beltway show the situation to be otherwise.

What concerns local officials here in Jiangsu isn’t the event but the run-up. At least that’s what they’re talking about this month—ensuring a stable social environment while Party leaders try to decide the agenda at the 19th Congress (and even when it will be held).

This emphasis on upholding social stability [维护社会安全稳定] that’s appeared in various forms in major Party media in recent days here is an interesting one. Nanjing government has only rarely used the term “stability” in recent years, and was even reluctant to mention it as a governing concept during demonstrations in 2011 and with other protests more recently. The local political apparatus is built for hearing complaints, soliciting input, and working political networks that rely on the longevity of families, friends, and residents who remain rather familiar with each other. The city is suffused with normal.

So this sudden focus on social stability is an awkward one for more than a few local officials here, simply because it's not been an ongoing concern.

The result is a whole raft of purportedly critical tasks out of Beijing that Nanjing authorities are now going to have to get going on.

For example, on August 19th, high-level representatives from Jiangsu provincial government met to emphasize the need for Nanjing officials to “strongly pursue investigations of hidden dangers and to settle any social contradictions [they find]”[扎实推动隐患排查和矛盾化解]. Jiangsu Party Secretary Zhang Jinghua [张敬华], alluding to the Party Congress, stated that 2017 is “a year with special meaning and significance” [特殊重要意义的一年] and therefore so is the political responsibility of party cadres and government officials to focus on “safeguarding safety and stability [维护安全稳定作为].” Reform and development—that is change and growth as defined by Nanjing officials--remain crucial, Zhang acknowledged, but they can only be safeguarded [保障] if local political cadres work diligently to prevent major safety accidents, guard against mass incidents, and prevent petitioners from airing their grievances publicly [坚决守住不发生重大公共安全事件、不发生重特大安全生产事故、不发生重大群体性上访事件的底线]. This is Zhang trying to convince cadres that those tasks are now primary—“the first order of business” [一把手工程], as he insisted.

The objective of this effort, according to Zhang, is “to resolutely prevent chaos, [and to do so] by diagnosing what’s causing the turmoil” [坚决防止乱投医、乱拍板留下后遗症]. That means that Nanjing officials need to expand on what have become known here as “big visits” [大走访活动]—going to the grassroots, and look to investigate local disputes and prevent those from leading to large disruptions. 

But that's what local representatives have been doing for some weeks now, so to do more of that--that's easy, but has to strike some as perhaps unnecessary.

Indeed, if all that were straightforward and easily absorbed and implemented by the local authorities, there'd have been no need for Nanjing mayor Miao Ruilin [缪瑞林] to continue the same theme of preserving social stability less than a week later in an address to local officials. But it wasn’t any of those things; which is why Miao had to step forward and push the issue.

“Without security, there’s simply nothing” [没有安全就没有一切], Miao insisted, and told attendees that apart from preventing unrest, they needed to guarantee the “Three No Occurrences” [三个不发生]. That’s a set of events that must not happen, as defined by the region and organization (e.g., a local government authority making sure traffic disruptions do not occur). Miao didn't provide what that list is for Nanjing specifically, and so it’s likely still under discussion[1]. It's Beijing's template, not Nanjing's, and so it's not easy to simply get going with.

Miao’s comments as carried in news accounts also made it clear that the city was still having trouble coordinating various departments and getting officials to focus on stability as “the overriding political task” [压倒一切的政治任务]. Mentioning the importance of synchronizing responsibilities is always a sign that’s not been happening and that someone needs to be reminded.

Given Nanjing’s unfamiliarity with having to repress social disagreement, it’s not shocking that departments and agencies don't know whom to talk with.

Still, what's the problem?

Well, what concerns central-level officials aren’t common protesters,[2] but comrade politicians—people like Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang, who saw themselves losing political battles in Beijing and would have turned to the street to try to mobilize support if they hadn’t been seized and their networks rolled up. Apparently, some high-level officials who see themselves on the losing end of policy debates in the run-up to the Party Congress could seek to trigger or at least take advantage of local disturbances. The directive being pushed at Nanjing is to get officials here to prevent social unrest because Beijing believes that losers might seek to spark troubles if they’re about to be sidelined. Nanjing's being shoved to implement isn’t aimed at unrest for local reasons; it's being pressed to prepare for instability that might be engineered from above.

Yes, the Party Congress will be crucial, but for rather different reasons than are being asserted all too often. Just as important, it's far from a done deal. That at least one local government is preparing for the possibility of political unpleasantness should give even further pause for wondering how the next few months are going to go.

[1] One further sign of the contention is that there’s a rather different portrayal of Zhang’s speech provided here, one that emphasizes social governance as a means to stability—which sounds an awful lot like continuing what’s been working for Nanjing:

[2] The Establishment Narrative portrays Beijing as being terrified of instability, scared about dissidents, lawyers, activists who look to transform anger into organized opposition aimed at overthrowing the Party. But the local reality for many officials is very different. In China, protests are dealt with locally, and authorities have proven to be far more creative and resilient in coping with unrest than those looking to foment it. When there has been resistance, it’s been limited, local and almost always unaffiliated with activists or social organizers. The lone rebel is aesthetically attractive to many who report on China; but such activists make a minor footprint or two while the Party pursues its own path and isn’t afraid or incapable of running down those blocking the road. Unfortunately, too many stories turn what are essentially tales of just power into stories of justice denied. That's emotionally satisfying for some, but ultimately unrevealing and quite misleading.