China: inside strain, outside spleen

The increasingly combative global stance of China’s political authorities is connected to the intense ferment of Chinese society in the society it governs, says Kerry Brown.

The top leaders of the People’s Republic of China only very rarely make themselves directly accessible to questions from journalists, local and international. The rare exceptions include the press conference that concludes the annual meeting of China’s national people’s congress (NPC), when the responsibility falls to the incumbent prime minister.

It is not always the easiest experience, either for the premier or his interlocutors. Zhu Rongji, prime minister from 1998-2002, was one of the more accomplished performers; his blunt responses when challenged about the social pain from the huge lay-offs from the state-owned industrial sector earned him respect (see Laurence J Brahm, Zhu Rongji and The Transformation of Modern China [Wiley, 2002]). Zhu was one of the few Chinese modern leaders who might have survived unscathed the interrogation of an acerbic western interviewer. Most of the others appear to regard even the milder challenge represented by the equivalent of China’s parliament as an obligation to be endured.

The current premier Wen Jiabao lacks Zhu’s flair. But his performance before a horde of journalists on 14 March 2010 at the end of the NPC was confident and impressive - indeed, a reminder of his political pedigree in the higher echelons of China’s Communist Party (see Friends and Enemies: The Past, Present and Future of the Communist Party of China [Anthem Press, 2009]). This, after all, is a man who stood beside then party secretary Zhao Ziyang in the (for the leadership) terrifying days of May-June 1989, witnessed his boss going into Tiananmen Square vainly to plead with the protesting students to disperse, and survived the crushing repression that consumed Zhao’s political career as well as the lives of many young people.

A stark dilemma

What was striking about Wen’s presentation was its frankness about China’s currently febrile social condition. He even went as far as to acknowledge that a perfect storm of inflation, social injustice, and official corruption could could threaten the state’s hold on power. A single figure illustrates the point. China’s military spending indeed increased by 14% in 2008-09 (as the United States is keen to highlight), which brings the total to over $80 billion; but, less recognised, it has spent a similar amount on internal security. China’s growing armed power may be very much on the minds of the international community - and more immediately with its regional neighbours. But its internal police, security personnel, and legions of informers are costing almost as much.

Here, in the starkest terms, is the dilemma of a ruling Communist Party that sees itself beset as much by fear of enemies within as of enemies without (see Struggling Giant: China in the 21st Century [Anthem Press, 2007]). Here too is a perfect rebuttal of the notion - assiduously promoted by its official discourse - that China in 2010 is anywhere near a “harmonious society”. It costs billions of dollars in hardcore security to buy that “harmony”.

The treatment of independent voices such as Liu Xiaobo and Gao Zhisheng is one indication of how unsettled the Chinese state is by challenges to its authority. A day after Liu was given a twelve-year sentence on 25 December 2009, a government advisor and scholar of the Chinese academy of social science offered a lengthy and valuable insight into how the state views such challenges. Yu Jianrong declared that China was beset by three kinds of “mass incidents”:

  • events provoked by legal grievances, where recourse through the courts and authorities had failed; most of these were about tax or property issues
  • events provoked by the behaviour of officials, police, or security personnel, which often erupted out of control and involved large numbers of citizens
  • events characterised by Yu simply as “chaos”: opportunistic explosions led by underground or hooligan elements in society.

Yu Jianrong estimates that in total there were 90,000 incidents across these categories in 2008-09. The huge number helps explain why the enormous security budget is felt to be needed: both to contain the expressions of grievance when they become visible, and then to prevent them spreading (see Wei Jingsheng, "China's political tunnel", 22 January 2009). Wen Jiabao, of all people, knows how protests that started small and modest (as in Beijing in spring 1989) can spread with astonishing rapidity across the country. And Chinese people in 2010 are unimaginably more integrated, more networked and more technologically sophisticated than they were twenty-one years ago. This premier needs to have nerves of steel just to be able to sleep at night.

China, side by side

This degree of ferment in Chinese society, and the lack of legitimate outlets either to express or to respond to it, helps explain why China’s stance in the international arena has of late appeared more belligerent than at any time during its “peaceful rise”.

The issues of trade, currency, climate diplomacy, military growth, and cyberwarfare are but some of the areas where China seems to have adopted a more militant attitude towards its international partners and rivals (principally though not exclusively, the United States). There was some excitable talk at the NPC about China’s need for decent aircraft-carriers to allow it to expand its naval capacity and thus challenge the US and others around its immense territorial waters. During the conference too, a key official in China’s propaganda department responded to Google - which in January 2010 decided to stop complying with China’s censorship demands over its Chinese-language search engine, amid concerns over cyber-theft - by saying in effect that foreign companies that “didn’t abide by Chinese laws” could get out of the country. That indeed seems to be what Google is now preparing to do (see Johnny Ryan & Stefan Halper, "Google vs China: capitalist model, virtual wall", 22 January 2010).

The economic friction between the US and China has generated much heat in 2009-10 over protectionism and currency revaluation; but again a single remark from a senior figure said more about the China’s current political mood than many policy-papers or official briefings. It came from China’s trade minister Chen Deming, who on 21 March 2010 showed a capacity for plain speech that Zhu Rongji himself might have recognised: if there were a trade war, said Chen, the US would lose.

China’s more combative public rhetoric is, in light of its relatively low diplomatic profile during the years it was accumulating huge trade surpluses and high growth-rates, somewhat disconcerting to its erstwhile allies in the new “multipolar world”. But seen in the context of China’s internal social strains and imbalances, the discordance begins to make greater sense.

A country of protest and dissent, instability and dislocation, where key institutions - the courts, banks, security services, local and national government - are being stretched as never before; a state of increasing impatience and ill-temper which ferociously denounces anyone who strays into territory - capital punishment, political reform, international trade, Tibet and Taiwan and Xinjiang - that it regards as its own business. These are two sides of the same yuan coin, intersecting narratives, parts of the same immense and uncertain process that is China today.

The key dysfunction in this period of extraordinary challenge for China’s leaders is between economics and politics. In economic terms, China has a functioning model that is able to deliver the goods to its citizens in a way impossible to conceive at the beginning of Deng Xiaoping’s reform programme in 1978. But politically, the system is an anachronism: unable to deliver justice, accountability or voice to its citizens (see "China's shadow sector: power in pieces", 17 September 2009).

At some level, China’s leaders know it. They are using every resource at their disposal to keep things under control. But the prickly, aggressive mood is worrying. Liu Xiaobo tellingly writes in one of his essays that this is a country where the president, Hu Jintao, cannot permit even the mildest fun to be poked at him in cartoons. He and his colleagues are trying to look far, far stronger than they actually are or feel. They are powerful, yet trapped. In many ways they deserve sympathy, even pity - though it is all too revealing of their plight that they would meet the offer with scorn.