China’s top leaders descended quietly upon the seaside resort of Beidaihe in early August for its customary summer retreat. This year, in contrast to the last party conclave, may have been less political horse trading and more of an attempt by General Secretary Xi Jinping to clean the Augean stables. Belying the peaceful setting, running the world’s future superpower will have provided a formidable ‘to do’ list for Xi.
Escaping the suffocation of Beijing, Chinese leaders will have reflected on the havoc wrought by the Bo Xilai scandal. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign targeting both ‘tigers and flies’ will have been high on the agenda. The aftershocks continue as rumours abound that Zhou Yongkang, the former domestic security mogul and retired politburo leader is now under investigation for his support of Bo.
The mother of Neil Heywood, the British businessman murdered by Bo Xilai’s wife, has publicly called for the Chinese leadership to set the record straight. For the party, the Bo chapter will be closed once and for all at his imminent trial and sentencing. No doubt an example will be made of this caged tiger, but Xi and his comrades are facing the enormous task of swatting the flies—endemic corruption at the grass roots level in China.
On the domestic front, China’s growth slow-down is a major concern. Premier Li Keqiang has ordered an audit of government debt amidst fears that Beijing may not have the full picture of provincial accounts—a historic problem for China’s rulers. Escalating property prices and the handling of an increasingly turgid property market are also a key concern.
In preparation for a major party plenum in October, Li will be seeking support for his plans to ease the human pressure on China’s cities. He’s already commissioned a World Bank study helping to inform the National Development and Reform Commission, recently scarred by the removal of its deputy chief on grounds of corruption. At Beidaihe, Central Committee members will have brainstormed on tackling damage to China’s environment, not least the toxic smog that will envelop China’s heartland this winter.
The US pivot to Asia would have been another hot topic of debate under the shade of the Beidaihe pines. China’s leaders remain concerned over their immediate periphery, often voiced through rhetoric over fears of containment by the United States. In assessing US progress in its rebalancing towards China’s doorstep, China’s top strategists have sought to pinpoint where the US may be hindering Chinese goals in the region.
At the heart of the matter are China’s ‘core interests’ of territorial integrity, particularly China’s claims to the South and East China Seas. But beyond China’s immediate neighbourhood, Chinese strategic thinkers are concerned about the Middle East and the future of Chinese involvement there.
The Chinese strategic community, some of whom are summoned to Beidaihe to advise the party leadership, is confronting the question of how to wield China’s new-found power, describing the next decade as a ‘strategic opportunity period’. This has prompted domestic debate on the salience of Deng Xiaoping’s ‘hide and bide strategy’ and China’s long-standing policy of non-intervention.
Concurrently, nationalistic sentiment within a broad swathe of Chinese society has given birth to China’s ‘new left’, espousing the Marxist-Leninist dogma of China’s first generation leaders and bemoaning containment by ‘external powers’. Xi and his Politburo counterparts are increasingly attuned to the nationalistic oscillations within China’s micro-blogosphere. Some experts fear that such sentiment is particularly pervasive within the ranks of the People’s Liberation Army, corroding China’s assurances of peaceful intent and challenging Deng Xiaoping’s policy of strategic restraint.
Xi’s emergence has been accompanied by increasing tension within China’s maritime periphery in the South and East China seas. He’s recently repeated the need for China to become a great maritime power. China’s marine agencies continue to challenge the US military presence within the first island chain under tightened control initiated by Xi Jinping of the State Oceanic Administration.
Xi secured the chair of China’s Central Military Commission at the 18th party congress, making it clear that the PLA won’t be immune to his campaign of political purification. However, questions have been raised in Japan and the US over his ability to control the armed wing of the Communist Party during periods of heightened regional tension.
Perhaps in answering these concerns, Xi recently promoted a cohort of senior PLA generals, strengthening his hold via the PLA’s political commissariat, the General Political Department. He also promoted senior officers in the Guangzhou and Nanjing military regions, the commands tasked with defending China’s interests over Taiwan and the ‘nine dash line’. Xi served on political–military committees in these regions during his early career.
As China’s leaders took wing for their return to the capital, they may have a sense of purpose as well as a good measure of trepidation. Following the successful Chinese leadership transition in late 2012, General Secretary Xi has called for the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, aspiring to a ‘Chinese dream’. The jury is still out as to what this dream entails, but many view Xi as enjoying more popular support than his predecessor and a leader who means business both at home and abroad.
Alexander Neill is a Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia, Singapore. Image courtesy of Flickr user Bert van Dijk.