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  • Published in International

Alexis de Tocqueville said that ‘The most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform’ It’s a maxim relevant to China today, argues Sean Ledwith

Two days after the re-election of Barack Obama to the US Presidency, the attention of the world's media swiftly switched to the opening of the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. The overlapping transition of power in the two rival superpowers is seen in some quarters as a timely curtain raiser to decades of economic - and perhaps military - conflict as the two states compete for global hegemony. According to US State Department adviser Robert Kaplan, ‘given what history teaches us about the conflicts that emerge when great powers all pursue legitimate interests, the result is likely to be the defining military conflict of the 21st century’.

Echoes of 1989?

This common perception among many commentators in the core capitalist states explains the unprecedented scrutiny which the Congress is receiving in the West. Most British news bulletins headlined the event's opening day, while Radio 4's Today programme lead with a live interview from Beijing with World Affairs Editor, John Simpson, comparing the week-long meeting which similar meetings he’d seen in Eastern Europe in the years before the Stalinist regimes in 1989.

Simpson would probably be unaware that this comparison could be seen as a hopeful sign by those inside and outside China looking for cracks in the apparent monolithic unity of the CCP, and a space open up for authentic action from below by Chinese workers and activists. The reference to the year 1989 in itself is enough to send tremors of anxiety through the Chinese elite, as that was the last time tension in the ruling class threatened to overturn the system.

A split at the top between reformists and hardliners in that summer created a space for thousands of Chinese students and workers to launch a wave of uprisings across the country that climaxed with the spectacular demonstrations in Tiananmen Square of up to a million people. The brutal repression of that uprising wiped out hopes of real change for a generation. There is much speculation now about similar rivalries and disputes within the current party leadership, focused primarily on the hidden jockeying for position between two main factions within this fifth generation of leaders since the 1949 revolution: the princelings and the populists.

The princelings and the populists

Current Vice President, Xi Jinping, is aligned with the former faction and is widely expected to be elevated to the paramount position of General Secretary at the Congress. The tension within the elite is evident, however, from the prospect of the appointment of a populist figure, Li Keqiang, as Prime Minister, in effect the no. 2 job in the hierarchy. Such an arrangement would show the two factions co-operating, however uneasily, as they confront the numerous social and economic hazards facing China's state capitalist system over the next decade.

The princeling faction is associated with the party bosses who benefited from the export-led boom of East Coast mega-cities like Shanghai, initiated by the third-generation leadership of Jiang Zemin. Jiang also coordinated the brutal repression of opposition in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, and his surprise re-appearance at the Congress has been interpreted by some as a warning to opposition forces that they can expect no relaxing of political repression.

The princeling faction is characterised by greater willingness to experiment with market-based reforms and closer integration with the global economy. The populists, in contrast, are linked an agenda based on boosting domestic consumption and state-led financing of public works. Unlike the princelings, who are seen to have inherited their status, the populists have generally worked their way up through the  party apparatus, starting together in the Chinese Communist Youth League; hence their nickname, the 'tuanpai' or league faction.

The ‘Banquo's ghost’ figure hovering before the two factions is disgraced party boss, Bo Xilai. It is impossible to identify precisely the forces behind his eclipse from power and the imprisonment of his wife on a murder charge, but he might be seen as a sacrifice to party unity, as his power base straddled the two factions. He had the princeling credentials of a son of a first-generation revolutionary but also made his name spearheading a populist crackdown on the black market in his time as party boss in Chongqing province. Most likely, he is a victim of ‘tall poppy’ syndrome: the distrust shared by the two cliques of any individual who appears to be becoming a Western-style charismatic politician, able to reach over the heads of the party to the masses.

Tensions among the elite

Clues to the balance of power between the two factions could be detected in the opening address at the Congress by outgoing President, Hu Jintao. He told his audience of over 2,000 delegates ‘We have held high the great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics and neither taken the old and rigid closed-door policy nor taken the wrong path of changing the banner.’

In other words, there is an unresolved tension among the elite concerning its economic and geopolitical course over the next ten years. Greater exposure to the penetration of foreign capital as favoured by the princelings, or a retreat to rigid state control as preferred by the populists. There was also a coded reference to the Bo Xilai scandal and the danger that similar imbroglios ‘could prove fatal to the party and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state.’ The fears of Robert Kaplan and others in the Western powers will not have been allayed by Hu’s stated desire that ‘China should implement the military strategy of active defence for the new period; expand and intensify military preparedness; and enhance its capacity to accomplish a wide range of military tasks, the biggest of which is to win a local war in an information age.’

Impenetrable but important

It is tempting for socialists in the West to ignore the Congress as the impenetrable manoeuvrings of a sclerotic ruling class; its detachment from global political trends apparent particularly in the virtual absence of women from decision-making. The most visible women at the Congress were the red-coated ushers who keep the hierarchy plied with food and drink during proceedings.

This would be a misguided reaction for two reasons. Firstly, the Chinese Communist Party has used the Congress as an opportunity to underline its formal commitment to ‘Marxism-Leninism’. As long as that is in place, the socialist project around the world is damaged by its association in the minds of many with a state that is notorious for intensive exploitation of its working class and an uncompromising phobia for open debate. The state’s paranoia was illustrated during the Congress by the removal of window handles inside Beijing taxis in case opposition leaflets are thrust at visitors.

Secondly, history suggests that rivalry between great powers rarely stays in the economic sphere indefinitely. The most significant foreign policy development of Obama's first term was a massive transfer of 60% of America's naval power to the Pacific from other regions, what the US State Department calls the ‘Pivot’. This re-deployment of military resources represents a major escalation of America’s desire to encircle China and contain its rival’s ability to expand influence in the Pacific. For some analysts, this is in direct challenge to China's ‘string of pearls’ strategy, a similar strategy to cultivate a security network in the South China Sea.

The potential for catastrophe is difficult to overstate. As the French socialist, Jean Jaures observed ‘capitalism carries war in the same way clouds carry water.’ In previous economic crises, such as the Great Depression of the 1930's, global capitalism has been unable to find a sustainable method of resolving its contradictions peacefully. This has meant that military conflict between major powers has been the ultimate means of eliminating competition. Armed confrontation between the US and China may seem fanciful at the moment, but most observers probably felt the same about Britain and Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Politics at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean has also written for Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, Historical MaterialismPolitical Studies Review and Reviews in History