The real rulers of China

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - January 16, 2014 - 12:00am

The visible increase in tensions between China, the aspiring superpower, and its Asian neighbors was back in the headlines at the start of this year. Chinese ships entered disputed waters near Japan controlled waters in the East China Sea.

China has also imposed restrictions on fishing rights in the West Philippine Sea. What was surprising was that the new fishing rules were imposed by Hainan, a province of China, and not the Beijing central government. This would be similar to the province of Batanes imposing fishing restriction in the territorial waters between the Philippines and Taiwan.

How is it that the province of Hainan can claim jurisdiction over most of China’s claims of islets and atolls in the West Philippine Sea? Is this not the responsibility alone of the central government? Is it mere coincidence that Hainan province is also where a major Chinese naval base is located? This is the location of a dock for China’s only aircraft carrier and also the base for attack submarines.

There have been speculations that the aggressive policies of China in the West Philippine Sea are really being fuelled by three major vested interest groups. First is the state owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation or CNOOC which supports policies for more assertiveness because it believes that the area has significant hydrocarbon deposits. Their close ally is the Chinese navy which wants a bigger budget and a modernized fleet. Then there are the fishing companies which are now predominantly privately owned which makes it harder for the central government to control. There are reports that the Beijing government has not even been able to prevent overfishing by these companies.

The process of public policy decision making has become critical in the world because of China’s increasing power and the perception that it has a foreign policy that is both extremely nationalistic and aggressive.

In the recent January-February issue of the publication Foreign Affairs, Professor David Lampton wrote an article entitled “ How China is Ruled: Why It’s Getting Harder for Beijing to Govern.” According to him, this difficulty arises from the fact that China’s central government is operating in an environment radically different from the one that existed at the beginning of Deng’s tenure. He writes that these are the primary reasons governing has become more difficult than in the past:

“First, individual Chinese leaders have become progressively weaker in relation to both one another and the rest of society. Second, Chinese society, as well as the economy and the bureaucracy has fractured, multiplying the number of constituencies. Third, China’s leadership must now confront a population with more resources, in terms of money, talent, and information than ever before.”

During the Mao era, and even the Deng era to a certain extent, Chinese leaders served only one interest – China’s masses. According to Lampton: “ The job of the government was to repress recalcitrant forces and educate the people about their true interests. Governance was not about reconciling differences. It was about eliminating them.”

However, today: “The combination of more densely packed urban population, rapidly rising aspirations and the spread of knowledge, and the greater ease of coordinating social action means that China’s leaders will find it progressively more challenging to govern.”

The leadership style of Xi Jingping is also being closely observed to see how he will deal with this changing environment. It is, of course, too early to determine what his path will be. He is presently still trying to consolidate his power over Communist Party political machinery, and even more critical, over the People’s Liberation Army ( PLA).

It is not surprising that there are two divergent views currently emerging about his leadership style. There are those who believe that Xi aspires to be a great leader — even to be another Mao.. The author Gordon Chang writes:

“In a secret speech to party cadres, for example, he (Xi), lamented the fall of the Soviet Union. The communist superpower had collapsed, he reportedly said, because its leaders had lost faith in the ideology.”

The Chinese Communist Party has also released the so-called Document. 9 wherein the Central Committee has listed several concepts forbidden by the new Politburo. These forbidden concepts are reportedly the “evils that undermine China’s communism.” Among these are Western constitutional democracy, a free media , the notion of civil society and criticisms of the Party’s past.

There are those, however, who still hope that once Xi consolidates power, he will be a reformer and will heed public opinion. The Economist recently wrote: “In a first for a Chinese president, Xi Jingping made a New Year’s Day address to the nation on state television. The content of his speech, mainly good wishes and appeals for people to work together, broke no new ground. But the format, reminiscent of an American president in the Oval office hinted at a desire to find new ways for China’s leaders to interact with the people.”

How will China be ruled in the future? There are several possible paths. First, China’s leaders will re-establish a more centralized, authoritarian form of government. Second , in the face of disorder, a charismatic leader will arise. He will either be a new Mao or a new Emperor. The most dangerous scenario is that China will fail to build institutions to cope with these changes in its society. This will lead to chaos and possibly civil war.

We can only hope that China will eventually find a path that will lead to participatory government and the rule of law. A chaotic and overly nationalistic China will only lead to more instability in our region and pose a great threat to Philippine economic and social progress.



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