Sunday, December 15, 2013

Uncle Jang's Death May Not Be Such a Plus for Kim Jong-un

I fear possibly dangerous times ahead in the DPRK.  The late Jang Song-thaek's formidable faction may decide that a highly risky coup attempt may be preferable to death by political purge.  Already a number of North Koreans with connections to China are suspected to have disappeared / gone to ground.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

An Outsider's Perspective on China's Third Plenum

The assumption of power by Xi Jinping and his "Fifth Generation" of leaders marks a first for China's post-1949 generation and those who spent their formative years during the Cultural Revolution.  Of course consistent with Chinese tradition, Mr. Xi has been respectful and affirming of the record of his senior predecessors.  But of course it is expected that as a new and younger leader that Mr. Xi will seek to promote vigorous, fresh new measures to respond to the challenges and opportunities of his era in power and revitalize his Party’s role in China’s modern society of this 21st century.  Traditionally it has been at the third plenary session of a new Central Committee that the stage is set for the introduction of innovative policies that will shape the Chinese Communist Party’s program over the next ten years of the new leadership group’s mandate.  So the third plenum assumes a special character that makes it stand out in China’s political calendar.

The issuing of the Resolution of the Third Plenary session of a newly convoked Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party is also much anticipated by foreign China watchers.  It augurs for new beginnings and new policy orientations and the promise of new political  initiatives to grapple with and interpret for foreign government policymakers and in public fora through the media.  

In some ways it is comparable to the opening of a new session of parliament in Westminster systems or state of the union addresses in presidential systems.  But while the speech from the throne that opens parliament sets out a legislative agenda for perhaps a couple of years, at a third plenary session of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party the proposed political agenda comprises a much longer period.  Moreover, the legislative agenda of a parliamentary session addresses only a few highly specific priorities of the party in power.  It is followed by the detailed drafting of bills that are publicly debated in the legislature and consequently modified (or even rejected altogether) before being brought in to codified law.  Implementation of these specific laws is precisely defined to be  pursued by lawyers and enforced by court orders.  

But the most recent resolution of the Third Plenary Session of the Chinese Communist Party's 18th Central Committee is a much more comprehensive and complicated political proposition.   It comprises economics, politics, culture, society, environment, the military defense and internal security.  All this developed through an extensive process of internal party consultations.  

But unlike bills prepared for parliamentary debate in the West, the documents that will direct the policy reforms indicated in the resolution are not publicly available.  As is the case with legislation proposed in parliamentary systems, these new policy reforms will inevitably discomfit significant vested interests in China today.  But those vested interests have no means to publicly express their principled arguments against the policy changes that will be disadvantaging them.  So it is difficult for the foreign observer to be very clear on the implications of the publicly available documents.  It is more challenging still to expound with much authority on the extent to which these new policies will be able to effectively bring about the promised results.

Chairman Xi in the explanation of tthe Third Plenum’s statement pulbished under his name does clearly set out the serious challenges that his government currently faces.  These overall can be identified in three main aspects: the widening gap between rich and poor in  China, official corruption, and slowing growth rates due to inefficiencies in the state-owned sectors of the national economy.  These are not new problems.  All of these issues have been acknowledged by previous Party leaderships as demanding priority resolution.  All are prominently set out in work reports at National People's Congresses and Chinese Communist Party meetings over the years of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao's leadership.  But there is consensus that regrettably the gap between rich and poor and the pervasiveness and degree of official corruption have grown considerably worse over time.  And China's rate of economic growth is slowing due to structural deficiencies and future prospects for the economy are not as uniformly rosy as earlier in the process of China’s post-Mao reform and opening.  Now as then the people of China expect that their political leaders must address these issues in a meaningfully effective manner.  So the issue comes down to what will Xi Jinping do differently from his predecessors to satisfy the people’s aspirations and concerns?

The author was a student at university in Shanghai at the time of the famous Third Plenary Session of 11th Central Committee in December 1978.  On the campus of Fudan University it was a period of great enthusiasm for the politics of reform and opening and boundless optimism for China's future.  Throughout China’s great and diverse land, the powerful political charisma of Deng Xiaoping alone went a long way to enforcing compliance with measures that challenged significant elements of the pre-reform political, social and economic status quo.  Moreover, Mr. Deng with his distinguished record of military service enjoyed strong support from the PLA and security agencies which is so critical in China’s Leninist system.

Xi Jinping, unlike Deng Xiaoping is unable to offer the promise of a fresh and new ideology to buttress the implementation of his policy initiatives.  The theoretical bases of the policies enunciated in this Third Plenary Resolution are the same that have guided the Party under the leadership of all of Mr. Xi’s predecessors since Chairman Hua Guofeng.  

To strengthen his political position, Mr. Xi proposes to create a National Security Commission that will concentrate unified authority over security agencies, the police, and the military in the Office of the Party Chairman.  One could expect that there will be vigorous resistance by the present security apparatus to any measures that weaken their existing prerogatives. 

In addition, there are measures afloat to strengthen control of political discourse by cracking down on social media over the Internet, and to more rigorously sanction intellectuals who espouse political perspectives at odds with the Party's authoritarian people's democratic dictatorship.  

These are all  bold measures, not without an element of political risk.

The Third Plenum’s proposal of measures to enhance economic justice are certainly consistent with the legitimating basis for the Chinese Communist Party's assumption of power as the vanguard of the proletariat and true representatives of the workers and peasants in 1949.  Granting genuine ownership by farmers of the land that they till would go a long way in this direction.  But practically speaking so much of the revenue of local governments is based on below value expropriation of rural property, that without this revenue stream local governments would require significant transfers from the Central authorities.  Moreover, extension of the benefits of urban residency to all the people working in cities would also make great demands on Central revenues.  It would mean increasing taxation to affect transfers from rich to poor.  This would be politically very difficult to to bring about.

Similarly, significantly reducing the income of Chinese communist party cadres via stringent crackdown on their lucrative government associated business activities appears infeasible under current conditions.  Related to this, measures such as capital account and interest rate liberalization, opening of state monopoly economic sectors to non-state competition including permitting foreign enterprises to challenge state-owned enterprises in the Chinese market would surely be countered through administrative measures by threatened local authorities.

So, one waits to see how the implementation of the Third Plenum Resolution which promises such fundamental transformations in so many of the intertwined political, economic and social institutions under the leadership of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.

As an outsider, this author cannot conceive of how these administrative measures that would be overseen by Party branches embedded in all of China's institutions can bring such an ambitious but all the same essential political agenda to successful fruition.  After all, what Mr. Xi proposes impinges exactly on the self interest of those called on to bring it to reality! What is really needed is a lot more transparency and honest debate in such a thoroughgoing process.  For this, media that allows for expression of a free market place of ideas is necessary, but it is also impossible under the current stringent controls of the Party Central Committee Department of Propaganda.

Similarly, if the measures necessary to address China's current serious challenges were expressed through publicly available acts of legislation, then a judiciary whose authority transcended the prerogatives of Party Politics and Law committees, to which the police was fully subject, could in fact compel compliance by those powerful elements that would inevitably be discomfited by the government’s reform program.

In the absence of strong charismatic political leadership buttressed by strong support from security agencies and the military, a free press and an independent judiciary are the only mechanisms available to bring about compliance with measures that impact negatively on the wealthy and powerful.  But it is clear from this year’s Party Document  Nine that the current Party leadership sees constitutional government and western bourgeois liberalizing measures as inappropriate to China's socialism with Chinese characteristics and the overall legitimating bases for sustained Chinese Communist Party rule of China.

So from the outsider's perspective the Party leadership is caught between a rock and a hard place.  If the increasing polarization of wealth continues, if people feel more and more betrayed by official corruption on the part of their political leaders, if China's economic growth stalls, naturally demands for new politics will increasingly arise.  Stronger social measures to repress these, including concomitant increase in censorship of public discourse may not be sustainable in the long term.  Already so much of the national budget must be dedicated to maintaining domestic political stability (wei wen).  A return to the high levels of political consensus and patriotic engagement that the author observed in the Shanghai of the late 1970s and early 1980s, comparable he suspects to the sense of social cohesion and political optimism that existed in China in the early years of the current regime in the 1950s, means developing a fresh political program that responds more closely to the way modern Chinese understand themselves as citizens in a global community.

That is to say, to achieve that degree of support from civil society requires a regime whose institutions and public statements are consistent with the social values of Chinese people in China in the 21st century.  In this regard one thinks of Sun Yat-sen in 1911, Mao Zedong in 1949, and Deng Xiaoping in 1978, great historical figures who are able to align themselves with the spirit of the times.

It remains to be seen where Xi Jinping will fit into the pantheon of China’s political leaders in history.  The Third Plenum is where he will begin to form his political legacy.  The challenges he faces are great.  This is an era in China’s political development which again demands strong political vision and the vigour and willingness to stand up to decay, corruption and ossified institutions that do not serve effectively the requirements of a modern society.  All of the great political leaders of China’s glorious past are remembered for their commitment to social justice and modern progress.  

The degree of achievement of social justice and modern progress that occurs in China under the 5th generation of leaders headed by Xi Jinping will ultimately mark their place in Chinese history.