By Robert Daly, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Robert Daly is director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center. The views expressed are his own. This is the first in the '14 in 2014' series, looking at what the year ahead holds for key countries.
Three stories dominate American coverage of China at the close of 2013: the recent plenum that outlined China’s direction for the next decade, China’s establishment of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, and Beijing’s delayed issuance of visas to American journalists. The common thread in these stories is Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping. Xi’s vision and political acumen are the driving force behind reform proposals that could reshape China. Xi would have had to sign off on an ADIZ that has deepened suspicion that China seeks regional hegemony. And Xi has spearheaded a year-long campaign against freedom of information that may culminate in the closing of the China offices of Bloomberg and the New York Times.
Xi’s program to date is Reform, Resurgence, and Repression. What China becomes under his leadership in 2014 and beyond will depend on whether this modern strongman is truly modern and truly strong, or whether he is cultivating an image of strength in an attempt to rein in a dynamic but fragile nation which an anachronistic CCP can no longer control.
Reform. The policy goals Xi set at the plenum demonstrated that he shares the Chinese people’s concerns for social welfare, sustainable growth, a cleaner environment, and cleaner government. Xi’s self confidence and specificity gave plenum documents the feel of a new social contract. They were a populist’s promise to the masses.
To keep his promise, Xi must take on vested interests in state-owned enterprises, local governments, and the CCP itself, which connected families treat as a spoils system. This will be the test of Xi’s power and China’s progress in 2014: if he is able to eliminate the perquisites and rent-taking opportunities of entrenched elites – and we’re talking about tens of millions of people, not just a corrupt official now and then – we may see major and beneficial change in China. If Xi opts instead for creating the illusion of progress through token prosecutions, self-criticism sessions, and constricted free trade zones, the strongman pose will be revealed as a sham and we should expect more signs of fragility and stagnation in China.
Resurgence. Xi has made “The Chinese Dream” the rallying cry of his administration. On the international front, the China Dream entails creation of a zone of deference within the Western Pacific – a region in which Chinese primacy is understood to be natural, inevitable, and desirable: natural means China is blameless for seeking it, inevitable means there is no point in other nations’ resisting it, and desirable means it is self-evident that China is a benign power. China’s sense of destiny, and other nations’ concern that China may soon have the means to fulfill it, is the major cause of tension in East Asia. It is the reason that China ADIZ in the East China Sea and may declare zones in the Yellow and South China Seas in 2014.
The test of Xi’s international strength in 2014 will be his ability to reach out to Asian neighbors. In recent months, China has conducted regional diplomacy primarily through foot stomping. Neighboring countries are forming new coalitions and increasing military budgets to counter China’s hard power, while its soft power has plummeted so far beneath the X axis that it is a drag even on constructive Chinese policies. But Xi can turn things around if he has the inclination and the support of his party. If in 2014 he begins to work with neighboring countries to form new and equitable rules and institutions, he can recover China’s regional standing and set the Western Pacific on a more peaceful path. If, on the other hand, he continues to conduct diplomacy though carping and encroachment, we will know that Xi is either too weak or too steeped in the insular, revanchist traditions of his party to create a China Dream that the region can welcome.
Repression. China’s treatment of foreign journalists, while disturbing, pales in comparison to its denial of rights to its own citizens. Under Xi’s leadership, 2013 saw a nationwide attack on academic freedom, a crackdown on popular bloggers, continuation of strike-hard campaigns in Xinjiang and Tibet, arrests of lawyers and journalists, and coordinated pressure against citizens promoting China’s constitution. Xi’s rationale for repression is identical to that of his predecessors: (1) only the CCP can guarantee the stability required to achieve the China Dream, (2) free expression threatens the CCP, (3) therefore the CCP must limit freedom to ensure prosperity. Once the complete identification of national interests with party interests is accepted, all else follows. Tellingly, Xi has chosen to stifle China’s creative energies even as he calls for development of a modern knowledge economy and the reinvigoration of Chinese culture.
If in 2014 Xi continues to stifle innovation by curtailing freedom – and effectively booting out the Times and Bloomberg would be a sign that he will – we will know that he either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care where innovation comes from, or that he is not sure enough of his political support to unleash the creativity that China’s continued development requires. It is disingenuous to prescribe American-style freedoms to the CCP as a formula for its success; Xi is probably right in thinking that freeing the media, academia, and the judiciary would put the Party on deathwatch. But if Xi is as strong as his style indicates, and if he understands the global context of China’s rise, he can promote limited Chinese innovation even under the current system.
Simply doing nothing – halting crackdowns and reducing censorship – would pay dividends. But only a genuinely strong leader with a modern vision could pull that off.