‘It is striking that China would take on India at a time it needs friends’

Richard McGregor is an award-winning journalist and author of the bestseller, The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers

In the wake of the Chinese Communist Party celebrating 100 years of its formation, this former Beijing bureau chief of the Financial Times spoke to Open on China’s foreign relations, the history of the communist party in that country, Xi’s leadership and the Covid-19 pandemic that originated in China. Now a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute, McGregor’s other books are Japan Swings: Politics, Culture and Sex in the New Japan and Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century.

How different is CCP now compared with the organisation under Mao’s watch and later under Deng?

The CCP under Mao and Deng was fundamentally different. Mao drained the CCP of agency and stripped its departments of real power, all in the service of his own dictatorship. Deng made a number of changes. He restored some order to the CCP, making the party once again the institutional core of policymaking in the country; he encouraged the party to operate separately from the government, allowing technocrats rather than cadres to execute policy; he began the process of introducing age and tenure limits, to ensure that a dictator like Mao could not re-emerge and hold on to power indefinitely; and most importantly, he kickstarted market reforms to the economy, the basis of China’s current emergence as a rival superpower.

What are the crucial strategies that helped CCP’s longevity compared with CPSU?

China ditched the command economy and embraced the market. That is the most obvious and profound difference, and also the one that is most remarked upon. Capitalism saved communism in China. Chinese living standards have skyrocketed as a result. Soviet citizens would line up to buy basic foodstuffs. The queues outside stories in China’s big cities are more likely to be for LVMH and Prada handbags. As he had done in the 1920s, Deng also encouraged Chinese students to study overseas. The ones that returned brought with them invaluable knowledge and expertise. Finally, and this is not generally appreciated, he resolved that China would not, for the moment, compete head on with the US. In his eyes, that had set the Soviet Union on the road to ruin. En route to the US in 1979, his first trip to the country, Deng told colleagues: “As we look back, we find that all of those countries that were with the United States have been rich, whereas all of those against the United States have remained poor. We shall be with the United States.” Deng didn’t cede on any issues of independence and sovereignty. Rather, he decided China should bide its time until it was ready to compete on its own terms.

How valuable is an ideologue in the scheme of CPC? Does Xi tolerate debates that even the likes of Mao and Deng were forced to be part of?

There were lots of debates under Mao, as indeed there were under Stalin. But few who continued to oppose either man survived in the end. China under Deng was initially much more freewheeling, especially in the 1980s. It was the golden era of political and economic openness. The fall of Hu Yaobang in 1987 chilled these debates and the 1989 crackdown decisively ended them. There was still back and forth over the economy after 1989, with Deng eventually prevailing over the conservatives to stick with the market. The debate over politics and the party, however, was less robust and more constrained. China has a vast apparatus of think tanks and scholars who are there precisely for that purpose. The Central Party School was, until recently, the most open place in China, where you could discuss almost anything. Were all such debates ideological in tone? Yes, to a degree, as they could not genuinely canvas an alternative to the CCP as the single governing institution.

Communist party members at the grassroot levels in China, unlike those in the former Soviet Union, interact closely with the people and take the heat at the behest of the party. How crucial is their role in the scheme of things in China?

The party at the grassroots interacts with the people for unavoidable reasons. Since the party is the sole authority at every level of government in China, party officials have to deal with the populace wherever they are. There was an experiment with village elections, starting in the 1980s, but the CCP was never comfortable enough with them to allow voting to take place at any higher level of government. The party nearly always controlled the candidates anyway. Under Xi, they are being wound back altogether.

Still, local governing experience, especially in poorer parts of China, is usually an essential component for ambitious officials and their CVs. They won’t be promoted unless they have taken on tough jobs outside of the richer cities. It is one of the strengths of the Chinese system. By and large, officials are thoroughly tested before they are promoted.

What are the remarkable changes that you find from Hu’s time to now, thanks to Xi’s style and his 14-point basic policy?

The big change is the reversion to strongman rule from the principle of collective leadership. Otherwise, the impact of Xi is overrated in some respects. A lot of the assertive policies he is pursuing – in the South China Sea, Taiwan, the East China Sea, taking on the US and so forth – are longstanding objectives of Beijing and the CCP. The difference is that, unlike his predecessors, he has the financial and military power to pursue these objectives.

Xi is a singular leader in at least one respect. Unlike his predecessors, including Mao, Xi has no discernible rivals nor identifiable successors, mostly because he has used his power to make sure that none can emerge. His anti-corruption campaign, the largest since China opened its economy to the market in the early 1980s, has targeted families and factions which had been free to exploit their standing and connections to get rich.

Like both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao before him, Xi decried the corrosive impact that rampant corruption was having on the party and its governing legitimacy. But only Xi did something about it.

China Throws Down a Challenge to India
Chinese President Xi Jinping , April 2019 (Photo: Getty Images)

What do you think are the motives behind China’s coercive diplomacy and aggressive military posturing as regards India?

I am not an expert on this topic, so I won’t offer a detailed comment, other than to say it is striking that China would take on India at a moment when they ought, by any rational calculation, to be looking for any friend they can get. The India confrontation, then, tells you something both about their confidence and their indifference to countervailing views. It is also possible they wanted to test out the PLA’s capabilities.

Of the 14 points outlined by Xi, the 12th one says: “Promoting the one country, two systems system for Hong Kong and Macau with a future of ‘complete national reunification’ and to follow the One-China policy and 1992 Consensus for Taiwan.” Could you please elaborate on what you think is the Chinese strategy here?

This is easily answered. Beijing wants to take control over Taiwan. It is baked into the cake in China’s internal politics. Xi is determined that this process will start under his watch.

How do you see the Covid pandemic changing the new world order?

In the short run, China has done well in some respects, which is remarkable when you consider their negligence at the start of the pandemic in Wuhan. China restructured the bureaucracy after SARs in 2003 to make sure that the system was alerted the moment a new virus was spreading. That failed, but the Chinese lockdown worked which has meant their economy has recovered faster than that of their major competitors. Chinese so-called “mask diplomacy” backfired but Beijing’s provision of vaccines, despite their dubious efficacy, has worked much better. But this is a long game. The US is now recovering. The focus may return to the origins of the pandemic which Beijing does not want to talk about. For the moment, there are no clear winners and losers in superpower politics from Covid, aside from Donald Trump.

Although the world accuses China of aggression, US and allies run military bases east of China in the Pacific Ocean. Aren’t they provoking China? Also, several journalists who got it right about the war on Iraq (such as John Pilger who has made a movie titled Coming War on China) are of the view that the US is now preparing for a war on China and that Covid will be the new WMD. How do you respond to these claims?

John Pilger opposed the Iraq war, though I am not sure that is the same thing as “getting it right.” Pilger can be relied on to oppose anything that the US does. The idea that COVID is a pretext for US military action strikes me as absurd. After all, COVID originated in China. It is scarcely the equivalent of WMD in Iraq.

On the broader questions of US bases in Asia, to reduce them to mere “provocations” of Beijing is ahistorical and misses the point in multiple ways. The US presence in east Asia is a product of the end of the Pacific War and the Japanese occupation, and the constitution the US imposed on it at the time, barring Tokyo from having an active military in the future. Around the same time, the US and China clashed militarily in the Korean civil war.

Since then, Beijing has had a number of different positions on the US military in Asia. First, it opposed their presence, largely symbolically. In the 1970s, Beijing openly supported the US in Asia, as a check on a resurgent Japan. For periods, Beijing actively co-operated with Washington, to push back against Moscow. Beijing allowed the CIA to station listening equipment in Xinjiang, to monitor the Soviets.

Beijing could easily undermine the US in Asia by gaining the trust of Washington’s most important military ally in the region, Japan. They have multiple chances over decades to do so, but they have failed. Until China changes course, other countries will be happy to host the US. It would be nice to see Beijing reflect on that

In the meantime, the US military presence underwrote an economic boom, which China benefited from. Deng deliberately kept military spending in the 1980s tight, to concentrate on the economy, safe in the knowledge that the US was providing regional security.

Beijing’s position decisively changed after the Taiwan straits crisis of the mid-1990s. But in truth, once it was strong enough, Beijing was never going to trust the US to provide security for east Asia. It is natural they are pushing back. It is also easy to argue that they see the US military presence in east Asia as a threat.

But what about the other side of the equation? Why does Japan, a democracy, still support having US troops on their soil, as much as it is an affront to their sovereignty? The same goes for South Korea. Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Australia – all have military ties of different kinds with the US. What do they have in common? None of them trust China and are happy to host the US to balance Beijing’s increasing assertive posture. They all feel, in different ways, “provoked” by China.

Beijing could easily undermine the US in Asia by gaining the trust of Washington’s most important military ally in the region, Japan. They have multiple chances over decades to do so, but they have failed. Until China changes course, other countries will be happy to host the US. It would be nice to see Beijing reflect on that.

First published in Open

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