Another term likely for hawkish Shinzō Abe. Trump puts Iran deal in hands of congress. Jacinda Ardern becomes NZ's prime minister. Tsar Nicholas scandal shows Putin loyalty. By Hamish McDonald.

Is Xi the new Mao or China’s Brezhnev?

Dancers pose in Rongan, Guangxi, to celebrate the 19th Chinese Communist Party National Congress, which convened in Beijing on Wednesday.
Dancers pose in Rongan, Guangxi, to celebrate the 19th Chinese Communist Party National Congress, which convened in Beijing on Wednesday.
Credit: STR / AFP

As Saint Petersburg readies for the hundredth anniversary of Red October, the senior-most Chinese apparatchik in Beijing this week outlined his plans to show how communism can still be made to work.

Xi Jinping gave his “work report” on Wednesday to 2300 delegates at the congress of the Chinese Communist Party, held every five years, about his first term as the party’s general secretary (as well as state president).

And what a busy five years it has been: some 280 cadres of vice-minister rank and above in the clink for corruption, with some 8000 other senior officials and two million small fry disciplined. Several People’s Liberation Army generals also got sacked for corruption, lessening resistance to Xi’s military reforms that cut 300,000 foot-soldiers and shuffled the remaining two million personnel into joint-service “theatre commands”.

Tighter regulation hit non-government organisations, especially those with foreign funding. The brave lawyers defending people accused of subversive crimes found themselves hit with this kind of charge. Students at Chinese universities now attend military-style boot camps. The party’s United Front department stepped up work abroad to keep Chinese students and migrants in a “patriotic” frame of mind. Surveillance is generally getting more pervasive and detailed, thanks to the best facial-recognition and other technologies that Silicon Valley can supply. Promised universal franchise in Hong Kong by this year has been set aside; mainland police snatch Beijing critics from the territory.

With so many “comprehensive and groundbreaking” achievements in the past five years, the question this week is whether the party can bear to think about life without Xi Jinping. In recent decades, the practice has been for the current leader to pull up two younger heirs apparent into the politburo standing committee – the top executive body – to take over when the leader retires at the end of his second term, one as party secretary and one as state premier. This congress is being watched to see if Xi, 64, leaves the succession unclear, or allows his anti-corruption commissar Wang Qishan, 69, to stay on, suggesting retirement at 70 and a two-term limit are flexible. The prospect is bolstered by Xi’s elevation to “core” leadership status, and comparisons to Mao Zedong.

For his second term, Xi is pledging more of the same. By mid-century, the PLA will be world class, ready to fight and win. A new security commission will enforce discipline at home. “Treating development and security in tandem, enhancing a sense of peril, remaining vigilant in times of peace – this is a major principle of our party’s governance of the country,” he said. This would include more control of the internet and censorship, to “clearly oppose and resist the whole range of erroneous viewpoints”.

“Government, military, society and schools, north, south, east and west – the party is the leader of all,” Xi proclaimed, suggesting China as a model of development without Western values. “It offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence,” he said.

But what about ownership of the means of production? Xi’s purges have recently crimped private-sector giants such as Dalian Wanda, Anbang, Fosun and Hainan Airlines. Companies are being told to set up internal party committees and take their advice. The top 1000 state-owned enterprises are still covering losses with borrowings from state banks. Xi wants to resuscitate them.

Xi’s speech showed a lesser faith in market forces and liberalising reform to switch China to more sustainable growth based on services and consumption. Instead, he’s pushed to the limit the old formula of credit-funded construction and subsidised exports. His trillion-dollar new Silk Road plan has the despots of Central Asia slavering. It could all end suddenly in a financial crunch, followed by decades of Japan-style entropy. Is Xi the Leonid Brezhnev of China, asks Hong Kong commentator Philip Bowring, referring to the Soviet leader who tried to revive his moribund communist system from 1964-82. For the moment, the East is Red.

Best minister Abe

Across in Japan, polling indicates Shinzō Abe’s gamble on a snap election might pay off on Sunday, with results for his conservative Liberal Democratic Party that will extend his time in office as prime minister.

It did look wobbly at the start of campaigning when Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike, formed an opposition slate called the Party of Hope and the main opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan, promptly broke up, with some members joining up with Koike and others forming a more left-wing splinter party.

Koike is a former television personality, an Arabic speaker, and was an LDP member of the Diet for 23 years, including a brief stint as defence minister, until breaking away to run for the Tokyo governorship in July 2016. A notable hawk on amending the constitutional restraints on military action and a regular visitor to the controversial Yasukuni shrine, she was not going to differ much with Abe on this front, but takes an opposing view to his plans to reopen nuclear power plants shut down after the Fukushima disaster.

Her star has faded, major polls said this week, and the LDP could get its best result in 30 years. The comrades at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing might reflect that China’s military assertiveness under Xi, along with that of Kim Jong-un, has something to do with the resurgence of hawkish conservatism in Japan.

Trumping Iran

As expected, Donald Trump refused to certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear restraint agreement and kicked the issue to congress to decide whether to do anything about it. The other members of the deal – Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – say Iran is complying, and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, is going ahead with plans to visit Tehran.

The deal will probably hold, but no doubt Kim Jong-un will take the lesson that Washington can’t be trusted to stick with any agreement on nuclear arms. The Republican chairman of the US senate’s foreign relations committee, Bob Corker, said secretary of state Rex Tillerson was being “castrated in public” by Trump. The chief US diplomat said he checked and he was still “intact”.

Ardern up

New Zealand waited 26 days for swing party NZ First’s Winston Peters to choose which of the two major parties he would support. On Thursday he chose Labour, giving it the numbers along with those of the Greens to take government with Jacinda Ardern as prime minister.

Peters didn’t get all he wanted, such as abolishing Maori parliamentary seats. But he agreed the centre-right Nationals had become out of touch with the reality of life for ordinary New Zealanders. “We believe capitalism must regain its human face,” Peters said. Part of the coalition deal is building 10,000 affordable homes.

Bolshie ballet

In Russia, it’s unclear how the centenary of Lenin’s seizure of power will resonate. His heirs around Vladimir Putin have attached themselves to the Russian Orthodox Church, which has canonised Tsar Nicholas II and his family, murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

One of Putin’s people in the Duma, Natalia Poklonskaya, is campaigning to ban a new film about Tsar Nicholas deemed blasphemous. The film, Matilda, directed by Alexei Uchitel, is about a long, pre-marital affair between the tsar and a famous ballerina, Mathilde Kschessinska. Poklonskaya commissioned a report from four academics who declared Nicholas could not possibly have fallen for the dancer, as she was “disgusting, completely ugly” and with “crooked buckteeth that made her look like a mouse or rat”.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 21, 2017 as "Is Xi the new Mao or China’s Brezhnev?".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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