The violence in China’s far western region of Xinjiang and the export-led economic downturn the country has suffered appear to have little in common. But Beijing’s reaction to both does, and paints a revealing picture of the way the leaders of the People’s Republic act when confronted with major problems.
In both cases, the reaction has been to deploy maximum military resources. This is keeping with the Communist party’s tradition of applying the techniques evolved by Mao Zedong, applying mass campaigns to deal with problems or promote policies in the form of the army attacks that won the civil war in 1949. Mass mobilisation may have gone out of fashion as a political device, but the heritage remains.
In Xinjiang, this takes the form of pouring tens of thousands of armed security forces into the far western territory, as happened in Tibet after the riots there last year. On the economic front, the big bang policy has brought a massive upsurge in lending by the state banks. In the first half of this year, the total has hit the equivalent of $1tn on top of the $580bn fiscal stimulus package – triple the total for the same period of 2008.
China’s size and population mean that just about any numbers are in mega proportions, be it in consumption of raw materials or the number of internet users. The Communist party and the government have grown used to thinking in big quantitative terms. The political pressures under which they operate make them seek quick results – the one-party state does not mean that Hu Jintao and his colleagues can ignore negative trends and surf over difficulties. What we are seeing now is a blind rush for the nearest exit from the problems affecting the economy and Xinjiang without much regard for the fundamentals. That cannot be healthy.
The economy needs rebalancing to boost domestic consumption and get away from excessive dependence on exports and fixed asset investment in everything from domestic housing to railway construction. The ethnic and social tensions in Xinjiang – like those in Tibet – will persist for so long as China applies colonial repression and favours Han immigrants from the east. But in neither case is the leadership moving in ways that could lead to a durable improvement.
The immediate economic crisis has brought yet more infrastructure spending, tax rebates for low-margin exporters, a build-up of natural resource inventories and a surge of liquidity that risks bringing a rash of non-performing loans for banks. It could also result in monetary tightening when deflation diminishes – which could be nasty for companies counting on cheap money to see them through the bad times. The short-term results will be trumpeted – a thinktank has just expressed its confidence that the magic 8% growth figure will be attained this year.
In Xinjiang, security forces will restore an uneasy calm and are likely to stay for a long time – in Tibet, the heavy security blanket remains in place 15 months after last year’s riots. In both cases, Beijing puts the blame for trouble on exile groups as it grapples with the problems of running an empire that dare not speak its name.
At the same time, the Communist party and the state are seeking to tighten their grip, harassing the authors of the pro-democracy Charter 08 issued at the end of last year, rolling back legal reforms and favouring big state companies in the recovery package. Authority remains so centralised that Hu had to leave the G8 summit in Italy to return to Beijing on Wednesday, in part because, as chair of the central military commission, he is the only member of the politburo who can give orders to the army. He has to do this in person – Beijing does not do long-distance electronic communications when national security is at stake.
The crisis in Xinjiang comes on top of a whole series of challenges facing Hu and his colleagues, ranging from pollution to corruption, from control of the internet to wealth disparities. In theory, an autocratic government in a one-party state should be able to flick the levels to achieve its desired result – Deng Xiaoping said the advantage of the Chinese political system was that it enabled decisions to be taken quickly. However, the Hu regime is more consensual, and there are more lobbies and economic and social layers to be dealt with than in the 1980s. China will not collapse, as some predicted 10 years ago. But its internal problems will act as a brake on it developing as it might were it to possess leaders who had more vision, a greater readiness to engage in dialogue and who were also less obsessed with preserving themselves, their regime and their party.
Jonathan Fenby, a British journalist and the author of The Penguin History of Modern China 1850-2008.