The Chinese government’s hamfisted and Brezhnevian reaction to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned political dissident Liu Xiaobo, which included a tantrum by the Chinese official media, empty threats against the Norwegian government and the bullying arrest of Liu’s hapless wife have served primarily to telegraph the deep insecurity and paranoia of the CCP oligarchy. Not only was the move reminiscent of how the Soviet leadership bungled handling the cases of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, but coming on the heels of China’s worst year for public diplomacy since the end of the Cultural Revolution, it leaves me wondering if China’s leadership have corrupted their OODA Loop through self-imposed intellectual isolation and an unrealistic assessment of Chinese power?
Most observers have attributed China’s recent aggressive diplomatic behavior on matters of trade, the South China Sea (where China essentially demanded that China’s neighbors accept vassal status when China lacks the naval power projection to make good on such demands) and the Korean peninsula to be a direct result of confidence in China’s economic power and status as a “rising power”. Perhaps. China has been “rising” for a long time. That’s not new. The real novelty is Chinese incompetence in foreign affairs, an area where Chinese leaders have been admirably astute for decades since the “China opening” of the Nixon-Mao meeting. Chinese statesmanship has previously been noteworthy for it’s uber-realistic calculation of power relationships and strategic opportunities.
The reaction of Beijing to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee was hysterical rather than the quiet disdain of a confident great power, an indication that China’s elite remain acutely sensitive regarding their own political legitimacy, or lack thereof ( also evidenced by their recent centralization of control over China’s vast paramilitary police security troops). It is also highly unusual that China has maneuvered itself into a position of friction simultaneously with virtually all other great powers on various issues, while alarming most of its neighboring states; and moreover has done so in a very brief period of time.
Something is amiss at the Central Committee and higher levels of the CCP and government.
I am reminded of Professor Andrew Nathan‘s thesis that Chinese statesmen rule by way of “authoritarian resilience.” Said Professor Nathan six years ago:
Andrew. J. Nathan. Congressional-Executive Commission on China. 3 June 2004.
In my judgment, the Chinese government is not engaged in a gradual process of political reform intended to bring about democracy. Rather, the political reforms that we see – the use of village elections, greater roles for the local and national people’s congresses, wider leeway for media reporting, the administrative litigation system – are aimed at improving the Party’s legitimacy without allowing any opposition to take shape.
The causes of authoritarian resilience are complex. They include:
- Economic growth and constantly rising standards of living.
- Achievements in the foreign policy realm which give the government prestige among the people.
- Building of channels of demand- and complaint-making for the population, such as the courts, media, local elections, media, and letters-and-visits departments, which give people the feeling that there are ways to seek relief from administrative injustices. These institutions encourage individual rather than group-based inputs, and they focus complaints against specific local level agencies or officials, without making possible attacks on the regime. Thus they enable citizens to pursue grievances in ways that present no threat to the regime as a whole.
- A constant and visible campaign against corruption, which has sent the signal that the Party as an institution opposes corruption.
- Increasingly norm-bound succession politics and increased use of meritocratic as contrasted to factional considerations in the promotion of political elites.
- The Party has coopted elites by offering Party membership to able persons in all walks of life and by granting informal property-rights protection to private entrepreneurs. It has thus successfully constructed an alliance between the Party and the class of rising entrepreneurs, pre-empting middle-class pressure which elsewhere has contributed to democratization.
- Maintenance of unity on core policy issues within the Party elite, so there is no sign of a serious split that would trigger a protest movement.
- Resolute repression of opposition activity has sent the signal that such activity is futile. There is no organized alternative to the regime thanks to the success of political repression.
When seen through the prism of ‘authoritarian resilience’ none of the CCP’s recent actions seem quite so stupid or mysterious. Westerners would not be wrong to call the CCP’s reaction to the Liu Xinbao’s award bungled and insecure. However, I imagine most Chinese citizens of a liberal bent have drawn a very different lesson. A Chinese dissident may have the approval of the entire world, but he will still be a dissident. Accolades do not matter. No amount of foreign support will stop him from being jailed and despised by his countrymen. International backing or no, defying the regime is futile.