Author: Ryan Manuel, Hong Kong
In relations between the United States and China, ideology now trumps interests. In July, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeos speech on China at the Nixon library has repeatedly referred to Chinese leader Xi Jinping as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (the Party) rather than president of China. Referring only to its power over the Party in this way is part of the US government’s desire to appear anti-Party rather than anti-China.
It is a fundamental error to treat relations with China as an ideological mission. Viewing China as an ideological threat rather than a great power competitor focuses too much on Xi Jinping and overlooks how his power is limited by the Party apparatus and the size of China. He also misinterprets Xis’ personal leadership style as Chinese ideology.
Power within the CCP comes from being able to get other Party members to do whatever one wants behind closed doors, rather than from one’s job title. Xi Jinping is pretty good at it. Although formally he cannot fire anyone, in practice by appointing a handpicked lieutenant with strict orders he can get rid of whoever he wants. The same can be said of his power over appointments: while other people can formally occupy these positions, X is persuasive power and fear of inquiry always gives him the capacity to govern.
Since there are more than 90 million party members in more than 30 provinces, nearly 900 municipalities and almost 3000 counties, there is a vast bureaucracy which is fundamental to the pursuit of the interests of the leaders. Xi deals with subnational leaders by merging previously separate systems of party and government. Inspectors and party incentives now take precedence over the conduct of national governance. Performance is measured against top-down party indicators, rather than competence indicators against other officials of the same level and pay.
Xi believes two things will help the Party maintain its power. The first is the traditional Chinese emphasis on instilling moral values under the leadership of the Party, rather than seeking checks and balances on individual power. The second is to ensure that the Party has a voice in all private enterprises and continues to encourage large public enterprises.
This ideology drives Xis’ governance approach. He has taken powers away from local leaders and executive bodies, transferring them to legislatures and internal inspectors in a sort of top-down populism, in which he wants people to follow his orders more strictly. This puts pressure on legislative drafters and central planners. This makes local leaders more likely to work to govern rather than take responsibility for their region. (It also makes China’s governance more fragile, as these local leaders focus more on bottom-up relationships and ideological purity, instead of having the flexibility to deal with what they see as the most pressing local issues.) .
But the ideological emphasis is on domestic issues rather than international competition or foreign policy. Xi is said to be responsible for US-China relations, and the Politburo, the main decision-making body, discusses foreign policy perhaps 20 percent of the time. But the discussions are generally framed in terms of great powers rather than in terms of ideological competition. Foreign policy is rarely the main topic of Politburo meetings: only one-seventh of study sessions and official briefings deal with foreign issues.
Treating China as an ideological threat will likely lead those outside of China to the wrong conclusions. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), for example, has declared the United Front, one of the Party’s weakest ministries, an inspiration for the CPC’s engagement with political parties around the world. But the United Front is a country-focused body, part of the advisory bodies. Work abroad represents less than 20% of its functions.
When ideology is pushed overseas, it’s a bug, not a feature. China’s foreign policy today suffers from being too country-focused to be effective. Take the recent emergence of wolf warriors, aggrieved and abrasive Chinese diplomats who engage in tirades on Twitter against those they believe are harming Chinese interests. They do not win any overseas hearts or minds, and have little or no success in spreading Chinese values. But they can seem harsh at home, regardless of their diplomatic self-harm. And it’s the public they care about most, rather than the nation they may be assigned to.
The constant attention to what things look like back home shows people that Xi cares most about the elite hanging around X is the inner circle of the 3,000 Central Party members, themselves the constituency of the top seven. leaders of China. This elite appears to be the most disgruntled group of Xis’ reign: forced to have its values examined and questioned, and some feel China is heading in the wrong direction. They are also the group most likely to talk to strangers.
Even with elite grunts in mind, the rest of the Chinese population report consistently high levels of satisfaction with Xis’ leadership. So why would the United States think it could separate Xi Jinping from the Chinese by calling him ideological?
Chinese leaders know they have to hang on or hang separately. Internal division is what they see as their main threat; turning US-China relations into an ideological battle will only unite these groups. Western foreign policy would be better oriented if it were anchored on this understanding.
Ryan Manuel is Managing Director of Official China Ltd., a Hong Kong-based policy research firm.
An extended version of this article appears in the most recent edition ofQuarterly East Asia Forum, Japans Choices, Vol. 12 no.3.
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