China's challenges and uncertainties discussed

28 November 2016

When the reins of power in China was taken over by the Communist Party of Xi Jinping, he first identified four major problems, eventually adding the Beijing environmental problems as a fifth. The result of dealing with all five tasks simultaneously is the uncertainty of the citizens, on where the nation  is headed, be it domestically, politically, economically or socially.

Professor Shaun Breslin, of the University of Warwick, the guest speaker at the recent Sir John Monash Lecture, discussed these five tasks, Xi’s dilemmas, and China’s place in the global order.

“When Xi Jinping looked at China in 2012, he saw four things that were broken, or nearly broken - 1) the economic model, which served very well but had run its course; 2) the party, which was internally fragmented, and had too many people serving, searching for their own vested interests; 3) the  relationship between the party and the people - in the people’s eyes, the party could not be trusted and was self-serving; and 4) the moral, ethical void within society,” Prof Breslin shared.

“Subsequently another area also surfaced - the environment. The “airpocalypse” created a fifth area that was broken,” he added.

He also explained that Xi, while dealing with these five tasks, had to also handle the same double dilemma faced by his predecessors:

The first dilemma is the desire to use the market, decentralisation and flexibility to increase innovation and initiative. But this was restricted by the need to control. There is an incessant want for growth of the market and for things to do well, but there was also an undeniable  need to control it. He pointed out that looking at how China’s financial systems are currently evolving, it is clear that every time they marketise, they also strengthen control in some ways.

The second dilemma is the fear of political instability that may occur if the market was allowed to make the economy more efficient. Although there is a gut instinct to control, there was also a very strong consideration that chaos is around the corner, and relatively small signs of  upheaval or danger are taken very seriously.

Along with these newly identified tasks and existing dilemmas, there was a significant rise of division between the views of domestic and international specialists. The international relations specialists were confident, seeing it as the right time to push change in the global order as they saw China  as the global number two, but those working at domestic politics were more wary and uncertain of policies, campaigns and the upcoming multi-congress under Xi.

Under his rule, one of the things that Xi first did was establish groups to work on the different areas but still maintaining a centralised and unified leadership - himself. This meant that he was in charge of the groups, not Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, even when it was about leading comprehensively  deepening reforms in China. Prof Breslin stated that this is a concentration of power that has not been seen in a long time.

As a final plea, Prof Breslin said, if anyone is going to study China’s impact on the global order, look beyond the leader and at the way others (nations) are reacting. Others have different initiatives and the key question of followership.

“The crucial thing to know is, as they say, what drives followership. And this, I think has been missing in China’s global order. Don’t just focus on the leader. We can look at what China wants, we can look at differential power, we can look at it’s leadership, but does that  mean that we want to follow?” he concluded.

Professor Breslin is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and co-editor of The Pacific Review. Having first studied in China in 1984, he has spent the subsequent three decades studying the politics, political economy and international relations of China. He is currently working on projects that assess the way the Chinese state manages the economy, and the type of global great power China is becoming.