According to Chinese traditional belief, it is the ‘mandate of heaven’ (tianming) that selects an individual to rule. A Confucian idea to facilitate the dynastic cycle, it implied that while good rulers would be allowed to govern with a renewed mandate, the mandate would be revoked in the case of despotic and unjust rulers.
The first Chinese ruler to claim the mandate of heaven was King Wen of Zhou (1050 BCE), a pre- dynastic feudal state in the Wei River Valley. Wen remained a model for many subsequent emperors and politicians. Rival dynasties often used the concept of mandate as a pretext to gain legitimacy for perpetuating political unrest. A case in point was the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) under Shi Huangti, who used it to justify the conquest of all other states, thus unifying China for the first time.
Post the 1949 Communist Revolution, Mao emerged as an autocratic paramount leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). His ideology ‘Mao Zedong Thought’, encapsulated in the famous ‘red book’, was enshrined in the party’s constitution. After Mao’s death in 1976 followed by a brief power struggle, Deng Xiaoping assumed the ‘Second Generation’ leadership. Deng’s ideology was ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics, a clear departure from the ‘class struggle’ enunciated by Mao. After Deng’s demise in 1997, Jiang Zemin emerged as the ‘core’ of the ‘Third Generation’ leadership and adopted a collective leadership approach. He was the architect of the ‘three represents’ ideology (san ge daibiao); implying that the Communist Party should be representative of advanced social productive forces – economic growth, culture and interests of the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people – under new historical conditions. His successor Hu Jintao, representing the ‘Fourth Generation’ Leadership, followed a similar model, professing the concept of ‘scientific development and harmonious society’. To take on the mantle of the ‘Fifth Generation’ leadership, Xi Jinping was picked as the consensus candidate.
Singapore’s late elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew had described Xi Jinping as a person who had a soul of iron and compared him with the likes of Nelson Mandela. After taking over the reins of power in 2012, Xi moved quickly to consolidate power and project the image of a strongman. Over the last five years, he has established himself as the “core” leader and strengthened his hold on the Party and the PLA, the two key structural pillars of the People’s Republic.
Having famously stated that “Things must have gone rotten before insects can grow”, Xi initiated an unforgiving anti-corruption campaign. The relentless drive resulted in 278,000 officials facing disciplinary action, including 440 holding ministerial or higher positions in government establishments, ‘state owned enterprises’ and the military. Some of the big names caught in the anti-corruption campaign were:
- Zhou Yongkang, a former security czar and member of the apex ‘Politburo Standing Committee’ (PSC),
- Bo Xilai, Member of the Politburo and Party Secretary Chongqing,
- Generals Guo Boxing and Xu Caihu, Vice Chairmen of the Central Military Commission (CMC), the highest military body.
The anti-corruption campaign also saw the elimination of potential rivals, specifically those belonging to factions not aligned with Xi. Cleaning up the system remains a work in progress with two more senior most Generals being implicated recently.
The Party Congress is a five yearly affair, shrouded in secrecy and preceded by intense back room parleys. In the just concluded week long 19th Party Congress, Xi has further strengthened his iron grip over the power levers, specifically in the Party’s policy making structure, and emerged as China’s most powerful leader after Mao. Having been re-elected for a second five year term, he is apparently set to call the shots well beyond 2022, since the new PSC has no chosen successor to be groomed, which is a glaring shift from the Party’s well established tradition during the last two decades. Two probables – Hu Chunhua (Party Chief Guangdong Province) and Chen Miner (Party head of Chongqing City and Xi’s protégé tipped to be his successor) did not make it to the PSC, a pre-requisite for eventual emergence as Party Secretary General.
Xi’s Grand Strategy
The enshrining of “Xi Jinping Thought for New Era Socialism with Chinese Special Characteristics” in the Party constitution as a guiding principle puts him in the league of Mao and signals the further cementing of his power base. Henceforth, any criticism of Xi’s policies will be deemed as an attack on the Communist system itself.
To realise his ‘China Dream’ (fuxing – restoration), which envisions a ‘powerful and prosperous’ China, Xi unfolded his grand design while presenting his report on the opening day of the Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People. He referred to China entering a ‘New Era’ marked by social contradictions. To this end, Xi has propounded the policy of ‘striving for achievements’ (fenfa youwei) and advocating a greater Chinese leadership role in world affairs. This is an obvious departure from the strategy that Deng had advocated, namely, ‘maintain low profile and bide for time’ till China completes its peaceful rise, which was followed scrupulously thus far.
To translate his ‘China Dream’ into reality, Xi outlined the ‘twin centenary objectives’: to become a ‘fully modern’ economy and society between 2020 and 2035; and acquire ‘great power’ status by 2050, coinciding with the centenary of the foundation of the PRC. Undoubtedly, Xi envisions China as a key player in shaping the new global order with Chinese characteristics. His grand strategy is in consonance with the Chinese strategic culture of ‘thinking deep and far’, i.e., taking a holistic and long term perspective.
Today, USA is conflicted about its global role, with President Trump advocating an ‘America First’ policy. Russia under Putin is still in delusion about Cold War symmetry. Xi, on the other hand, has enunciated a clearer strategy for China. As evident from his speeches, he has articulated the idea of a new type of great power relationship based on parity in US-China relations. Now with the stature of a paramount leader, Xi is expected to pursue assertive diplomacy in restructuring the international system whose underlying rules will be increasingly framed by China. Major projects like the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) and Maritime Silk Route (MSR) are means for promoting the objective of a ‘community of shared future’; part of Beijing’s new peripheral diplomacy. This will also enable China to leverage its Comprehensive National Power (CNP) to pursue core national strategic interests.
Xi stated in his speech on 18 October that China would strive to resolve disputes through dialogue but will not compromise on national sovereignty. He has begun his second term by exhorting the 2.3 million strong PLA to be combat ready and focus on ‘how to win wars’. China’s official stated position on the integration of claimed territories with the motherland does not preclude the use of force. For India, China under a powerful autocratic leader does not augur well, given the past record. The 1962 War and stand-offs in 1967 and 1987 occurred when Mao and Deng reigned supreme. The recent face-offs at Depsang, Demchok and Doklam have all taken place during Xi’s tenure. India will have to be prepared to counter China’s growing assertiveness and be wary of the latter’s strengthening nexus with Pakistan.
Xi today rides the Dragon which is externally strong but internally fragile. As political reforms are not on Xi’s agenda, it is economic growth that is the key to translate his dream into reality. There is scepticism about the sustainability of China’s current economic model, given signs of slowing down. Therefore, some tough reforms are inevitable in the future which are likely to lead to social turbulence.
At the beginning of his first term five years back, Xi had stated that one has to be strong to forge iron. Accordingly, he systematically went about centralising power and pushing through the process of consolidation ruthlessly. Xi’s strategy to catapult China to the status of a superpower in the next three decades has no precedence, both in terms of enormity and scope. Lee Kuan Yew had stated that the sheer size of China’s displacement meant that the world has to find a new order. Time has come for the global polity to take note of Xi’s grand design as he flags off China for a ‘long march’ to reshape the world order.
(The authoris former Assistant Chief Integrated Defence Staff, served as Defence Attaché in China, Mongolia and North Korea, and currently professor International Studies, Aligarh Muslim University)
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.