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Showing a Brave Face While Holding a Weak Hand: China’s Mounting Challenges

14 May 2018
By Alexander Trauth-Goik

The Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Congress held in October of last year affirmed China’s authoritarian revival. With Congress having approved the incorporation of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era into the constitution, President Xi has been elevated to near legendary status. This is the first time since the Mao Zedong era that a living leader has had his ideology enshrined within the Party’s constitution.

Chinese lawmakers have since passed an historic constitutional amendment abolishing the two-term presidential limit enacted by former Party leader Deng Xiaoping in 1982 to prevent the Chairman of the Party (now the General Secretary) from ruling indefinitely. Expect to hear more three-and-a-half hour monologues delivered by President Xi for some years to come.

These domestic developments have been buttressed by China’s bold and uncompromising actions abroad. Within contested waters in the South China sea the country has become increasingly assertive, backing its claims to territory through the construction of artificial islands and military bases. Chinese-led initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative continue to grow in both membership and scope, refashioning aspects of the regional and global economic order in China’s favour. The Chinese government has also strengthened efforts to try and shape political discourse in target countries.

At a time of perceived decline in US hegemony and the integrity of the so called ‘rules-based international order’, China’s actions shouldn’t be surprising. Seizing opportune moments to consolidate power and influence the shape of the game is what major powers do.

But what we see seldom discussed is the limited time-frame that the Chinese government actually has available to enact significant and lasting change.

China is no longer a communist country. Not for many years has the Party’s claim to power relied on a bedrock of communist ideology, though it ceaselessly attempts to obscure this obvious truth through the use of flowery—and sometimes downright confusing—rhetoric. For those of you that were wondering, ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ equals capitalist society.

Devoid of any substantial ideological foundation, the Party’s legitimacy has come to rest on a grand but unspoken social bargain. Though rarely expressed, this contract is based on the expectation that the Party continue to improve the people’s standard of living in exchange for the people’s acquiescence to China’s authoritarian rule.

In recent years, efforts have been made by the Party leadership to fortify this social contract through the promotion of a proactive nationalism based primarily around the principles of national sovereignty, national reunification and national prestige in world affairs. But despite these efforts, in the eyes of most people the Party’s legitimacy is still inherently tied to its performance.

One need only to walk down the streets of Shanghai or any other major Chinese city and ask people what they think of President Xi’s ‘Four Comprehensives’ or his ‘Four Confidences’ to confirm that the majority of ordinary Chinese find the Party’s contemporary political thought befuddling.

President Xi still maintains a position of relative popularity among ordinary Chinese and is viewed by many—no doubt thanks in part to pervasive propaganda campaigns—as a leader capable of cementing the country’s great power status and restoring China’s pre-eminence in the Asia-Pacific.

Now is a golden moment for China and the Party knows it. But the window of opportunity to accrue and lock-in as many benefits as possible before mounting challenges weigh down China’s monolithic progress is fast closing.

And make no mistake, China’s challenges are mounting.

Threats to the country’s socio-political cohesion encompass severe levels of ecological degradation, secessionist sentiment in its outer territories of Xinjiang and Tibet, a slowed and transitioning economy and a rapidly ageing and uneven population. The social unrest that the Party fears will be generated from these challenges has been matched by an increase in domestic security spending.

Although the full amount of government expenditures is likely higher than those indicated by official budget figures, it is undeniable that in recent years the Chinese government has drastically increased spending in the security realm. According to calculations made by the Jamestown Foundation, excluding the billions of dollars spent on security-related urban management and surveillance technology initiatives, China’s national domestic security spending on a Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) basis for 2017 was equivalent to roughly USD$ 349 billion (AUD$ 464 billion), double that of the US. This is the seventh consecutive year that domestic security spending has surpassed external defense spending with the margin between the two now sitting at a record 18.6 per cent.

Viewed in light of the challenges highlighted above, it becomes evident that China’s current attempts at reshaping the game are unsustainable. The increase in the government’s domestic security spending testifies that the Party is keenly aware of the threats to China’s socio-political cohesion, but this is only a band-aid solution.

Ultimately, the grand but unspoken social bargain between people and Party dictates that the Party will be forced to solve the emergent threats to the satisfaction of the Chinese people, else it risks losing legitimacy. For those outside of the country threatened by the current period of Chinese assertiveness, it may just be a matter of waiting with bated breath until this occurs.

Alexander Trauth-Goik is a Bachelor of International Studies student at the University of Wollongong, majoring in Mandarin. He tweets from @Affairs_Navi.

This article is an edited extract from an article published on Foreign Affairs Navigator on 11 April  and is republished with permission.