The 19th CCP Congress:
a new China in a changing world?
The congress of the Communist Party every five years in China has a similar meaning to the inauguration ceremony of a new term of the Presidential Office in the US which happens every four years. As in the US even if the President is reelected usually in the inauguration speech new initiatives and sometimes new paths to the country are announced. Apart from these facts the case of the China’s Communist Party Congress is a complete different event, and also brings different feelings and also food for speculations to analysts.
Compared to the US China’s politics is rooted in an ancient and remarkably different historical experience and political culture. Over the century before Mao Tse Tung’s period (1949-1976) the political experience of China had been of a series of weak governments in every sense. Since 19th century not only colonial powers established various forms of domination on China but even domestically China under Qing dynasty went through remarkable governance problems. The Boxer Uprising (1899-1901) was a typical manifestation of a never ending domestic problems of governance. John Delury in his comment to “Foreign Affairs” reports dramatically that “by the turn of the 19th century, the Qing Dynasty was like a once great and fierce prize bull that was gushing blood from every limb, having been lanced, stabbed and barbed since the 1830s – when the trouble really became obvious – and was, by the early 1900s, just waiting for the matador to do him in once and for all.” In this sense political historians all agree that the great legacy from Mao’s period was a refurbished and well disciplined State able to keep united provinces and local leaderships. State institutions and rulers recovered their authority on China to a point to produce effective policies to carry out a quick, consistent, and widespread modernization.
Nevertheless, as old wisdom says, success brings problems. An industry which is successful in launching new products has to handle new problems such as unusual levels of financial needs, new patterns of competition in unfamiliar markets, and increasing complexity of operational devices. Internationally the nuclear age came out of a remarkable scientific and technological breakthrough, but the dawn of the nuclear age brought about new and frightening threats to all humankind. Successful policies also brings problems, specially if it happens to a huge country like China which comprises 1.3 billion people, a set of regional differences which are deeper and much more complex than those facing a large country as Brazil, and a huge economic growth which in the last three decades pushed China from a poor and peripheral economy to be the largest world economy second only to the US.
The speech of the Head of the Government, Mr. Xi Jinping, presented a long list of problems to cope with in domestic affairs which included the fight against corruption, the enforcement of the rule of law, and the promotion of social justice as priorities to enhance governance. Looking at the macro figures of China one may have an idea of what really means the problem of governance which Mr. Xi Jinping will have to face along the five years term ahead. To handle managerial demands and to keep appropriate political control over a state representing a huge country composed by different social and cultural conditions is far from being an easy task. If we look at what is happening in Spain in relation to Catalunya we might have a rough idea of the governance problem in China which has to live with remarkable regional diversity and which has been going through a rate of growth of almost two digits throughout the last three decades. Now Italy is also facing demands for autonomy and it may be important to remind that both in Italy and Spain nationalistic sentiments and demands for autonomy are not coming out of poor and neglected regions but of wealthy regions and provinces where social standards are higher.
Foreign policy and international system
In international affairs the current scenario presents an undeniable fact: China became a great power. Her GDP, the figures of her geographical and demographical resources, and her defense capabilities which include nuclear weaponry and a large conventional security forces unquestionably put China among the world great powers. This means that she has to be recognized as a great power by other influential powers in the world politics, but means also that China has to be prepared to fulfill more responsibilities in world affairs, if it is to take seriously her rhetoric of peace and harmony. It seems important to remind that great power is not a subjective condition which results from concepts or from policy design made by any government, but rather means that a nation has developed a set of material conditions which are relevant to world order.
History shows that a great power is bound to participate actively in the world political and economic regimes. The case of the US in the early years of the last century is illuminating. After the World War I the US refused to participate in the League of Nations reducing remarkably the credibility and the ability of the institution to handle international disputes. In the economy over the interwar years the refusal of the US to participate actively in to the establishment of a financial and monetary regime was well defined by H. v. B. Cleveland who studied the monetary policy in the interwar years and concluded that such an enormous economy developing autonomous economic policy was like “a bull moving in the world’s monetary china shop”. These are just some examples of well known cases illustrating of how and to what extent the refusal of a great power to participate in political and economic regimes are bad for the world order and stability.
Indeed the long period of stability after the World War II was possible to a large extent due to a combination of factors: from one side the clear decision of the US to sponsor the main world political and economic regimes, and on the other side the perception on the part of every other great powers that those regimes were not threatening to their main interest, but quite on the contrary the main great power leaders understood that those regimes were good to their national interests. In fact the cold war helped to change the minds of the US strategists to trigger the Marshall Plan and the postwar reconstruction, but the US went further supporting the many newborn international regimes, including regional initiatives like the European Economic Community (EEC) for the sake of the world order and stability which was seen as essential to security and to the US interests in the long run.
The challenge to the U.S. and other Western powers
The International Relations theorist J. Mearsheimer (The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, 2001) gave an explanation to the main problem of world order: how to manage the inevitable changes in the distribution of world power. He qualified as “tragic” the fate of the great powers meaning that even great powers that might be feeling satisfied to live in peace are condemned to engage in a relentless struggle for power if they want to survive. Using different words, and somehow more rudely, what Mearsheimer was saying is that great powers cannot stay apart from participating actively in the process of building and managing world regimes if it is to avoid what had happened in the early decades of the 20th century when the US refused to be a major actor in the world political scenario. Figures show that China is bound to play a role of increasing relevance in the world politics, and the recent 19th Congress of the CCP has made clear that her current leaders are willing to do so.
The US and other traditional great powers will have to consider that China will be increasingly a player in the world politics game not only to share the responsibilities of keeping stability and promoting worldwide economic growth, but also that inevitably she will bring to the game new interests and new approaches which may not be in accordance to what traditional great powers is used to consider. China yet proclaiming herself as a “socialist” system, presents remarkable differences when compared to the USSR along the cold war years. The strong revival of Confucianism tells a lot about the new China after Mao Tse Tung period. Some of the central values taught by Confucius are “harmony”, “tradition”, and “respect to elders”. Such values, obviously, does not match by any means with “class struggle” and “world revolution of the proletariat”.
In fact the collapse of the regime in the USSR was mainly a phenomenon rooted in the incapacity of the domestic institutions to keep pace with the dynamism of the world capitalism. The populations of the USSR and of her satellite countries were kept in isolation by a repressive apparatus, but such an arrangement could not go for long time. In fact to a large extent the collapse of the USSR was a collapse of the fake economy within a closed society developed and maintained by the authorities of the Politburo who believed that the country could be kept in isolation and in the future USSR would be able export her socialist regime. In a metaphor borrowed from the Physics one can say that the soviet authorities thought that in an entropic process an ice cube could freeze the bucket of water. The pragmatic integration to world economy brought about by China initiated by Deng Xiaoping points out to a rather different direction. Perhaps the big question which remains is to know if a prosperous and dynamic society can be compatible with an authoritarian state without strong and open political institutions.