Monday, September 07, 2009

Play it again...

If you follow China news, it's been a depressing time. Ethnic-based riots in Xinjiang (all laid on "foreign-based splittist/terrorists" — who knew Rebiya Kadeer was all-powerful?), increased internet censorship, including a shut-down of social networking and blogging sites, a concerted attack on China's civil rights lawyers and rule of law's been bad, if not entirely surprising. Xinjiang aside, these kinds of crackdowns are cyclical, often coming around important internal events — for example, the '08 Olympics and now, the upcoming 60th National Day on Oct. 1.

In the run-up to the Olympics, Beijing's streets were cleared of migrants, human rights activists arrested, visa restrictions tightened, ancient neighborhoods cleared in the name of modernization. On the other side, new subway lines were built (which if you've spent any time in Beijing, you'll know what a blessing these are) and internet censorship, at least of foreign news and blogging sites, was loosened considerably.

A swing to repression is pretty predictable given the 60th National Day celebrations, but this latest crackdown still feels qualitatively different somehow. The harassment, detention and arrest of legal scholars like Xu Zhiyong seemed to signal a repudiation of even the most gradualist move toward establishing an effective legal and constitutional system to counterbalance one party rule (and I do believe that there are many members of the Party in question who support a genuine rule of law).

All of this is depressing and worrisome, and it makes me wonder if China is heading down a much bumpier road than a lot of believers in China's Inevitable Rise are predicting.

Via China Digital Times comes this very interesting article from the Sydney Morning Herald speculating that the recent repression and restrictions are tied both to the inability of China's political system to adapt to social strains and to a factional power struggle at the highest levels of the CCP:
The risk to China's political and therefore economic stability is that these social challenges are taking place at a time of political transition, when leadership contestants may be tempted to exploit social fissures for their own political gain.

There are some well-connected political observers in Beijing who believe that the party's recent across-the-board political and security tightening, including a ruthless attack on the legal profession, is linked to efforts by the vice-president, Xi Jinping, to secure the leadership of the country by 2012.

They say Xi is desperately wooing the hardliners, mainly allies of former president Jiang Zemin, who control the party's core security apparatus: internal security, propaganda and the military. Xi's immediate goal is to lock in a promotion to be vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission this month, in time for the National Day military extravaganza on October 1. President Hu Jintao received the same promotion at the same point in his transition to the leadership in 2002.

Beyond Xi, senior party figures are manoeuvring to get themselves or their allies into the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee by the time of the next party congress in 2012. Everywhere, cadres are competing to out-tough each other.

The internal competition is more unpredictable than usual because the party no longer has any god-like revolutionary heroes to defer to. Hu Jintao, for example, was anointed as a future party boss long ago by Deng Xiaoping. And Hu Jintao has nothing like the personal grip on power that most of his predecessors have had.Nicholas Bequelin, an observer of China's security apparatus, and Xinjiang in particular, explains what is at stake:

"China hasn't done its political landing yet. Everybody is hoping it's going to be a soft landing but there is a huge question mark over China's future because the one-party system is not sustainable in the long term - the institutional structures cannot cope with social concerns and social problems.

"There are many different futures China's boiling in the pot today. Some of them are very encouraging: the rule of law, the harmonious society program. But you also have this harder-edge China, this nationalist attitude, a rise in xenophobia, criminalisation of segments of society - these are things that could unravel.

"The window of political change is limited; there are many scenarios that would derail China's modernisation and reform, one of them being a progressive takeover by the security forces.
There's more, and I think it's worth reading.

I'm far from expert at the ins and outs of China's current leadership. If there's anyone out there with an informed opinion or two, I would love to hear from you. But a larger conflict of this sort does go a ways toward explaining the queasy intuition I have that this is something more serious than another rounding up of the usual suspects.

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