New ideological rigidities in China

Tags: Op-ed
New ideological rigidities in China
STRONG VIEW: Unlike his predecessors, Xi Jinping is not a pure technocrat but a man of ideas and ideologies. It seems clear that his present programme to cleanse the government will not remain a administrative process
The economic record of China’s modernisation has been remarkable. Rightly, the world has been very impressed by what the People’s Republic has achieved within less than a generation. Chinese pragmatism that gained the upper hand with the historic reforms of Deng Xiaoping has particularly impressed entrepreneurs and economic decision makers in the west. Some went as far as declaring China to be a market economy. The latter, however, is still rejected by some industrialised countries, notably the US.

In late 2012, China saw the change of leadership from the fourth generation to the fifth. It was the second time after 2002/3 that in the history of the People’s Republic, Beijing managed an orderly transfer of power. Soon enough, however, it became evident that not everything was going as smoothly as public propaganda would have it. The most notable discord emerged in the purge of Bo Xilai, then party chief in the important city of Chongqing. Bo Xilai, the son of one of the “immortals” of the Communist Party of China, had high aspirations and saw himself clearly as a future leader of the PRC. However, in the power struggle that happened after the fourth generation of leaders with party chief and president Hu Jintao at its core was approaching retirement, Xi Jinping won and swiftly Bo Xilai not only saw his influence vanish, but as is the rule in totalitarian systems, saw himself arrested, vilified and finally condemned on corruption and abuse of power.

While Bo Xilai and his equally ambitious wife Gu Kailai languish in prison in the outskirts of Beijing, the new leadership, notably Xi Jinping has not remained idle in going after other high functionaries that are deemed to be close to rival factions and notably to the disgraced Bo Xilai. Already the predecessor of the present Chinese leader, Hu Jintao, had stressed that the cancer of corruption was threatening the very survival of the system. Nothing has changed that could doubt his dire prognosis. Corruption, clientelism and nepotism remain the most serious dangers that threaten the rule of the CPC. There is widespread disenchantment amongst ordinary Chinese about the prominent role of the “princelings”, the sons and daughters and other family members of high party functionaries.

Unlike in neighbouring Japan or India, dynasties play a very minor role in Chinese politics. There has been no notable dynastic succession in the higher ranks of the party or the state. However, family ties are extremely important in traditional Chinese society and it is, therefore, no surprise that the clans of those who control political power, have been allowed to accumulate huge fortunes. After all, if there was no option of political succession, you may as well make sure that your economic future is safe.

Some 40 years ago, when Deng Xiaoping started his reforms, there was no private property in China. The new age started with small economic zones where with foreign capital and foreign technology you could produce exclusively for export. However, the Chinese — being the pragmatists they are known to be — were quick in learning the ropes of capitalism, not the moderate form that is present in today’s western industrialised countries, but the venture capitalism that was the rule in the early days when people made huge fortunes in a very short time.

Today China still claims to follow the path of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. On the other hand, in international rankings listing national wealth disparities, China ranks very high, amongst the most unequal countries and societies in the world. It is obvious that in many cases, this phenomenal wealth was not entirely acquired above board. As in other communist and formerly communist countries, in China too, those who had access to power were privileged to lay hands on lucrative state assets and monopolies. Quickly, Mao’s China has become a country of the new rich who up till recently flaunted their newly acquired wealth in the most vulgar and the most offensive way. It is against these excesses in which even very high party and government cadres indulged that president Xi Jining is launching his punitive campaign. As China has no rule of law, campaigns against corruption and the abuse of power tend to be rather arbitrary. This is the case today, too. It is evident that cadres that have fallen foul of the new leadership are the first to fall victim to anti-graft campaigns. At the moment, it looks as if even very high office and even a general’s rank in the armed forces is no protection against the wrath of the authorities.

In the new campaign against corruption, however, we can also make out a new drive towards ideological rigidity. Unlike his predecessors, Xi Jinping is not a pure technocrat but a man of ideas and ideologies. It seems clear that his present programme to cleanse the party and the government will not remain a purely administrative process. There are very strong affinities of the present campaign to ideological rigidities we recall from the past of Maoism. The world must watch out for new signs of ideological revival in the People’s Republic.

(The writer is the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung)


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