Straits Times (print circulation >360,000, readership 1.4m): China Bureau Chief of the top-down daily broadsheet of Chinese-majority Singapore weighs in with the nature and nurturing of Chinese political power over the past year.
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The ABC of China politics in 2012
By Peh Shing Huei, China bureau chief
Source – Straits Times, published December 24, 2012
Assertive. Bo Xilai. Communist Party leadership handover. These mark the key trends that shaped China in 2012.
It squabbled with neighbours on a seemingly unceasing series of spats over disputed territories.
Its biggest political star was purged amid a murder scandal more movie-like than Marxist.
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Its once-in-a-decade power handover threw up more questions and concerns than a vision or hope for the future.
They are, taken together, the ABC which dominated China’s Year of the Dragon and will continue to dog it in 2013.
A for Assertive
FOR many observers, 2012 will always be remembered as the year when China threw diplomacy into the dustbin, flexed new-found muscles abroad and beamed its steroid-pumped frame to an applauding audience back home.
Two incidents, both related to territorial disputes, captured global headlines for months: the South China Sea and the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.
The squabbles over the islets, rocks and reefs are not new. They have been boiling hot, lukewarm or cold for decades.
But while Beijing was happy to bide its time for years – shelving the quarrels for wiser future generations, as the late Deng Xiaoping deftly parried the issues – it now appears impatient for a resolution.
Nor does China seem willing to give way.
It had a naval stand-off with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea for two months from April.
That was followed by China sending out its largest-ever patrol vessel into the disputed waters and the People’s Liberation Army announcing its intentions in late June to start “combat-ready patrols”.
As if that was not enough, China brought its new brute force into the bargaining halls of Asean, snuffing out a joint statement by the 10-member body to address the dispute in July.
Beijing got its way through ally Cambodia, the Asean chair this year. It was the first time the South-east Asian grouping failed to produce a communique after a summit.
“China’s victory proved to be pyrrhic. It won the battle of the communique, but it may have lost 20 years of painstakingly accumulated goodwill,” wrote Singapore observer Kishore Mahbubani.
Similar assertiveness was played up in China itself. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese took to the streets in protests, sometimes violent, after Japan nationalised the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in September.
Beijing sent ships into the disputed waters repeatedly and even a state-owned aeroplane last week, prompting Tokyo to scramble F-15 fighter jets.
The tension was enough to prompt The Economist magazine to ask on its cover in September: “Could Asia really go to war over these?”, pointing to the uninhabited islands.
To be fair to China, it did not start the disputes.
The Philippine navy had prepared to arrest Chinese fishermen who were operating in Scarborough Shoal’s lagoon, leading to Beijing’s retaliation.
Japan had bought over the islands from its private owners, incurring China’s unhappiness.
But Beijing certainly did take advantage of the situations to change the status quo in its favour.
While it did not have a permanent presence at the Scarborough Shoal before this year, it enjoys that today with its ships maintaining long-term control in the lagoon and surrounding waters.
Similarly, while it used to refrain from entering the Diaoyu/Senkaku waters, it has since been conducting almost daily patrols of the sea after claiming the area.
The tension is likely to stretch into the new year, said analyst June Teufel Dreyer from the University of Miami.
“How 2012 is regarded will depend a lot on what happens in 2013. If China continues its aggressive policies, then people may say that 2012 was a watershed,” she added.
Beijing’s assertiveness shows the contradictions within the Chinese leadership, said observer Zhao Suisheng in an online international relations journal.
“China’s strident turn was a reflection of the confidence, frustration and insecurity of the Hu leadership with the making of foreign policy,” he wrote, referring to outgoing President Hu Jintao.
The cracks behind Asia’s new bully boy were most evident in its biggest political scandal of the decade.
B for Bo Xilai
THIS was supposed to be Bo Xilai’s year.
The former Chongqing party boss, 63, was among the most famous of the aspiring group of leaders after cracking down on triads and promoting “red” revolutionary songs in the south-western mega-city.
The politician was a hot contender for promotion to the apex Politburo Standing Committee at the Communist Party’s leadership reshuffle.
In the end, it was indeed his year but not quite what he himself or the rest of the world had imagined it to be.
Instead of rising to the top ranks of Chinese power, he was disgraced amid sensational scandal.
His top aide Wang Lijun’s attempted defection to the United States consulate on Feb 6 spiralled into a murder charge for Bo’s wife, who was convicted of poisoning a British businessman after money disputes. Bo, for all his political savvy, could not escape being implicated. In stunning revelations which included sex, money, espionage and fast cars, he was sacked from the party for corruption and abuse of power.
“In a sense, 2012 will go down as the Bo Xilai year,” said Hong Kong-based analyst Willy Lam.
Bo’s trial – for involvement in murder, corruption and maintaining improper sexual relations with a number of women – is likely to be in 2013, ensuring that the scandal will continue to haunt the Communist Party in the new year, under a new leadership.
But more importantly, the purge exposed the stasis of the party, unable to move beyond the vagaries of the rule of men.
“It’s just another case in which the differences among the party comrades could not be solved through institutional ways,” said analyst Wang Zhengxu from the University of Nottingham.
“Therefore one group, normally the group in power, had to resort to extra-institutional methods – pushing someone out of the game using anti-corruption weapons.
“The difference this time is that there was a murder. But had there not been the murder, or the related Wang Lijun incident, Hu and Wen were going after Bo anyway. Other pretexts would have been invoked,” he added, referring to retiring Premier Wen Jiabao.
Despite his punishment, which should end with a lengthy jail term, the scandal showed up the flaws of the Chinese system more than it varnished its vigilance.
Many perceived Bo more as a victim of politics than a high- flier who came undone because of corruption and other indiscretions.
The country remains at the mercy of personalities and not institutions. The malaise became blatantly clear during the power transfer in November.
C for Communist Party
INSTEAD of moving towards a more systematic form of transition, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) remains unable to cut off its tether to the force of personalities.
Before the 18th Party Congress – the formal name of the handover – much had been made about how the event will herald generational change.
A fresh bunch of leaders able to lead China for another decade would succeed the Hu-Wen team, which would see seven of its elite nine men retire.
But the end result was disappointing. The new fourth-ranked Yu Zhengsheng, for instance, is only 21/2 years younger than Mr Hu. In the new downsized seven-person Politburo Standing Committee, only two can serve two terms until 2022 – party leader Xi Jinping, 59, and incoming premier Li Keqiang, 57.
The CCP has an unwritten retirement age of 68 at the time of appointment.
Why the missed opportunity for genuine party renewal? In a word: politics. The older folk in the top body are all allies of retired strongman Jiang Zemin.
Mr Hu, the clear loser at the congress, was unable to get his men, who are also younger, like former personnel chief Li Yuanchao, 62, promoted.
“It was fairly messy and Jiang was able to play the role of kingmaker,” said Dr Lam. “It is still rule of men and personalities rather than rule of law. Institutions are very weak. Even though the party realised it has to build up viable democratic institutions, nothing has been done,” he added.
Hopes were further doused by the conservatives who dominate the new team, potentially stymieing anti-graft measures and even China’s continued commitment to the market economy.
But Mr Xi has pushed hard for reforms since he took over on Nov 15, providing the right soundbites against corruption, bureaucratic behaviour and the mind-numbing political slogans long favoured by his party.
Looking beyond the messy “ABC” of 2012, the new leader has already cast a vision for “D”, talking about a “China Dream” to rejuvenate the country in his first public appearance after taking charge.
The new year will test his political nous and will in achieving the China Dream.
Said Professor Dreyer: “I think 2013 will be a make-or-break year for Xi. Either he can continue the stasis that characterised the Hu-Wen era by putting off reforms or he can move decisively.
“Either path could lead to serious negative consequences as Xi, who seems intelligent and competent, must know. He’s in a difficult position,” she added.
Certainly, it is not as simple as ABC.