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The politics of succession and Chinese foreign policy

11 October 2012
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In no major country is less known about the way leaders are chosen or how foreign policy is made than China. There are certain rules and conventions, by which we know that every ten years there must be a generational change of top leaders. All we know is that the relevant Party Congress at which the change takes place should occur in the autumn, but unlike ten years ago, when the date was revealed in August, it was only on September 28 that it was revealed that it would convene on November 8 – several weeks later than the previous three Congresses, which were all held in October. Tellingly, the official announcement was combined with the announcement that the populist politician Bo Xilai, who had been dismissed in March from his post as party leader of Chongqing, was now expelled from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The timing suggested that it was only once agreement had been reached at the top on how to deal with Bo that it became possible to settle on the date for the Congress. Although the CCP has prided itself on engineering smooth successions of power in recent years, the current succession is fraught with problems.

The official accusations against Bo (the son of a revolutionary leader and a member of the Political Bureau) painted him as a decadent corrupt abuser of power as well as a womaniser who took massive bribes both directly and through his family. His alleged offences dated back twenty years including during his brief stint as minister of commerce. The top leaders evidently hope to use Bo’s case as an indication to the people at large that they are committed to put an end to the corrupt practices which have inflamed public opinion. But the issue also goes to the heart of problems of governance in China. It will not escape public notice that Bo’s case came to light only through the attempted defection of his police chief and not through an internal party investigative process. If the outside world had not been alerted, it is by no means clear that the issue would have ever seen the light of day. Given the public perception that corruption, nepotism and decadent life styles are endemic among the party leaders and their families, the standing of the CCP will be affected by the way the aftermath of the Bo case is handled. Indeed, the way the issue has been addressed may be seen as an acknowledgement that corruption and the abuse of power may undermine the legitimacy of the CCP.

Despite the modernisation of the economy and the many social transformations - including a growing middle class, which wants more of a say in decisions which affect their lives - the political system has changed little in China. It remains dominated by a top-down Leninist structure in which appointments and key decisions are still made in secret. Nowhere is this more evident than in the build-up to the Party Congress and the succession to the next generation of leaders. Not surprisingly, there are rumours abound, some of which are circulated by self-serving parties in their own interests. An old Chinese saying is apposite: ‘Those who don’t know speak and those who know are silent.’ As many outside observers have noted, this is no way for a major world power to conduct its politics.

The impact on foreign policy

The making of Chinese foreign policy is equally opaque. The most obscure aspects of foreign policy making in China concerns the role of individual top leaders and the influence of the military. Next to nothing is known of the views of particular leaders on key matters, such as their attitudes towards the outside world or to particular countries such as the US or Japan. Similarly, little is known about the importance of the military in policy formation or implementation. The military has not been represented in the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau (SCPB) for many years and yet it is difficult to believe that, as in other major countries, defence figures do not play an important role in the making of both domestic and foreign policy issues.

Little more is known about the diversity of the bureaucratic bodies and interested parties which are involved in shaping foreign policy. These range from State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) - who tend to act in foreign countries according to how they perceive their interests to be affected - to various ministries, Communist Party bodies, the military and, of course the top leaders themselves. It can certainly be argued that this broad range of stakeholders is a product of the enormously diverse character of foreign relations, arising to a large extent from the effects of globalisation. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not thought to rank high in the pecking order and as a result, it is not in a position to act as a coordinator of these diverse parties and interests. Perhaps it should be better thought of as the ‘Ministry of Diplomacy’ instead. This may also be why the United States and the EU, for example, who have regular institutionalised meetings with China, have arranged to include representatives of multiple Chinese ministries in these exchanges rather than relying on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs alone.

Nationalism and the question of Japan

The dominant influence on Chinese foreign policy in recent years has been an ideology of Chinese nationalism. Prior to this development, Mao had based his historical legitimacy to rule on class struggle and his victory over Chiang Kai-shek in the civil war. He placed the blame for China’s ‘hundred years of shame and humiliation’ primarily on the failures of its domestic system. At one point Mao even thanked a Japanese prime minister for his country’s invasion of China, without which he claimed he would not have come to power. Once Deng Xiaoping assumed power he put the emphasis on national unity and economic development. One consequence of this was the change of the claim for historical legitimacy of CCP rule from victory in the civil war to victory in the earlier war of resistance against Japan. In the wake of Tiananmen, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the growing impact of the market economy, Jiang Zemin, the relatively weaker successor to Deng Xiaoping, turned to nationalism as a means to appeal to the Chinese people rather than socialism, which by this stage had lost much of its meaning. Beginning in the early 1990s, he launched a campaign of ‘patriotic education’, which in effect portrayed China as a victim of modern history until the founding of the People’s Republic. The patriotic history also held that the outside powers were still seeking to keep China down or to prevent it achieving world power status to which it was entitled by virtue of both its history and contemporary accomplishments. Japan in particular received much condemnation, being characterised as unrepentant for its crimes and liable to revert to militarism. These views were drummed into students from kindergarten through to university and reinforced by comic books, cinema, television and other media.

Encouraged by the official media, demonstrations erupted against Japan in mid-September 2012 as a result of the Japanese government’s purchase of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets – also claimed by China - earlier that month. Taking no notice of the Japanese claim that it was better the government should buy them rather than leaving them to be purchased by the right-wing governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, who had proposed the idea in April and raised sufficient funds by the end of August to do so. China’s leaders did not view the Japanese government’s purchase as a decision that sought to guarantee political stability, as claimed by Prime Minister Noda. Instead, the Chinese leadership vehemently opposed the move, perceiving it as a mechanism for ratcheting up the basis for the Japanese claim to sovereignty. The unleashing of demonstrations, often violent, in more than 100 cities reduced Beijing’s room for diplomatic manoeuvre, increasing the pressure to adopt a strong stance in order to avoid looking weak and becoming vulnerable to the charge of betraying China’s interests to foreigners. In this case, China’s leaders in effect demanded a complete surrender by Japan and the recognition of Chinese claims to sovereignty of the archipelago. The Japanese government and people were in no mood to give in to what they saw as Chinese bullying. This is especially so given their previous capitulation over the September 2010 incident, when the Japanese were forced to release an offending captain of a Chinese fishing boat after the Chinese retaliated by blocking the export of rare earth materials on which Japanese high-tech manufacturers depend. However, so far neither the Chinese nor the Japanese leaderships have wanted the dispute to escalate into outright conflict. The Chinese restricted themselves in September/October 2012 to sending vessels of the coast guard rather than the navy to carry out incursions into the territorial waters of the disputed islands. The Japanese likewise responded by monitoring the waters with their coast guard, although Prime Minister Noda had said previously that, if necessary, the Japanese navy might be called in to defend the islands.

From a Chinese perspective, Japan is a fully-fledged naval power that cannot be intimidated by China, especially given that the United States has pledged to help Japan defend the islands if attacked. Beijing then sought to bring diplomatic pressure to bear on Tokyo, but so far to no avail. South Korea, which has its own ongoing dispute with Japan over another set of rocky islands (Takeshima/Dokdo) as well as over other historical contentions, was approached by China in attempt to garner further support, but Beijing had little success due to its own maritime dispute with Korea over a semi-submerged rock in the East China Sea.

No less a figure than Xi Jinping (the presumed successor to Hu Jintao as party leader for the next ten years) tried to drive a wedge between Japan and its American ally over the issue, seeking to persuade US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta that the Japanese government had veered to the right, posing a threat to regional order and thereby being the core of the problem. But again it did not get far. To be sure the United States has urged restraint on both sides, but it is not about to jettison its crucial ally in the Western Pacific.

As noted already, the Chinese decision-making process on foreign policy is opaque, but it would seem something has gone awry in the past few years. The assertiveness displayed in the South China Sea has alienated its maritime neighbours, undoing ten years of cultivating good will and in effect pushing them into the arms of the United States. South Korea and Japan have been similarly alienated and they too have been drawn closer to the US. There seems to be little regard for the interests of neighbouring countries, let alone an attempt to genuinely understand their perspectives and points of view. It would seem that the expertise on tap within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is currently being ignored. It would also seem that China’s leaders are so focused on their country’s domestic problems, which are indeed immense, that they have little time for other countries, except perhaps the United States. For example, they have done little to help EU countries overcome their financial difficulties, when doing so might have benefited Chinese exports at a time of an economic slowdown in China. The only European country to which they have paid some attention is Germany – their principal economic partner in the EU.

The repercussions of the difficulties in managing the succession will not easily be overcome. Once the new leadership begins to settle in it will face huge domestic challenges, notably in the economic realm, where most economists argue that drastic changes are needed. That regrettably suggests that foreign affairs will remain of secondary importance, with China continuing to pose a major problem for all its neighbours and failing to play its part in addressing global problems.

Michael Yahuda is a Professor Emeritus of International Relations with the London School of Economics and Political Science