The Political Theater of the CCP

This week the Nobel Prize Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xinbao, Charter ’08 author and Chinese dissident. The Chinese Communist Party did not take this news well. Blog-friend Zenpundit offers the following reflections:
Mark Safranski (“Zenpundit”). 11 October 2010.

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 hesitate to condemn the Central Committee on the grounds of incompetence. The line between China’s domestic and foreign policies has always been difficult to demarcate and observers risk misinterpreting the message Party policies seek to convey if they have not first identified the audience meant to receive it. That a Western diplomat finds the CCP’s policies hamfisted does not mean all interested parties will reach the same conclusion.
For example, few Chinese consider the centralization of China’s paramilitary police to be a bid for political legitimacy or an attempt to squash an alternate locus of power. To the contrary, it has been hailed as a critical part of President Hu Jintao’s larger drive to eliminate corruption in the countryside. This year local Party officials have been the subject of much criticism in the Chinese press for using the People’s Armed Police and extra-legal security groups to suppress citizens filing petitions against them. Removing local access to the police is not an unusual recourse to such blatant corruption – and is not seen as such by the Chinese people.  Centralization of corrupt elements is business as usual.
Continuity with past policies can also be seen in China’s current friction with other great powers. As noted in this space before, one of the hallmarks of modern Chinese foreign relations is that Chinese diplomats rarely try to force other countries into taking action on their behalf. Instead, they usually demand that other countries do not take action. One salient advantage of this policy is that it allows the government to claim in almost all situations that it is acting in response to the provocations of others. China’s currency policy has been consistent for the last two decades – it is the Westerners who have suddenly decided that these policies are worth condemnation. China’s territorial claims have also been clear for decades – it is the Japanese who have decided it that it is time to imprison Chinese fishermen. China’s sphere of influence is known to all – it is the Americans who have decided to insult China by sending their fleets into the Yellow Sea.
This defense carries little weight in the cold court of international opinion. It was never designed to! The upper echelons of the CCP do not seek the approval of those living outside of China, but those living inside of it. China’s so-called “Victimization Syndrome” and “Cult of the Defense” define popular perceptions of international affairs. Any set of policies that conform to this narrative will quickly gain the support of China’s proudly patriotic populace. Indeed, the CCP’s most recent actions on the international scene have done just that.
This does not mean that the CCP is manufacturing international crises. It does mean CCP officials have little incentive to quickly resolve crises when they come. This too is nothing new, but part of the unifying vision that has guided Chinese statecraft since the early 1990s. If China’s most recent provocations are the mark of incompetence, the same must be said of China’s entire grand strategy.

I am reminded of Professor Andrew Nathan‘s thesis that Chinese statesmen rule by way of  “authoritarian resilience.” Said Professor Nathan six years ago:

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.

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