Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent remarks to Chinese troops at a military base in Guangdong Province to “put their minds and energy on preparing for war” and calling on them to be “absolutely loyal, absolutely pure and absolutely reliable” has generated much headlines. Xi was inspecting the People’s Liberation Army Marine Corps in Chaozhou City and his remarks are being seen as more belligerent rhetoric against the US, neighbouring states in the South China Sea and Taiwan – to whom Washington recently decided to sell three advanced weapon systems.
But as I have argued before, much of the muscle-flexing by the current Chinese leadership is a cover for the tremendous internal changes taking place inside China, and a tool to deflect criticism over the Covid-19 pandemic and reinforce the authority of Xi and the Chinese Communist Party. In this regard, Xi’s remarks exhorting Chinese troops to be “absolutely loyal, absolutely pure and absolutely reliable” is interesting. Is Xi worried that parts of the People’s Liberation Army may not go along with his leadership? Do factions within the party-state system believe that Xi is leading them down the wrong path? After all, this won’t be the first time that nationalist rhetoric is been deployed to paper over internal cracks within the Chinese system. Nor will it be the first time that apprehensions have been expressed over the Chinese machinery not pulling in the same direction.
In Richard McGregor’s ‘Asia’s Reckoning: The Struggle For Global Dominance’, the author recalls a now-forgotten episode from the 1970s when the People’s Republic of China and Japan were on the verge of normalising their relationship. In April 1978, months before the Peace and Friendship Treaty was inked by the two countries, a swarm of about 200 Chinese fishing boats armed with light weapons suddenly appeared in the waters around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. The Japanese were stunned, especially when they found out through radio intercepts that the boats were being directed from Chinese navy-controlled ports in Shandong and Fujian. When the Japanese asked the Chinese leadership for an explanation, the latter simply told Tokyo to ignore the boats and assured they had nothing to do with the treaty negotiations.
A prominent explanation for the appearance of the boats is that they were organised by remnant supporters of the then imprisoned Gang of Four – the ultraradical faction from Shanghai – as a way to undermine then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. The latter, after all, had wanted to shelve the dispute over the disputed islands in favour of normalisation of relations with Tokyo – then part of Beijing’s strategy to create breathing space with the Soviet Union and possibly drive a wedge between the US and Japan. In fact, Deng had said that the dispute over the islands should be put aside “for the next 10, 20 or even 100 years”.
The episode goes to the show that the Chinese party-state system is hardly a monolith. There are many factions and pressure points. True, Xi has been trying to eradicate the factions and stamp his authority over the system. This he believes he needs to do to save the Chinese Communist Party. As I have argued before, Xi truly thinks he is rescuing China from the fate that befell the erstwhile Soviet Union. For, he thinks the Chinese Communist Party had become too big, with too many factions and power centres. This allowed for massive inner-party corruption and talk of alternatives to the current form of leadership of the party. By centralising power in himself and those around him, Xi is trying to quash any scope of political alternatives and reinforce the authority of the party as central to Chinese life.
However, given how big China is and how massive the Chinese system is, this isn’t an easy task to achieve, particularly without disruptions. Plus, there is always the possibility of some group within the party-state system going undetected and trying to subvert the whole machinery from within. This is what nearly happened in 1978 with the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and the Japan treaty. Perhaps this is what Xi fears the most and is reflected in his remarks to Chinese troops in Guangdong. After all, Xi’s anti-corruption purge, constitutional changes and merging of party-state institutions may not have universal support within China. Perhaps this is why Xi in his foreign policy approach is being unduly aggressive and using nationalism to try and rally all sections of Chinese society to his point of view. It’s an old trick.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.