Xi Jinping’s power grab may solidify dissent and harden anti-China sentiment; can India lead global pushback?

It doesn’t take a deep understanding of Newton’s third law to assume that Xi Jinping’s brazen power consolidation may see an internal solidification of dissent and an external hardening of anti-China sentiment among neighbours and global powers. It is also likely that civilisational legacy, geographic location and status as the rival pre-eminent power in Asia will compel India to play a leadership role in that global pushback against China’s neo-imperialism. Signs of that pushback are already visible.

But first, Xi must reckon with the dissent that is bubbling under the surface. China is enjoying a period of relative stability and calm. Set against the apparent mess and chaos of liberal democracies, such constancy and predictability might even look appealing from outside. Yet, China’s lurch towards one-man authoritarianism from collective leadership proves that this stability masks a volatility within.

An eternal truism is that the crown of absolute power never sits easy on the head. Even the slightest whiff of dissent, criticism or opposition is perceived as a threat and may trigger insecurity. The way Xi, the “chairman of everything”, has influenced the Communist Party of China to abolish the two-term limit on presidency makes it clear that he wants to consolidate all power in his hands and simultaneously seal all avenues for rivals to exploit.

This is the clearest indication that Xi’s iron grip is motivated as much by fear as the desire to place China at the middle of a Sinocentric universe. Fear is an overpowering stimulus. For instance, ever since Xi manoeuvred to secure a life term as president, China’s state machinery has gone on an overdrive to erase traces of dissent from public discourse. This is a difficult thing to do in the age of internet, but Chinese censors have taken up the challenge.

File image of Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping. AP

File image of Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping. AP

Authorities have banned a laundry list of images, cartoons, words, terms, phrases, expressions and briefly, even a letter. The website China Digital Times has published a list of such words blocked from Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, Baidu (search engine) and other such online forums. The list includes “disagree (不同意)”, “my emperor (吾皇)”, “emigrate (移民)”, “Disney (迪士尼)” and even “Winnie the Pooh (小熊维尼)”, the Disney toon character that has been used in the past to poke fun at Xi. Censors also blocked “Yuan Shikai”, a Qing dynasty warlord, titles of two George Orwell books, 1984 and Animal Farm along with ‘N’, the 14th letter in English alphabet.

The move to pre-empt and remove any material that can be considered even remotely critical or unfavourable to Xi stems from a desire to control the narrative. Increasingly, and culminating with Xi’s power grab, this control has become steadily stifling. The relative openness that followed the Deng Xiaoping era has been replaced with claustrophobia that cannot tolerate even the mildest non-alignment.

As James Palmer writes in Foreign Policy, “the relatively freewheeling atmosphere of Weibo... was destroyed. It was replaced with private WeChat groups, only to see a crackdown... last fall. A mildly insulting reference to Xi in a group message won the sender two years in jail while the lawyer who defended him in court was struck off the rolls... But the destruction of platforms for open discussion has been matched with an equal but much harder to discern crushing of channels for dissent inside the party and government.”

Xi remains, by any measure, China’s most popular leader with more widespread backing among the rural poor than the urban rich. The latter has witnessed a steady rise in fortunes and has profited from China’s high growth and stability. They now have an opinion. They are also mindful of the terrible Mao Zedong years. Xi’s authoritarianism is a source of worry.

Li Datong, a former editor for the state-run China Youth Daily, told news agency Associated Press, “If there are no term limits on a country's highest leader, then we are returning to an imperial regime... My generation has lived through Mao. That era is over. How can we possibly go back to it?” His views found resonance with others.

China may have achieved decades of high growth. It may have used the excess capacity to project its power around the world, increasingly shape the global order in its image and even presented a viable alternative to liberal democracy based on Xi’s teleological construct.

The path that China has taken to arrive at this moment in history, however, is paved with suppression, stifling of dissent and doctoring of history. It has erased entire segments of its own past to forcibly alter its collective DNA, as scholar Orville Schell points out in Foreign Affairs. In the external sphere, China is now trying to expand “its political influence around the world and attempting to impose a regional version of what has been the Chinese domestic contract; stability, growth, and acquiescence,” as scholar Charles Edel tells ChinaFile. In order to do so, it must emulate the American model of projecting economic, military and cultural might far beyond its shores. However, even as it wants to emulate the US in shaping a unipolar global order, China is also driven by an existential need to demolish western ideological monopoly by offering a different teleology that projects liberalism as a weakness and democracy as symptomatic of that weakness.

Therefore, we find a territory-hungry China marching ahead without so much as a concession for others, driven by a revanchist version of history, possessed by a need to match up to the US by a rapid transformation of economic might into hard power, disregarding the international rules-based order in its mad rush to attain goals. This places China at odds with its neighbours and major powers that must either ally with Beijing, accept its primacy or be crushed in its wake.

In a survey conducted last year, Pew Research Center found that there is a high degree of opposition to China’s rise in Asia-Pacific. Most nations were worried about its growing military power, and the majority saw China’s rise as a “key concern”, outpacing the threat posed by the US. South Koreans and Vietnamese even rate China’s power and influence as the top threat facing their nations, says Pew. Fewer still expressed confidence in Xi’s reign.

As its pre-eminent rival in Asia, India is uniquely placed through history and geography to challenge and contain the Chinese threat. That may help explain why the US has come round to perceiving India as a key element in its South Asia policy and a net security provider in Asia-Pacific. Inherent in Donald Trump administration’s strategy to rename Asia-Pacific as ‘Indo-Pacific’ is the assumption that growth trajectory, political system and demographic advantage place India at the forefront of strategy to balance China’s threat.

It is not a surprise to see, therefore, that India is leading the global pushback against China’s hegemonic ambition through expansive connectivity projects. From being the sole discordant voice against Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, India now leads a multitude of voices that now see the BRI for what it is — “a roadmap for structural servility to Beijing,” as ORF vice-president Samir Saran writes in The Security Times. 

But India is doing more. It is combining with democracies to provide viable alternatives to China’s debt-trap diplomacy through infrastructure that is more consultative, financially open and respectful of sovereign sensibilities, aligning with the US in a strategic embrace and re-engaging with West Asia to blunt China’s use of Pakistan as a strategic weapon. New Delhi has also steadily deepened defence ties with Japan and is busy chalking up plans for a $40 billion Asia-Africa Growth Corridor that seeks to provide infrastructure-hungry regions with viable options.

As Andrew Small writes in Foreign Affairs, “Perhaps the most telling Indo-Japanese intervention was in Bangladesh, which in 2015 was in the advanced stages of agreeing to a package of Chinese financing for a new deep-water port. But political pressure and economic incentives (including the largest yen loan that the Japan International Cooperation Agency has ever offered for developmental assistance) pushed Dhaka to opt for a Japanese deal instead.”

India must deal with competing currents in its backyard and tide over capacity constraints as it seeks to provide a leadership role against Chinese hegemony. The current Maldivian crisis or Nepal’s posturing against India give us an idea of how daunting the task is to hold its ground against the politico-economic advances of the new hegemon. But New Delhi would know that China’s rise is non-consensual both within and without, and that presents an opportunity to play the waiting game.

Published Date: Mar 01, 2018 20:05 PM | Updated Date: Mar 01, 2018 20:05 PM

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