In little over 25 years thinking around China has undergone a transformation of such unthinkable proportions that after the end of the Cold War Francis Fukuyama predicted its inevitable turn, though gradual, towards democratisation, but by 2016 Graham Allison of Harvard University could write of a probable conflict between the Asian giant and the United States. It is against this anxious backdrop, at least in Washington, that the ruling Communist Party of China's recent announcement of reviewing presidential limits hit the world, writes UJ's Dr David Monyae.
Dr David Monyae, the Co-Director of the University Of Johannesburg (UJ) Confucius Institute (UJCI), together with Bhaso Ndzendze, UJ Research Assistant penned an opinion piece entitled " The Long Game in Xi Jinping's Permanent Presidency", published in The Sunday Independent, 1 March 2018.
China is perceived to be on a path to unseat the current hegemon, the US, and in so doing reshape the prevailing the global order of the past 70 years. Despite official claims to the contrary, being the dominant power on the world stage by the year 2049 (the centenary of the People's Republic of China) is Beijing's main objective. This is known in both Washington and Brussels; it has been this perception of China, which has motivated policy gymnastics by the EU to not give China free market status. The current claim being that the latter has too many SOEs at its behest and is therefore not viable (for its part, however, the EU maintains an agricultural subsidy along with quotas and tariffs which has a crowding-out effect for African producers).
China's 2049 grand plan cannot be sabotaged, and these machinations only bring out the most vigorous safeguarding measures. Firstly, the party and the state have undertaken a thorough push for internal discipline in a ruthless anticorruption campaign targeted against both high and level officials – or 'catching tigers and flies' as it has been otherwise branded. Secondly, China has also sought internal economic growth so as to cut reliance on global markets, which, as seen, can be swayed and politicised by the status quo power bloc. Related to this, China has also sought to forge a globalisation with Chinese characteristics through the One Belt One Road initiative; the largest trade association in the world, stretching from Scandinavia to Southeast Asia – but all roads lead to Beijing.
As the tensions over the South China Sea between China and US-allied states – predominantly the Philippines and Vietnam – show, flashpoints and even the outbreak of war is a distinct possibility not to be discounted as a mere fringe theory of a dry-as-dust professor. Further catalysing Chinese suspicions is the US and NATO's proven penchant for conflict. Iraq, Syria, Syria are all reminders of US warmongering and its allies' complicity – and China is surrounded by US allies, from South Korea and Japan in the east, to nuclear-armed India in the west, to Vietnam in its southern border. Lying further afield in the east are Taiwan, a critical US ally and a runaway province according to China, and Guam, and further down are Australia and Indonesia. NATO's post-Cold War expansionism into the Eurasian neighbourhood is also a further incentive for heightened self-preservation and responsiveness by Beijing.
In light of these, China has undertaken a major modernisation of its army and navy, increasing its military budget over the last 20 years from less than US$20-billion in 1998 to around US$150-billion by 2017. Though only a fraction of the US's own military budget of US$570-billion, this figure is likely to increase in proportion to China's GDP growth of around 7% per annum, which will make it the leading economy by 2028. China has also sought to upset the global financial balance by forming the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), thereby threatening the hegemony of the US-controlled World Bank's unparalleled sway over international developmental financing. Not for nothing, therefore, has the US gone so far as to identify China as a threat in its latest National Security Strategy documentation.
But by far the clearest indicator in this regard has been the pursuit to have permanent leadership in place to look beyond the ten-year terms. The thinking behind this is to allow the big plans to fully germinate without interruption and risk of discontinuation. From this they have the benefit of history; China's greatest transitions have been managed by semi-permanent Party Chairmen; Mao and Deng. Much of what China seeks to be is predicated on this. Underlying this is the fact that over 60% of Chinese people asked stated that they think that China is democratic. President Xi Jinping's move to prolong his captaincy over the Chinese state and society should be read in light of these terms. Observers would be best served by being aware of this. Aware of this, many would avoid the pitfall of simplistic interpretation of the events currently unfolding in Beijing. The opposite is also true; these changes are not to be merely carbon-copied into the constitutions of other countries, including those Africa, for they are a result of China-specific historically-derived set developments and future goals.
Above all, the biggest clincher is that political decisions do not take place in a vacuum, and the one under discussion here is no exception. To begin with, there is the overwhelming, and not wholly unjustified, perception of western liberal democracy as being in a state of decay and disrepair. This descent into mere populism in the western world has perhaps, more than anything, convinced China not only of the need for unshakeable stability, but it has also led to a grassroots-derived suspicion and resentment towards China and what it represents. In other words, therefore, the very custodians and principal advocates of liberal democracy have themselves been its worst salespersons.
*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg