What do the pivotal changes witnessed in China in light of the conclusion of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party suggest about the nature of the Chinese state? There are certain tangential issues that should be tackled, not to provide a head-on answer, but rather to obtain a more holistic sense of some of the important political currents in China today. It is argued here that China has always been and is still a very cosmopolitan state that possesses a great ability to adapt.
The well-known East Asian historian at the London School of Economics, Odd Arne Westad, suggests that “the boundaries between China and the rest of the world are not always clear and distinct. In the intersection between the internal and the external lie some of the most important aspects of China’s mental maps: borders, diasporas, ethnicities, trade and the exchange of ideas. As often happens when dealing with great powers, the boundaries of this landscape become blurred when you look closely at them. The division lines between inner and outer fade away, and what remains is a China that is, to some extent, transnational and even global.”
Over the years successive Party Congresses in China have been guided by Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the “Three Represents” attributed to former President Jiang Zemin and “Scientific Development” which is associated with outgoing President Hu Jintao. There is a logical progression to these four paradigms, and a new one will emerge with the new General Secretary of the CPC Xi Jinping. In this context an attempt is made here to understand the eclectic trends in Chinese politics beneath the surface of what many simply considered a ceremonial or “rubber-stamp” 18th Party Congress.
The modus operandi of a state that has an unbroken history of a millennia and which has for long engaged with the Great Powers, smaller powers and virtually all the regions of the world should not be underestimated. Today’s China is not just commercially but also philosophically preoccupied in a global sense. Notable is the ability of Chinese state to maintain long-term equilibrium by amalgamating two apparently contradictory features: discipline and order combined with a willingness and ability to intellectually grapple with the great ideas of the day.
At the cusp of the leadership transition in China, conflicting discussions are underway with respect to economics, politics and foreign policy among other things, all of which will ultimately be mediated by and absorbed into the system administered by the Communist Party. Stated differently, the Chinese system possesses a strong liberal streak which is, however, ensconced within a tightly structured administrative apparatus. It is precisely this feature of the Chinese system that has led many to distinguish it from the “End of History” formulation which postulated a particular variety of liberal democracy as being the most “evolved” political model.
Politico-philosophical thinking in China is by no means staid. Consider the ways in which two of the most important regions in China, namely Guangdong and Chongqing, are developing and the diametrically opposed models they represent, for example, or the quite distinct foreign policy paradigms being advanced by influential Chinese scholars. Consider also a very important study jointly conducted this year by the State Council of China and the World Bank titled China 2030: Building a Modern, Harmonious and Creative High-Income Society. An appraisal of all this suggests that there is today a tremendous upheaval of ideas in China and quite significantly a willingness to open up the space required to adapt new ideas into the system.
18TH CCP CONGRESS
Chinese system is a palette of different, seemingly contradictory elements, from which a combination will be chosen that reflects a cosmopolitan China.
Can the direction of the country’s movement in the future be ascertained from the recently concluded 18th Party Congress? Here we may refer to the phraseology of the first paragraph of President Hu Jintao’s report to the 18th Congress: “The underlying theme of the Congress is to hold high the great the banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics, follow the guidance of Deng Xiaoping theory, the important thought of Three Represents and the Scientific Outlook on Development, free up the mind, [and] implement the policy of reform and opening up.”
The Chinese President seemed to be indicating that the underlying theme of the 18th Congress was basically the amalgamating of paradigms associated with Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and his own concept of “Scientific Development” and further melding these with “freeing up the mind”, opening up and reforming, all of which we may assume are key components of an as yet undefined paradigm to emerge under the incoming President Xi Jinping.
There are indications that this still unarticulated paradigm will also reflect the cosmopolitan character of China, by which I mean the registered impact on China resulting from her intense interactions with virtually every region in the world and with the range of ideological trends that exist. Interestingly, the Chinese system can virtually pick and choose and experiment—there is no singular model being applied all across China. The difference between the coastal province of Guangdong and the metropolis of Chongqing illustrates this very clearly.
The model applied in Guangdong , where early this year elections were held in the village of Wukan to resolve a contentious land dispute and where moreover the entire province has witnessed both vertical and horizontal decentralization, has been described by some as “flexible authoritarianism” whereas Chongqing represents a high degree of centralization of power. Perhaps the reason for this is that the metropolis of 33 million people was specifically chosen by the Chinese State Council in 2007 as “the national experimental zone for integrating rural and urban development”—the idea was to turn “a backward inland province into a laboratory for egalitarian social policies and domestic consumption.”
Turning to foreign policy, scholars such as Wang Yizhou believe in the efficacy of international institutions and instruments and promote the notion that China should effusively penetrate these and use them to advance Chinese interests. On the other hand, scholars such as Yan Xuetong argue that the trend towards multipolarity is fading and that the world is entering a [US-China] bipolar structure and thus “the ability of international organizations to steer world affairs is waning.” Situated in the center is Peking University’s Wang Jisi who suggests that although “it is important to strengthen diplomacy, national defense, overseas propaganda, and foreign economic activities, the key to China’s success in addressing global challenges also depends on whether it can accelerate the pace of domestic reforms and properly handle internal political, economic, and social issues.”
Earlier this year, the World Bank and the Chinese State Council’s Development Research Center jointly published a report entitled China 2030. The conclusions of that seminal report can briefly be summed up in the following manner, that “China needs to implement a new development strategy in its next phase of development” and that “it must hold fast to the principle that policy responses to short-term problems should uphold, not undermine, long-term reform priorities.”
The crux of that report is centered on reform. Reform in Western parlance conveys a certain specific meaning but what is interesting is that the Chinese system has before itself a palette consisting of many different, seemingly contradictory elements, from which will be chosen a particular combination of elements but we may confidently surmise that this effort will reflect the cosmopolitan nature of China and her great ability to adapt.
The author is Director, Nepal Institute of International and Strategic Studies, www.niiss.org.np. Ideas expressed here are solely those of the author email@example.com