Opinion Op Ed 11 Jan 2017 A difficult year ahe ...
The writer is based in South India for the past 40 years. He writes on India, China, Tibet and Indo-French relations.

A difficult year ahead for China’s Xi

Published Jan 11, 2017, 1:22 am IST
Updated Jan 11, 2017, 7:38 am IST
China's President Xi Jinping (Photo: AP)
 China's President Xi Jinping (Photo: AP)

On October 27, at the end of the sixth plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), a communiqué announced that President Xi Jinping had been anointed with the “core of the leadership” status. While stressing “intra-party democracy”, all CPC members were told to “closely unite around the CPC Central Committee with Xi Jinping as the core”. For most observers, Mr Xi had clearly consolidated his power over the Middle Kingdom.

While Jiang Zemin, who served as CPC general secretary from 1989 to 2002, was referred as the “core of the third-generation leadership”, Mr Xi has gone a step higher; he is the “core of the leadership”. It is generally assumed by China watchers that Mr Xi has accumulated as much power as his illustrious predecessors, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. But is it true?

In normal times, it is difficult to decipher the arcane of the Communist Party, but whatever it may be, one can definitely say that year 2017 will be a tough one for Mr Xi. Why?

First and foremost, the 19th party congress, which every five years see the transfer of power between one generation to another will take place in November. The congress will then elect more than 300 full and alternative Central Committee members, which in turn will select a new politburo and an all-powerful standing committee.

Already in September last year, the South China Morning Post warned: “After 67 years in power, China’s Communist Party is striving to outdo the former Soviet Union’s 74 years of Communist rule. But before it does so it will face another accession battle, a process that since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 has often descended into a bloody and merciless internal power struggle.”

This raises several questions. Will the number of the standing committee’s members remain seven? Will Mr Xi prefer a smaller committee in order to control it better (let us say with five members)? Will the rule about the retirement age be changed to accommodate Wang Qishan, Mr Xi’s most faithful comrade and anti-corruption campaign tsar?

During the last few months, corruption and vote-rigging scandals have reduced the ranks of the National People’s Congress (NPC); this has resulted in a sharp increase in vacancies. Can these seats be “honestly” filled up? All these questions will have to be answered before the fall of 2017.

Then the economy. The soaring debt is an issue, which needs to be tackled at the earliest. According to the Economist: “China’s total debt as a per cent of GDP — public and private debt, including both commercial and household — has risen sharply.”

Ruchir Sharma, chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, explained: “It will be difficult for any country to grow as rapidly as six per cent, and all but impossible for China. Nevertheless, in an effort to exceed that target, Beijing is pumping debt into wasteful projects, and digging itself into a hole. The economy is now slowing and will decelerate further when the country is forced to reduce its debt burden, as inevitably it will be.”

Will China manage its debt burden in 2017 is a billion-yuan question. This is certainly a worry for Mr Xi. Another issue is the situation in the minorities’ areas, first and foremost in Xinjiang and Tibet. A few months ago, Tibet’s party chief, Chen Quanguo, known for his hardline policies during his posting in Lhasa, was transferred to Xinjiang, in order to implement new repressive measures against the Uyghurs. Will it work? Not sure.

On December 28, five people were killed in a clash at a branch of the Communist Party in Moyu County in western Xinjiang. The assailants armed with knives and a bomb stormed the office killing an official and a security guard. The police shot dead three people at the scene.

The New York Times wrote: “The confrontation was the latest outburst of violence in a region plagued by tensions between the government and the Uyghurs...”

Mr Chen then ordered a massive show of force in an anti-terror exercise and rallied the police for a public oath-taking ceremony to ensure stability in the region. This or confiscating the passports of the local population will not reduce the deep resentment of the local population.

In neighbouring Tibet, Mr Chen’s successor, Wu Yingjie, in a speech reported by the official Tibet Daily, said that countering the Dalai Lama’s influence is the highest priority for China: “First, we must deepen the struggle against the Dalai Lama clique, make it the highest priority and the long-term mission of strengthening ethnic unity. …We must thoroughly expose the reactionary nature of the Dalai Lama, crackdown on separatist and subversive activities.”

Tough new “border regulations” have been notified on January 1. Badro, deputy head of the Tibet Border Police, explained: “As Tibet further opens up with fast economic development, the border areas have witnessed more disputes and diverse criminal activities, including those involving separatism, illegal migration and terrorism.”

Another headache for Mr Xi lies with his pet project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The CPEC is a Chinese “dream”; when he visited Islamabad in April 2015, President Xi pledged $46 billion for it.

Recently Pakistan’s Southern Command Commander Lt. Gen. Aamir Riaz said that India should join and enjoy its benefits. In an outbid, Hua Chunying, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson remarked: “I wonder whether the Indian side takes this offer made by the Pakistani general as a goodwill gesture… China would like to discuss the possibility of introducing a third party.”

Why this sudden kindness and why is India suddenly invited to reap the benefits? The answer is that Islamabad is facing more and more difficulty to sell the Chinese “gift” at home and Beijing slowing realises that the project is more complicated than expected, mainly due the internal situation in Pakistan.

According to the Business Recorder, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced that his government had raised a special security division (SSD), comprising of 15,000 military and civilian armed forces for ensuring the safety of Chinese “brothers” working on the CPEC.

Who will pay? Pakistan for the time being, but many in Pakistan realise that the Chinese “gift” is actually a costly one. Many Pakistani have started feeling in which direction the wind is blowing. A report launched by the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI) affirmed that: “Given the current rate of influx of Chinese nationals into Balochistan and after the completion of the CPEC, the native population of the area will be outnumbered by 2048.”

This is bound to further upset the local population. These are some of the worries of Mr Xi. One could add many others, like the resentment created by the in-depth reforms of the People’s Liberation Army, the freedom movement in Hong Kong, the change of equation with the installation of a new US administration… and Taiwan.

The “core of the leadership” may not find the going easy in 2017.

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