At a time when China’s economy and society are under considerable strain and the country is embroiled in increasingly tense border disputes with its neighbors, the relatively peaceful once-in-a-decade political transition in Beijing has helped deflect attention from the underlying turbulence in the Chinese system. The fact is that China is at a crossroads, and the next decade under the new leadership of Xi Jinping could decisively shape the country’s trajectory.
Power transition rarely has occurred without bloodshed and chaos in Chinese history. From the first Shang dynasty, political change is usually violent, with force also being employed to retain power. Chinese analyst Xiao Han has called this the “ax gang” tradition — the ax has been the symbol of power since ancient times. In modern times, as Mao Zedong once famously said, “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
The People’s Republic of China — born in blood in 1949 — has pursued endless domestic witch hunts and political purges. Mao and Deng Xiaoping between them got rid of at least five anointed successors who were discarded abruptly, or died mysteriously or under detention.
The first leadership transition without turmoil or bloodshed was in 2002, when Jiang Zemin stepped down in favor of Hu Jintao. This year, Mr. Xi’s ascension was preceded by a vicious power struggle that led to the ouster and disappearance of a rising star, Bo Xilai, and the swift conviction of his wife for the murder of a British national in what probably ranks as the mother of all orchestrated trials.
Power in China today may not flow from the barrel of a gun to the extent it did under Mao — who was responsible for the deaths of countless millions — but it is significant that Mr. Xi has risen to the top with close military ties and support. In fact, what sets Mr. Xi apart from China’s other civilian leaders is his strong relationship with the military, which regards him as its own man.
As Mr. Xi rose through the Communist Party ranks, he forged close ties with the military as a reservist, assuming leadership of a provincial garrison and serving as a senior aide to the defense minister. His wife, Peng Liyuan, is also linked to the military, having served as a civilian member of the army’s musical troupe.
The real winner from the appointment of the conservative-dominated, seven-member Politburo Standing Committee is the military, whose rising clout in policy already has created an increasingly assertive China. The party has ceased to be a rigid monolith obedient to a single leader. Instead, it has become dependent on the military for its political legitimacy and to ensure domestic order. With rural protests increasing officially by more than 10 percent a year, and separatist unrest growing in the sprawling Tibetan plateau, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, China is now the only important country whose annual internal security budget surpasses its national defense spending.
The rise of a new dynasty of “princelings,” or sons of revolutionary heroes who have widespread contacts in the military, is another indicator that nationalism and militarism likely will strengthen in China. The princelings such as Mr. Xi, numbering in the hundreds, dominate the new Standing Committee and play a key role in the government and economy, in spite of their internecine power squabbles.
These developments have important internal and external implications. Internally, with several reformers losing out to old conservatives in the power struggle for top positions, prospects for major reforms look bleak.
Since the Deng era, China has dumped the Marxist half of Marxism-Leninism but retained the Leninist part. Dictatorship is one thing that is not open to reform. In any event, China’s corrupt, faction-ridden political culture and bloody history are conducive not to political reform but to political revolution.
China’s internal politics helps shape its external policy. The stronger the military has become at the expense of the civilian leadership (every Chinese leader since Mao has been weaker than his predecessor), the more muscular Beijing’s approach has been toward its neighbors. Stepped-up internal repression and aggressive external moves to change the territorial status quo in China’s favor are two sides of the same coin.
China’s future is likely to be determined not by its hugely successful economy, which has turned the country into a global player in just one generation, but by its murky politics and the growing sway of the People’s Liberation Army. The leadership transition, far from cleaning up or stabilizing China’s politics, may actually allow the military to increasingly call the shots. We may see more military generals speak out of turn on strategic issues. The plain fact is that the foreign ministry is the weakest branch of the Chinese government because it is often overruled or simply ignored by the military and security establishments.
In this light, China’s neighbors and the U.S. military would be wise to brace themselves to face a less restrained China championing ever-expanding “core interests.”
Brahma Chellaney is a professor at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and author of Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India, and Japan.