• 22 June, 2024
Foreign Affairs, Geopolitics & National Security

China Has Not Changed. The Rest of The World Must.

Prof Madhav Das Nalapat Sun, 12 Dec 2021   |  Reading Time: 8 minutes

Unlike India, which barred most US researchers from entering the country during the Cold War, China from the 1980s welcomed them, gave many of them tenured and other assignments, and went along with a few of their suggestions that were regarded as not threatening the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly of power.  The consequence was that during the 1970s until the 1990s, India lost and the PRC gained acceptance within the west from this group.

Most scholars who had been to China, a country where hospitality has evolved into an art form by CCP outlets, became proponents of a policy of the west assisting China to grow. The assumption was that a growing China would simultaneously become closer to the US, not just in terms of strategy but values.

Ideology and policy in the PRC (or the body which controls it, the Party) has an iceberg quality, in that most of the fundamentals remain hidden from view, except for members who gain entry into the higher echelons of authority.  This has not happened. Even while the policy towards China changed completely, especially in the US, Japan and Taiwan, the PRC remained as inflexible as it had been from the 1950s as to its objectives.

Since Mao Zedong firmed up personal control over the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at the 1945 plenum, the objective of the CCP has been to once again realize the CCP dream of making China the centre-point of global gravity. The “Red Emperor” would restore the Middle Kingdom to its former glory. Mao succeeded by 1953 in establishing a country that had twice the territory of its predecessors, making the central authorities in Beijing the controlling power over not just China proper, but the add-ons of Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Manchuria and finally Tibet. This happened with practically no blowback from the rest of the world.

Although a democracy, India in particular was even more enthusiastic than the Soviet Union in heralding such expansionism as signs of an Asian renaissance. The Cultural Revolution that raged across the PRC for a decade beginning 1966  spared Deng Xiaoping, although he had been vilified as a “capitalist roader” by Mao himself. Chairman Mao eliminated  the two most powerful future challengers to Deng within the CCP, Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao, both of whom had a substantial role in the victory of the communist forces against the Kuomintang from 1945 to 1949.

A True Believer in the need to restore the Middle Kingdom to its former glory,  Deng had long ago understood that a country with a primitive economy had no chance of establishing its primacy in the international community. Unlike Mao, Deng from the start of his establishing supremacy over the Party (and therefore the country) at the 1981 plenum, concentrated on expanding not territory or the military but the economy. The PRC was puny in its GDP, had fought the Korean war against the US and helped the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Minh  to prevail over the US-led opposition to Ho Chi Minh’s efforts at unifying Vietnam under the communist banner.

Gutted of its higher ranks and paralysed by the blows the party had suffered during the Cultural Revolution, many of the survivors within the communist party leadership remained suspicious of all things foreign and especially “capitalist”. These were how large corporates from Taiwan, Europe, the US and Japan were described.

However, the conservatives who had been battered under Mao were unable to prevent Deng  from welcoming “foreign capitalists” into the PRC. The KMT, (which ruled Taiwan during the 1980s substantially unchallenged)  was still technically at war with the CCP, yet that did not stop Deng from encouraging Taiwanese corporates and citizens to relocate to the PRC.

Geopolitically, Paramount Leader Deng secured his flanks by ensuring that Beijing and Washington cooperated against the USSR, unlike “non-aligned” India which was unable to hide its tilt towards Moscow rather than Washington. Deng understood that countries in Asia that had bad relations with the US fared much worse in the economic sweepstakes than those who were friendly to Washington. The Paramount Leader for Life of China had no intention of losing any more time in growing the Chinese economy.

On top of the damage done by the civil war with the KMT, this had suffered under what may charitably be described as the economic policies of Mao, such as the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s. This was almost as much of a disaster for industry as the forced collectivisation of farms that enforced in the USSR  by Stalin from 1928 was for Soviet farmers. This was ended only in 1940, when the USSR was on the cusp of a war with Germany that would take away an additional thirty million lives before  ending in 1945 after four years.

The card Deng Xiaoping used to win support within the CCP was the need for a pause in the public display of the party’s geopolitical ambitions. This would continue until the PRC achieved an economic size sufficient to allow it to openly resume its drive towards global primacy. Mao had publicly challenged the USSR for leadership of the communist bloc from the 1960s, not just in Asia but in Europe and Africa.

Securing primacy over the Eurasian landmass and subsequently over the Indo-Pacific were central to the ambitions of the CCP from almost the start of its founding in 1921. Analysts of China have spent considerable time on statements and writings in the PRC from the top tier of scholars and policymakers. It may have been more accurate to search further down the chain, not at the major national media outlets that purvey information, nor even the large outlets in the provinces, but  much smaller publications brought out by local party units. These  are dotted across the country and are infrequently read by the outside world, although they give a much more accurate read on the actual (as distinct from declared) intentions and beliefs of the CCP than the larger outlets. These are aware of the external attention paid to what they write, and hence present views in a manner regarded by the CCP  leadership as best suited to ensuring that the reaction of such foreign viewers will be what is best suited to the interests of the PRC. Or in other words, the interests of the CCP, which in turn is controlled by the party leadership.

Deng adopted the playbook of Mao within the CCP core, casting himself as the individual best equipped to lead China during the next stage of its ascent to the top, which was through expanding the size of the economy. Once parity was achieved with the US in economic terms,  the “big stick” Deng spoke about could emerge from the screen of “speaking softly”, and thereafter get used with the newfound vigour acquired through economic progress. Such a belief in the indispensability of a leader towards the fulfilment of long-term goals is central to the retaining of control by the leader. Not to mention the maintenance under him of morale and motivation within the CCP ( which is now close to a hundred million strong and counting).

The next party leader to make full use of the hook that he is the individual best suited (or the only person suited) to go forward on the mission of enshrining the PRC as the dominant power in the Eurasian landmass is Xi Jinping. Both of the immediate successors to Deng, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, had less expansive visions of themselves, and were content with a sharing of authority, including at the top. Both were first among equals, with emphasis on “equals” and not just the “first”. With Xi, as with Mao, there were no “equals”, only himself as the  supremo.

Xi had been expected to carry forward the Deng tradition of avoiding a rerun of the style of Mao, especially as he himself, together with his family, had been victims of the Cultural Revolution. Instead, Xi put Mao Zedong Thought on steroids, casting himself as the irreplaceable leader who alone could carry the nation towards the glory of global primacy, overturning the hold of the US. The difference between Xi and Mao is that the present CCP General Secretary covets not just additional land space (as Mao did) but air and sea space as well.

Also, despite his attempted whitewashing of Mao’s often calamitous record in power, Xi is aware that the seven decades of CCP rule are not enough to secure towards himself the loyalty and obedience of the Chinese people. He has broken with Mao’s catechism by embracing “5000 years of Chinese history”, even rehabilitating Confucius, the philosopher from ancient times whom Mao had held to be the cause of much of China’s subsequent problems.

While Deng stabilised his role as the party supremo in the 1981 plenum as Mao had done for himself  in 1945, Xi expects to accomplish this in 2022, when the  Party nomenklatura gathers at the centenary celebrations of the CCP. He plans for this meeting to enshrine for life his supremacy over policy and personnel in the CCP and therefore his country. The PRC is now the world’s other superpower, even more powerful than the Soviet Union was during its postwar prime in the 1960s. As with Mao and Deng, the card Xi is playing to ensure fealty within his party and the nation at large is the argument that he is indispensable for the ascent to the peak of global authority by China, and hence needs to follow Mao and Deng in having a lifetime tenure.

The race to beat the US in technology began during the second term of Hu Jintao, as did the assertion of ownership of almost the entire South China Sea and much of the East China Sea. Hu was assisted in this by his under the radar policy of expansion through stealth, combined with the avoidance during the Obama administration to take countervailing action to prevent such a takeover. Huge swathes of the South China Sea that are part of the global commons or belong to members of ASEAN have fallen under the control of the PLA, which seeks to set up kinetic capabilities that would bring within reach any external sea, undersea or air platform inside its expanse, including those of a kinetic nature.

It is probable that some part of Taiwanese territory may get taken over and militarised during 2021, the centenary year of the CCP. This would be another lever to intimidate Taipei into accepting greater and faster absorption into the economic and security ecosystem of the PRC. The DPP led by President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan stands in the way of this, as does the hard business fact that a separation is taking place since 2020 of the global tech ecosystem into two segments, one PRC-led, the other US-led. The time is coming when any high-tech product made within the PRC gets blocked from US and allied markets, as has already happened to Huawei and its 5G mobile communication system. Many if not most Taiwanese companies prefer the US to the PRC ecosystem, and have begun to vote with their money and skills by searching for options located outside the PRC and its sphere of influence. The tectonic plates  of geopolitics is driving such a separation, and companies across the world are adjusting to it.

Xi Jinping is taking vigorous ( some would say extreme) steps since his takeover in 2012 to ensure what in Germany during the 1930s was called “Gleichschaltung”, or the coordination of all elements of national power under a central authority in furtherance of the national goal of primacy. Sector after sector of industry and productive activity in 1930s Germany, segment upon segment of civil society, including labour unions, NGOs and political parties, were “coordinated” or eliminated. Under Hitler, some of the most talented and productive citizens of what he termed “Greater Germany”, the Jewish community, were excluded from the rest of the community and finally exterminated. Those in the PRC who dare to question the axiom that Xi Jinping Thought is leading China to a Peoples Paradise are being isolated and excommunicated from productive work.

The effort now ongoing in the PRC is to ensure that manufacturing and technology in particular acquire the characteristics regarded as necessary for the kinetic and non-kinetic actions designed to prevail over any contingency in the contest between Washington and Beijing for global primacy. The earlier expansion by stealth has been replaced by overt takeover. Once carried out in the form of incremental gains that were each dismissed by the democracies as not important enough to warrant intervention, these days the salami slices have become too many and too big to ignore.

India finally warned in 2020 China that Beijing cannot expect to run up an $80 billion dollar trade surplus in a year while simultaneously nibbling away at the territory along the Himalayas that belongs to India. Xi is pushing at earlier boundaries in a manner unprecedented after Mao, such that the territorial gains made under his rule have been far from insignificant, especially within the Himalayan massif , the South China Sea, the sea and air space and very likely soon  portions of the land space of Taiwan.

The mantra being used by Xi to gain public acceptance of the control of the Office of the General Secretary over almost every segment of activity and society in the PRC is the same as was adopted by Mao and Deng. Which is that only such a leadership and its policies can ensure the fulfilment of the objective of replacing the US as the world’s primary power. This along the way is designed to result in the replacement of the US dollar with the RMB as the global reserve currency, and the collapse of the US-led alliance system together with the Atlanticist architecture of global practices and institutions created during the 1940s and the 1950s, and which has endured to the present.

Xi Jinping is bidding to ensure that 2022 will be the year when he achieves the Leader for Life status that Mao had since 1945, thereby freeing him to pursue what he sees as the China Dream, that of primacy over the globe and finally, dominance.  We are looking at interesting times.


Professor Madhav Das Nalapat is Director, Department of Geopolitics & International Relations at Manipal University, India.


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