Election win for Shinzō Abe. Thai king farewelled. Still no government comment on ICAN's Nobel peace prize. By Hamish McDonald.

China welcomes era of Xi Jinping

A procession of white elephants marks the one-year anniversary of the death of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
A procession of white elephants marks the one-year anniversary of the death of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Welcome to the glorious new era of Xi Jinping. As the official news agency assured us on Tuesday, when the Chinese Communist Party wound up its latest congress: “China is rising like it never has before.”

This is because Xi himself had just announced the new era. “China has stood up, grown rich and become strong. It will move toward centre stage and make greater contributions for mankind. By 2050, two centuries after the Opium Wars, which plunged the ‘Middle Kingdom’ into a period of hurt and shame, China is set to regain its might and reascend to the top of the world.”

The congress echo chamber dutifully amended the party’s constitution to add “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” to its guiding ideology. While his two predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, had their thoughts inserted, too, they didn’t have their names attached.

Xi is now up there with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the two Chinese communist greats of the past century. But as Xi has effectively dumped Deng’s precepts about the dangers of concentrating power, and keeping a low profile while developing China’s economic strength, he’s a throwback to Mao.

On Wednesday, Xi strode out onto a stage at the Great Hall of the People with six other men: the new Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of power. It was clear he’d reserved the right of Mao and Deng to stay on calling the shots as long as he liked, unlike the two five-year terms as party secretary and state president imposed on Hu and Jiang.

In contrast with those appointed during Jiang’s and Hu’s midterm congresses, this standing committee does not have an obvious heir apparent. The much-mooted potential successor, Chen Min’er, is not there. Either Xi is trying to avoid looking like a lame-duck leader and intending to bring up an heir closer to 2022, or he’s keeping the option open of further terms.

Either way, Xi enjoys a concentration of power and level of systemic sycophancy not seen since Mao died in 1976. And we can now forget about Chinese “convergence” with the democratic and capitalist worlds.

“The genesis of China’s development miracle is socialism, not other ‘-isms’ ”, as the Xinhua news agency helpfully pointed out. “The country succeeds not by rigidly copying the original ideas of scientific socialism, but by adapting it to China’s reality. Xi Jinping’s thought will be China’s signature ideology and the new communism … China’s success proves that socialism can prevail and be a path for other developing countries to emulate and achieve modernisation. China is now strong enough, willing, and able to contribute more for mankind. The new world order cannot be just dominated by capitalism and the West, and the time will come for a change.”

Of course this all opens up the possibility of Xi leading China into disasters such as Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Though it won’t cause millions of deaths as Mao did, his One Belt One Road initiative is a case in point, a trillion-dollar waste.

And while Xi so far has put economic reform behind his power grab, it might be forced on him soon. The widely respected outgoing head of China’s central bank, Zhou Xiaochuan, dropped a pointed warning on the congress sidelines about the risks of a “Minsky moment” in China’s financial system. This refers to the theory of late American economist Hyman Minsky about speculative lending developing into a Ponzi scheme that collapses.

Abe-san also rises

In an archipelago nearby, another Asian leader also took a step towards removing what nostalgic nationalists see as a foreign-imposed humiliation, as well as extending his grip on office.

Japan’s prime minister, Shinzō Abe, retained the two-thirds lower-house majority of his conservative Liberal Democratic Party coalition in last Sunday’s snap election, which allows him to pursue a revision of the constitution written for Japan by the US occupation. This would authorise wider combat operations by Japan’s military. He’ll still need referendum approval, but Chinese and North Korean assertiveness is only helping sway a so-far-sceptical Japanese public.

Abe is likely to get another three years from next year as LDP leader. During his term Emperor Akihito will abdicate in March 2019 at his own request because of declining health, The Asahi Shimbun reported. This will remove a critic of Abe-style nationalism from the immensely revered throne. Crown Prince Naruhito won’t have the same standing for a long while.

Dollars and Thais

And in a kingdom far to the south, the body of the late monarch Bhumibol Adulyadej was cremated in Bangkok on Thursday, a year or so since his death, in a gilded, nine-spire temporary structure evoking Buddhist and Hindu legends of a continuing afterlife.

The funeral is estimated to have cost $A115 million. King Bhumibol cultivated an image as an austere, monk-like ruler dedicated to his people’s welfare. Yet as a British historian of Thailand, Matthew Phillips, notes in The New York Times, “another of his great successes, at least for the monarchy, has been to make royal wealth seem sacred, and any contribution to it appear virtuous.”

The new king, Vajiralongkorn or Rama X, will be formally crowned by the end of the year. Since his father died, the Duntroon-trained king has changed the rules to allow him to rule from his villa in Munich when he chooses, without appointing a temporary regent, and has taken more direct control of the Crown Property Bureau, which has estimated assets of more than $US40 billion.

Coalition mute on nuke rebuke group

When an initiative started in Australia gets a Nobel peace prize, you’d normally think Canberra would take a bit of pride, and at least send along its congratulations. But that hasn’t been the case this month when the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) got the prestigious gong.

ICAN started among some peace campaigners at Melbourne University in 2005 and became an international organisation, pushing for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons approved by 122 of the 193 nations in the United Nations General Assembly.

Australia was among 69 nations, including most of the US’s allies, that did not vote. Neither Malcolm Turnbull nor Julie Bishop has commented on ICAN’s prize. Indeed, their government has learnt to stop worrying and love the bomb – in the right hands of course. The latest Defence white paper explicitly embraces the US nuclear umbrella. The push to get existing nuclear powers to honour their pledge in the 1969 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to eventually disarm is abandoned.

Intriguingly, the idea of Australia acquiring its own nuclear weapons re-entered the discourse this week, after a 50-year absence. Paul Dibb, the former Defence Department intelligence chief and deputy secretary, wrote in The Australian about the never-tested extended deterrence doctrine potentially being put in doubt by Donald Trump’s contest with North Korea. Dibb noted that in 1968 and 1983, the department secretly urged that Australia keep its freedom to reduce the “lead time” in developing a nuclear weapon, and “review periodically” the question of acquisition. Should Australia’s strategic circumstances deteriorate drastically, “it might be prudent to revisit the technological lead time,” Dibb said, noting we would not be the only one doing so.

In the 1960s, before entering the NPT and with Indonesia’s Sukarno offered nuclear weapons by Mao, the nuclear option was a live one here, with the Australian Atomic Energy Commission secretly working on uranium-enrichment centrifuges. Canberra’s choice of a French submarine offers a pathway to reducing the “lead time” again. If, as many analysts predict, the conventional-power option for these very large submarines proves a risk, the fallback will be nuclear propulsion, requiring a quick investment in a local nuclear industry.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 28, 2017 as "Xi has a confident word in world’s era".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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