Thanks to a certain three and a half hour speech and the hubbub surrounding it, this week we have been treated to more than our recommended daily allowance of China analysis from all corners of the policy community. Much of it, especially at a series of smaller and newer shops, is excellent – a living, written testament to improvements in the quality and quantity of training in Chinese affairs in the West over the last generation. That said, there is still a lot of analysis, coming out of more generalist outlets, which tends to be more hyperventilating and overblown. The problem? This analysis still reaches a large audience.
Let’s start simply, with semantics. The party (a.k.a. the dynasty, as I argue) is the prime mover in Chinese affairs, and to think about the country as predominantly having a “president” and a “government” rather than a “party leader” and a “regime” misses the point. For what it’s worth, the Party has in the past put a great deal of pressure on Western media to use the term “President” rather than “Secretary,” or “Chairman” precisely to obscure this important distinction, and we generally continue to do so without being self-conscious about the implication it creates. But the fact that Xi Jinping has managed to secure a new Politburo Standing Committee with no obvious heir may begin to undermine this tendency, as his shift to one-man regime rule becomes too glaring even for polite media to ignore. He is now second only to Mao in the pantheon, and there is no reason to believe his ambition might not stretch higher still.
It is simultaneously problematic to analyze the 19th Party Congress as a “turning point,” per se, rather than the culmination and confirmation of trends that have been underway in elite Chinese politics for years. The “turning point” may more likely be seen as the fights won and lost within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2008-09 in the wake of the financial crisis, or in 2012 in the run-up to the 18th party congress that saw Xi victorious over Bo Xilai. But this Thucididyean aspiration of writers, historians and analysts to be able to point to an event happening in real time and enthrone it as the turning point while we’re observing it fosters a sense of perpetual urgency and scale that hardly any moment actually deserves. Coronation is culmination, not inception, and only the future has the power to periodize the present.
Further chunks of writing on the congress and on Xi make reference to how he has comprehensively repudiated and inverted the original suggestions of Deng Xiaoping’s maxim from a few decades ago that the CCP strategy should be to “hide its capabilities and bide its time” (韬光养晦 taoguang yanghui – lit. “conceal brightness and cultivate obscurity”). This is, of course, true, as a statement of fact. But most writers then neglect to examine the context in which this original strategy arose, or its history in Chinese foreign affairs over the last 39 years. This strategy arose from a particular set of assessments by Deng Xiaoping and the party about China’s capabilities, opportunities, and weaknesses domestically, and within the global order at the time (i.e. in 1978 China was poor, relatively weak and peripheral). Forty years is a rather long lifespan for a governing principle of an international strategy, and the strategy has essentially outlived its usefulness by delivering the results it promised. In that time, China has moved from the periphery to the center of the global system. A different strategy is entirely appropriate, and Xi’s new muscular assertiveness did not arise in a vacuum.
Indeed, in very large measure, China’s success over the last 39 years has owed to wisdom of the original assessment of the global strategic situation that led the CCP to adopt and embrace Deng’s earlier, quiet approach, and the commitment of the party to see it through. This suggests very strongly that a huge question at the center of Xi’s repositioning of the Party and China is whether the new muscular approach rests on a reading of their capacities, weaknesses and the stability of the international strategic environment that is as accurate this time as last. This is a heavy lift, even for the best of strategists. It is made harder as the complexity of the unit of analysis gets bigger and more networked itself, as China has become.
My assertion is that we credit the CCP too much, and automatically control for too many unknown unknowns by extrapolating outward into the future from the announcement of the INTENT to become this particular kind of power to the actual reality of it happening. The global strategic environment is, shall we say, uncertain right now. And these persistent extrapolations of the changes in US diplomatic practices under Donald J. Trump — as to suggest, somehow, a permanent reconfiguring of US policy — are of course absurd. It’s been 10 months. Let’s stop pretending that things can’t be undone or changed again in the future, as indeed they have in the recent past. And, lest we forget, many other actors have agency. One would ordinarily be inclined to think that the amount of confounded expectations, instability and surprise that we’ve experienced over the last year would give us some humility on speculating on the stability of future trends. But no, alas.
The CCP and the country that is its wholly controlled creature have indeed done quite well over the last few decades, and become a power now in a way they have not ever been in the modern era. China has arrived at a place in the global system where it feels confident enough to stick its head up in a big way. And its rise very well may continue, driven both by sagacious policymaking, mistakes by adversaries and luck. But any number of other possibilities, already pregnant in the present moment, could similarly happen, and all our speculation turned to ash. We would be well-advised to remember Orwell’s axiom that “Whoever is winning at the moment will always appear invincible.” But there are always more moments to come.