Anything that emanates from China creates a flutter, and if it is the quinquennial Communist Party Congress, the excitement aroused reaches its peak. The reports and speeches are scanned minutely for excavating their hidden meanings and squeezing out of them the last ounce of significance.
Zillions of sound bytes and words spew out of the media on the personae of new arrivals on various bodies, their patrons and protégés, their personal and political equations, their strengths and weaknesses as well as their predilections and proclivities. So it was in the case of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (NCCPC) that concluded on November 15.
The lofty-sounding theme of the NCCPC as proclaimed by the Chinese President Hu Jintao, who is also tripling up as the General Secretary of the party and the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, is hardly earth-shaking. It bears an uncanny resemblance to enunciations trotted out at previous Congresses.
This is not surprising because any attempt by the Chinese Communist Party to introduce into the pronouncements any phraseology even distantly unfamiliar can in itself lead to unwanted speculation and unsettle the dynamic domestic equilibrium that has been carefully built up and nurtured so far.
Actually, wading into the verbiage or delving into the bio’s of individual leaders is an exercise in futility with respect to China. It has no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, but only permanent interests, its own. Therefore, there is no scope for individual leaders to bring their personal flair to bear on its approach to policy issues or domestic or world happenings.
Regardless of their designations, their DNA itself is akin to that of pre-programmed apparatchiks, compulsively conforming to certain patterns of thought and behaviour rooted in China’s philosophical or cultural past, dating back to the dawn of history.
Hence, it will be more productive to run through the policy issues waiting to be addressed by China at this point in time and what approach will enhance its standing as a responsible power.
A stock-taking by economic analysts for strategy+business as recently as November 12, was suggestive of a sluggish economy which grew only 7.4 per cent in the third quarter of 2012, its lowest since 2009. Further dampening the scenario was the acute shortage of trained and experienced managers and executives that China was said to be facing.
Bedevilling the prospect additionally is the flaring up of corruption and criminality evidenced by the shocking cases of former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai, who was expelled from top policy making body for corruption, and his wife, Gu Kailai, who was convicted of murder.
Hu was unusually fierce in condemning this outgrowth, saying that “it could prove fatal to the Party, and even cause the collapse of the Party and the fall of the state.” It is clear that China is in for a draconian attack on this evil.
As the s+b study states, “the Chinese government still has the will and ability to ensure …control over the domestic banking system, foreign exchange rates and capital flows, infrastructure investments, and other macroeconomic policy tools.” Among the MNCs interviewed as part of the study, 45 per cent said their Chinese competitors were at least as innovative as they were.
In short, the economy itself may not need anything other than some tweaking here and there to proceed on a smooth, steady and comfortable course in the foreseeable future, especially since the only specific economic target — doubling GDP and per capita income for both urban and rural residents by 2020 that the NCCPC has laid down — is well within China’s capability.
The economic situation is unlikely to pose a distraction but, on the contrary, may even contribute to a spirit of confidence and accommodation in dealing with other issues.
This is a topic about which the Chinese Communist Party has always been wishy-washy. In his speech to the 18th Congress, Hu will not go farther than saying vaguely: “The reform of the political structure is an important part of China's overall reform. We must continue to make both active and prudent efforts to carry out the reform of the political structure, and make people's democracy more extensive, fuller in scope and sounder in practice.”
Read this as: Politics as much as economics will continue with their “Chinese characteristics”.
Looming large under this head is the most contentious issue of the South China Sea. In none of the reports of the 18th NCCPC does one find even a hint of the concrete measures China proposes to take the issue to a settlement. On the other hand, there has been plenty of sabre-rattling preceding it. Accounting for the passage of one-third of the world’s shipping and humongous reserves of oil and gas under its seabed, it has the explosive potential of turning the entire world against China if it makes any wrong and rash move.
One can only hope that China will show enough realism and rationality not to prolong the slanging match and the state of uncertainty, and agree to an independent International Commission to give its verdict on the various jurisdictional claims in accordance with the Law of the Seas.
The discussions over the boundary dispute between China and India have been meandering endlessly at the level of subordinate officials who will never be able to break out of their respective strait-jackets or arrive at a give-and-take. If only the new Chinese President, Xi Jinping, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, emulating the US President Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong as in 1972, summon the necessary imagination and statesmanship, they can settle it at one stroke.
Tibet and dissidence
China regards them as internal matters in which others have no right to interfere. Restraint and moderation on the part of both critics from outside and government and party echelons is the course that is most likely to pay high dividends.
In sum, the 18th NCCPC cannot be said to be a either a turning point or a path setter. Nevertheless, it provides an opportunity for the leading lights entering upon their new duties to revisit the approaches and stances that the Chinese government had so far been taking and bring them in sync with current realities.