China 2013: A Year in Review by Kerry Brown

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This week, China Briefing is featuring a series of specially-commissioned articles from prominent China-based writers regarding their thoughts on the key developments in the country during 2013, and what lies ahead in 2014. Today’s article is written by Kerry Brown, Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

Jan. 6 – There have been two major themes of the Xi Jinping leadership of China in its first proper year in power. The first is to restore the tarnished reputation of the Communist Party. The second is to spell out a big vision for China and the rest of the world for what the country stands for as it grows richer and stronger.

For the first theme, the dominant issue has been around corruption. China under Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao’s leadership from 2002 became punch drunk with its newfound wealth. Faster and on a larger scale than was ever expected, money seemed to grow everywhere. Many made their fortunes. This was a hard time for officials, because while they created the economic changes and brought about the environment for this prosperity, it was business people and entrepreneurs who became millionaires and in some cases billionaires.

The result has been a generation of government and party leaders who have been surrounded by temptations often too powerful to resist. Things have grown worse since the global economic downturn of 2008, which saw the state sector in China start churning out vast profits. Corruption has rocketed. And with it, so have public views of the Party officials plummeted, with most people feeling that they work only to feather their own nests and look after their own narrow networks.

Since the first day of his elevation to Party Secretary in November 2012, Xi has talked about corruption. In 2013, he did not just speak, but did something about the issue. The Party brought in regulations against excess eating and drinking by its officials. Luxury restaurants were badly hit. Then the campaign really bit. In September, Jiang Jiemin, head of the State-owned Assets and Supervision Commission (SASAC), the government body that looks after the 120-plus major companies still in state hands, was put under investigation. This is a major body, and Jiang came from the powerful oil sector. For a figure like this to be investigated so early on in a leadership indicated that the anti-corruption language was not just rhetoric. Rumours that the campaign might even reach the doors of former Politburo Standing Committee member and head of security Zhou Yongkang persisted. And it was for corruption and abuse of power that Bo Xilai, a leader felled in 2012, was finally sentenced to life in prison in early September after a short trial, at which he had shown fiery defiance.

Xi’s purposefulness about corruption stems from very personal roots. His father, Xi Zhongxun, is one of the few leaders from the revolutionary generation whose reputation remains high. His son, on the hundredth anniversary of his father’s birth, seems keen to restore the moral legitimacy of the Party and make it a modern political force rather than something focussed solely on money. Xi’s leadership in that sense is tactical, looking beyond the period of fast growth to a time when economic performance will be much more about efficiency. In this context, corruption is the ultimate inefficiency and needs to be reined in. That means that just as the era of double digit growth in China is now probably a thing of the past, so too is the time when officials in collusion with state and non-state business could siphon off vast sums of money for themselves and their supporters.

Making the Party’s image more wholesome is also connected to the second major Xi theme – the China Dream. In the next decade, China will become a middle income country, doubling its GDP, but also undergoing rapid urbanisation and creating a society more like the middle class, service sector orientated model found in other partially developed countries. The question of what citizens want then, of what inspires their lives beyond becoming prosperous and materially wealthy, becomes more pressing. For a government with growth slightly falling, too, the issues also changes from pumping out raw GDP to producing a more equitable, sustainable, balanced society – and that means hitting issues like political reform. Domestically, at least, this is what lurks behind the references Xi makes to the China Dream.

Externally, things are less straightforward. China exists in a region where its neighbourhood is complex, and its strategic space limited. The United States presses in on it, Japan challenges it, India competes with it. Many issues around its maritime borders, the continuing status of Taiwan, imminent constitutional changes in Hong Kong, and restiveness in Tibet and Xinjiang frustrate it. Yet, the sense amongst leaders and much of the public in China is that this is China’s age. The country has become crucial in global supply chains, geopolitical decision-making and governance. While resisting talk of there being a G2 of superpowers now – the U.S. and China – China does want to have its achievements recognised and its status acknowledged. On this reckoning, the China dream is an old one – to become, as was promised at the dawn of modernisation in the country a century before, a “rich, strong country.” That means a country that is listened to, that has a powerful military, and the means to have its demands met. There are many outside China that see this as an ominous indication that the country is turning more nationalistic and assertive.

Xi himself sounds increasingly like someone with a sense of destiny, who regards his family background as granting him the right to rule. He appears like an imperial figure, who feels he has the right to shape the Party in the image he and his networks feel is right. The ways in which this new leadership have set out a political and economic roadmap over the last twelve months have been admirably clear. So far, their honeymoon has been a relatively tranquil one. But a sharp deterioration in the economy, or a major spate of social unrest in the country, and things will look very different. This has been a tactical leadership, but also a lucky one. A crisis of some sort would show what real political skills and instincts they have. And as those that have followed Chinese history know, a crisis, alas, is never far away.

Kerry Brown is professor of Chinese politics and Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. He is an associate fellow of the Chatham House and directs the Europe China Research and Advice Network funded by the EU. His book, “The New Emperors: China’s Fifth Generation Leaders,” will be published this May.


Tomorrow’s Guest Author: Shaun Rein