August 13, 2014 5:12 pm
America’s view of China is fogged by liberal ideas
By Christopher Layne
The spiral of animosity is largely a creation of American policy, writes Christopher Layne
Do the events that led to the outbreak of the first world war carry lessons for the Sino-American relationship? A century ago it was the ascent of Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II that unsettled the world; today a rising China is roiling east Asia. Then, as now, domestic politics on both sides played a role; one that is too easily neglected.
Why did Britain and Germany – linked by trade, dynastic ties, culture and religion – find themselves at war in August 1914? In part, as historian Paul Kennedy has argued, it was because London’s liberal ideology contributed to its perception of a growing German threat.
Filtered through liberalism’s lens, Germany looked militarist, autocratic, mercantilist and statist – and contempt for the country’s political culture added to London’s disquiet. When the war began, it quickly came to be seen as a liberal crusade against “Prussianism”.
In this respect, today’s Sino-American rivalry resembles the pre-1914 Anglo-German antagonism. The speed of China’s growth worries US policy makers, as do the geopolitical implications of its economic transformation.
Across the American political spectrum, China’s success is attributed to its failure to play by the rules of free trade – for instance, its habit of manipulating the value of its currency and engaging in industrial espionage. Market-oriented liberalism is the dominant ideology in the US and, as in pre-1914 Britain, it shapes policy makers’ image of their supposed adversary.
American leaders view China as a nation whose undemocratic political system raises doubts about both the scope of its foreign policy ambitions and its trustworthiness as a diplomatic partner. Moreover, China’s combination of political authoritarianism and state-directed capitalism causes unease because it challenges the supposed universality of the American model of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism.
Aaron Friedberg, a Princeton University professor, says that for Americans, “the success of a mainland [Chinese] regime that blends authoritarian rule with market-driven economics is an affront.” For members of the US foreign-policy elite, the Chinese threat is not so much geopolitical as ideological.
Powerful external and domestic forces are putting the US and China on the road to confrontation. China aspires to be the regional hegemon in east (and southeast) Asia. The US – the incumbent hegemon, having dominated the region since 1945 – is blocking its path.
Yet America’s predominance in east Asia contributes little to the security of a nation whose geography and unsurpassed military capabilities would anyway make it close to invulnerable. The US is the most secure great power in history – even more so if you factor in the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons. The true cause of American insecurity is not an imminent encroachment on its territory but the risk that US alliances – especially with Japan – will draw it into a regional conflict.
The US wants to maintain its east Asian dominance to keep the region’s markets open to American goods and its people open to liberal ideas. China threatens this openness, on which America’s security is wrongly believed to depend.
The liberal assumptions embedded in American foreign policy put the US at odds with China, and also heighten Beijing’s mistrust of Washington’s intentions and ambitions. The spiral of animosity that threatens to culminate in a confrontation between the two countries is in large part a creation of American policy.
As China’s rises, Washington has a last clear chance to avoid the looming Sino-American conflict. This would entail making real concessions on Taiwan and on China’s territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. It would also involve a commitment that Washington would not interfere in China’s internal affairs.
America’s political culture – based on exceptionalism, liberal ideology, and openness – is a big obstacle to coming to terms with a resurgent China. So is the fact that the foreign-policy elite remains wedded to American primacy, and refuses to accept that this will inevitably slip away because of the relative decline of US power.
History is also a problem. US policy makers are quick to invoke what they take to be the lessons of the 1930s while overlooking the causes of the first world war. David Calleo, a professor at Johns Hopkins, has observed that what we should learn from the earlier conflict “is not so much the need for vigilance against aggressors, but the ruinous consequences of refusing reasonable accommodation to upstarts”.
If the US wants to avoid a future conflict with China, it cannot allow liberal ideology to obstruct a reconciliation with an ever more powerful China. That is the real lesson of 1914.
The writer is a professor at Texas A&M University and author of the forthcoming ‘After the Fall’
JerryFrey 8 minutes ago ”
As budgets soar, China still fears its military isn’t growing fast enough”
Paulshk1 hour ago
Well, I live in HK, and was educated at Cambridge, where I was a Conservative politico.
In my opinion, Prof. Layne has one major point right, which is that most US citizens, especially in the financial sector, have a great deal of difficulty understanding China, because they start with the incorrect preconceptions that (a) it is ‘Commie’ (as Europe is ‘Socialist’), and that (b) no system can work as well as that in the USA, irrespective of local culture and historical development.
This is not an argument against the development in Asia of broadly liberal socio-economic frameworks, as Japan, Taiwan and Korea demonstrate.
It is simply to state that if you see a country through the lens of your own perspective, yo are liable to misunderstand how it works and how to deal with it.
Nonsense is regularly spouted by US analysts about the Chinese banking system, and about the housing market. So difficult for the US financial markets (with that great depth of understanding one gains through distance and not peaking the language) to comprehend how China might have done better (for itself, I mean, not as a global example) than the US in dealing with housing finance…
In truth, it was US mismanagement domestically that bust up the world’s financial system. Less dogmatic believers in the free market did better, as in Canada and Australia, for example; or even dear HK, which though pegged to the US dollar, managed to retain quantitative controls over property lending and did not give in to the idea that anyone ‘should’ be able to own a home.
For itself, China has done amazingly well, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty, while the USA has dropped back into social and financial divisions more familiar in the 1930s.
Your more histrionic readers should not lament the fact that, at its current stage of development, China has done well, both for itself, and as the main provider of low cost manufacturing base to many US corporations and to ‘global capitalism’.
They should leave behind what Professor Layne rightly identifies as an ideological fear, and reflect on how it is likely China will follow those other Asian powerhouses, that are more advanced socially, namely Japan, Taiwan and Korea, once its GDP rises enough that its citizens will no longer tolerate dictatorial social structures.
Fear and anger at China’s relative success are out of place, as China is not yet far along the road of development compared to those three countries. And in due course China itself will find that it cannot even describe itself as Communist, any more than it really is Communist today, which it is not.
Marx said capitalism carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction – but he got it back to front – actually, by embracing capitalism, China has ensured that one day it will grow out of Communism in name, as it already has in reality.
Better to plan oner’s strategies to meet that change without deceiving oneself as to what one is looking at.
Sinai 2 hours ago
I think that unknowingly the Americans have become the world’s greatest hypocrites. They would like to think that they are good, fair, balanced and sympathetic and most of them truly believe in their own self deception. They don’t realize that they are the exact reverse of what they think they are.
Take the case of freedom of speech. They insist the world to magnanimously accept their freedom of speech to lie at and instigate the people of their target countries. But when it comes that the so called freedom of speech is not being favorable to their less than clean quest at slandering others, they turn belligerent and act and communicate with less than the civilized manner expected from a modern human being.
A good example is what happened to a professor who practice his freedom of speech in the manner that dissented to the prevailing American politics. He has to pay dearly for his free speech.
Many of the posters who defend the US politics as shown in this forum too are showing their superciliousness and callousness and unwittingly display some degree of savagery that run contradictory to the image that the west would like to portray to the world.
newslover 4 hours ago
To analogize the China US relationship with that of the ancient UK and Germany is just downright dumb even after sprinkling the analogy with seemingly sophisticated ideas and words. UK and Germany were both crowded in the same corner of the earth and a stronger one would immediately threaten the sovereignty of the other. On the other hand the US and China are each residing on each end of the largest ocean and with the current condition there is simply no possibility that China can threaten the US sovereignty.
Let’s be honest about this and please scrap away all the useless and seemingly complicated analysis. The US want to contain China because the former think that a prosperous China will eat away the resources which would otherwise be cheaply accessible to the Americans. Even Obama had admitted to that effect.
” if over a billion Chinese citizens have the same living patterns as Australians and Americans do right now then all of us are in for a very miserable time, the planet just can’t sustain it,”
So let’s just admit it. The western world simply want China to be down and poor so that the Americans may retain their tummy size.
Pulsar 3 hours ago @newslover
Paranoid, delusional and factually selective. Nothing new from @newslover.
newslover 5 hours ago
It wasn’t perfect, but everything was friendly with relationship between China and the neighbours. Then came the chronology:
1. China was eclipsing the US in world trade and anxiety was brewing in the US Congress & Senates wanting a solution for reversal.
2. The US Statement Department was suddenly hectic with diplomatic exchanges between the US with Japan, S Korea and countries of SEA.
3. The US officially announced their so called pivot to Asia.
4. Japan forfeited the decades long truce with China and unilaterally nationalized the islands which were under dormant dispute with China.
5. Vietnam was suddenly opening up in offering oil&gas concession in the disputed water to the likes of Exxon.
6. The usually friendly and timid Philippines suddenly turned belligerent and used her large warships to chase away Chinese fishermen.
It doesn’t take anyone older than 12 to deduce on who is the the initiator of trouble. The advent of a faraway entity like the US into Asia was like introducing the Ebola into the region.
Pulsar 3 hours ago @newslover
Paranoid, delusional and factually selective. Nothing new from @newslover.
Advent of US in Asia – you are joking surely? Even a 12 year old knows WWII brought the US to the region, as look what happened when it was not there to maintain power balances among regional adversaries. China should be nothing but thankful for the US intervention in the region – such a disgrace they paint them as the instigator.
newslover 3 hours ago
@Pulsar @newslover China should be grateful for the 21 year US led international embargo on China. From 1949 to 1969 China was blocked from importing food, medicine and fertilizer. Thank you US for the deaths of so many in China.
ronwagn 5 hours ago
So bow to the communist dictators? No thanks. Freedom is worth defending throughout the world.
newslover 4 hours ago @ronwagn
Every government is a dictator by definition and from the current incident in Missouri, the western freedom in the west is a skewed freedom.
Odysseus 11 hours ago
China, and her apologists in the West, should remember that the recognition of Communist Beijing is rather recent, almost accidental, and by no means a foregone conclusion in the future. Indeed such recognition of the current masters of Beijing could be one day reversed. Many fundamentally question the legitimacy of a regime that murdered 30 million under Mao, persecutes believers of most faiths, keeps a captive and oppressed industrial workforce in near abject servitude with few rights, and exercises power through sinister means of state censorship, intimidation and state-brutality against dissent. Combine this with one-party corruption, injustice and nepotism on a massive scale amongst the elites and growing military bullying and aggression towards neighbours. No doubt Russia will soon also feel less comfortable with China’s current pretenders to legitimacy. Russia traded in the hammer and sickle for the more ancient (and legitimate) double-headed eagle. China’s communists remain wedded to a false and anti-human ideology (with Chinese characteristics.) Soon no doubt Russia will also become less comfortable with China’s current territorial configuration and claims. Clearly India, Japan, Philippines and Vietnam already have . . .
newslover 1 hour ago @Odysseus
You see that’s the thing with many of you in the west. You have lied very unintelligently. During Mao’s era until now, there has never been even a single on site fact finding by any independent organization. It would take tens of thousands of census workers working continuously for months to get a count in the tens of millions of dead people allegedly murdered by Mao’s regime. Please fabricate more credible lies.
And what you say about China keeping a captive workforce and all the other rubbish talk simply means you are too filled up with all your fanatic jingoism to have any rational thinking based on rational economic knowledge. The labour force in China are mobile according to each of their free will. There is not a single forced labour in China. The wages in China, like in all other countries are paid in the similar ratio to the income per capita as any where else in the world.
One final point, the deaths due to starvation in China happened because of the 21 year US led international embargo on China from 1949 to 1969. When people are blocked to import food, medicine and fertilizer for 21 years, there will be times when people may get sick, hungry and died. All those blood were in the US hand.
In a world of free speech, dangerous fanatics who knows nothing of anything except on smearing China are indeed disgusting.
Marshall 14 hours ago
This article made what could best be described as a straw man argument. Either the US must go to war with China, or allow them to become a regional hegemon in Asia thus forsaking all the allies of the US. The US would never be able to walk away from its commitments to Japan, the country most likely to go to war with China right now and our closest ally in the region. But a war between those two countries also won’t require nuclear weapons as the author obliquely implies. For that matter the US would probably be hard pressed to even commit ground troops in such a war. Invading an island nation from the mainland has always been something of a logistical challenge as the the British would attest, so the US assistance would likely be limited to air and sea. Hardly the sort of catastrophic wars the author is comparing the situation to.
Furthermore, to argue that this is an ideological battle, let’s get one thing straight. The Chinese might be undemocratic and call themselves communists, but in a globalized economy, everyone’s a capitalist. The Chinese just subsidize some of their SOEs, just like the Europeans do, and then the US sues them at the WTO, just like the Europeans sue the US. Some of the American’s best allies are undemocratic for that matter, look at all the gulf states. This guy just wanted to get his name in the paper.
trblmkr 16 hours ago
“Powerful external and domestic forces are putting the US and China on the road to confrontation.”
Yes, but what powerful external and domestic forces made China what it is today? Foreign direct investment more than anything else. The UK didn’t create German power of the early 20th century the way the ‘west’ created China. The fact that a ‘ professor at Texas A&M University ‘ blithely omits this fact is incredible. That’s the trouble with pat comparisons, they’re only good for cocktail parties.
American exceptionalism and pax Americana have taken some huge hits, it’s true. Nonetheless, should we really be heralding its replacement by authoritarian, rule of man China? I think not.
A sad day16 hours agoI find this an interesting article and although the author draws parallels with the prevailing attitudes in Britain in 1914 I feel his ‘view’ is more reminiscent of the attitude that prevailed in Britain in the mid 1930′s – appeasement.
He refers to the US support for Taiwan, I assume that he does not therefore believe in the principle of self-determination. It is clear that the people of Taiwan have no desire to to embraced by the ‘Motherland’.
Similarly in Hong Kong the sense of resentment at Beijing interference despite the international treaty which laid down the tenets of Basic Law is palable.
Finally even a cursory glance at a map shows how ludicrous the Beijing claim to the area around the Spratly’s and other islands is. It contravenes all International Law on the matter.
The cynic in me raises a question over the source of funding of this particular professorial post at the worthy Texan academic institution
FT88 16 hours ago
Of course there is only one model to success – the infallible and perfect American model.
Don10984408 16 hours ago
FT88 – No. The model of liberty and self-determination is a better foundation for any culture than the arbitrary rule of a tryrant or one-party state.
newslover 15 hours ago @Don10984408
That’s where you are wrong, while China appoint its leadership by the process of meritocratic selection, the so called democratic country like the US uses a popularity contest backed by the money interest.
Paul A. Myers 17 hours ago
This is an excellent essay which brings historical perspective to an important contemporary political situation.
” … China’s combination of political authoritarianism and state-directed capitalism causes unease because it challenges the supposed universality of the American model …” China has been authoritarian and state directed for over two thousand years, a deep rudder which gives a certain “universality” to their experience.
During that two thousand year period, China has usually dominated the region and rarely tried to project its power beyond the region. Within the region, it expects respect for its position and its preeminence. This seems to be pretty typical big country behavior.
“The US is the most secure great power in history …” That contributes to an often parochial view of the world, particularly in domestic politics which is ultimately the fount of political power in the US. Domestic political power is often at a dynamic tension with the world view of the political elite who view foreign policy as their special domain.
“So is the fact that the foreign-policy elite remains wedded to American primacy, and refuses to accept that this will inevitably slip away …” The on-going American experience in the Middle East and South Asia is going to temper how far the American public is going to support “primacy” in the exercise of global power. From the time of Admiral McMahan over a century ago America has been cautioned about land wars in Asia and to stick to maritime power, the traditional backbone of worldwide commercial powers. It probably will.
NYShanghai 18 hours ago @newslover, CCP stooges, and other authoritarian apologists:
West/America/Democracy: noooo no no no no no bad bad bad freedom democracy no good
China (specifically Communist Party): Good good gooooood love love kiss kiss Party is always good
State media promoting China’s leader Xi with intensity unseen since Mao era
A sales person walks past commemorative plates featuring Chinese President Xi Jinping and former supreme leader Mao Zedong. (Ng Han Guan/AP)
By William Wan July 25
BEIJING — For decades, China has shunned the cult of personality, a result of the tumultuous years when Mao Zedong elevated his personal brand to mythic proportions.
But state worship of leaders appears to be making a comeback, according to a new study by University of Hong Kong media researchers. They say China’s state-controlled media have been promoting the image of President Xi Jinping with a frequency and intensity unseen since the Mao era.
The study comes as China experts and outside observers debate whether Xi is positioning himself to be a Mao-like strongman with a firmer grip than his predecessors on all levers of power. Or whether he is simply channeling the Communist Party’s desire for stronger action and control.
In the study, which was published this month, Qian Gang — a former journalist who is director of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong — and student researchers examined the People’s Daily, the party’s flagship paper.
They compared its coverage of eight top party leaders: Mao Zedong, Hua Guofeng, Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping. They focused on the first 18 months after each leader had taken power, counting the number of articles, front-page appearances and articles mentioning them in the paper’s first eight pages.
Among past leaders, Mao and Hua were mentioned most frequently, unsurprising given the fervent state-leader worship during their time. The cult of Mao, for example, reached its peak in the late 1960s, during which he was called China’s bright red sun and the great savior of the country’s people. During the Cultural Revolution, he was branded “the great leader, the great supreme commander, the great teacher and the great helmsman.” His words were deemed infallible. Badges, busts and posters bearing his image were ubiquitous. Almost everyone carried a little red book that contained his famous quotes.
But when the chaos of the Cultural Revolution abated and Deng rose to power as the next leader, he criticized the cult of personality and said it was not only unhealthy, but also dangerous to build a country’s fate on the reputation of one man. In 1980, the party’s Central Committee issued directives for “less propaganda on individuals.” Party leaders have since continued to feature in propaganda and party-controlled newspapers but with less frequency and intensity.
According to Qian’s study, however, that trend against leader worship has eroded gradually over the years, with the change accelerating especially rapidly since Xi’s elevation in 2012. Xi’s name, for example, has been mentioned almost twice as frequently in party news articles as his two immediate predecessors and is catching up with Mao’s. In his first 18 months in power, Xi has been mentioned in 4,186 articles in the first eight pages of the People’s Daily, while Jiang and Hu appeared in fewer than 2,000 reports.
The study also looked at the frequency of mentions of Xi’s contemporaries, the six other Politburo Standing Committee members now ruling China alongside the president. In headlines of the People’s Daily front page, Xi was mentioned 745 times, almost twice as many as Premier Li Keqiang and many more than the others.
Qian said the numbers suggest an intensification in propaganda exalting China’s top leadership position, but he cautioned in a phone interview that he is not trying to make any argument or interpretation about China’s prevailing political situation. He said his goal is merely to provide quantitative data for others to use in their studies of China’s opaque political system.
Since Xi took control of the party in 2012, he has concentrated his power over almost every aspect of state affairs. In January, he became head of the newly formed national security commission. He leads six other Central Committee groups, personally overseeing overall government reform, cybersecurity, finance and military overhaul.
Xi has also launched the most severe anti-corruption campaign in decades. It has brought down high-ranking and low-level officials alike, including senior military officers and ministerial-level leaders.
Besides cementing his power within the party, there are signs that he is also tightening his control over civil society, especially on the ideological front. Human rights activists, lawyers and even moderate intellectuals have been harassed, detained and jailed. A slew of campaigns have tightened already strict Internet controls in China — in the name of combating pornography and rumors. Many Chinese, however, say these curbs are a way to silence more liberal voices online.
Xu Yangjingjing contributed to this report.
Deng Yuwen, formerly an editor with The Study Times, a weekly paper issued by the Central Party School in Beijing, described Mr. Xi’s decision to take down Mr. Zhou as a bid to cement his authority.
Televised confessions on state-run TV consolidate China’s social control
Unconvicted socialite follows journalists and bloggers paraded on TV, diverting attention from major news stories, say critics
Guo Meimei in front of an Aston Martin in Beijing, one of many pictures she posted online of her apparently lavish lifestyle. Photograph: AFP
Deng Xiaoping TV thriller serves Chinese president’s agenda
Deng Xiaoping at History’s Crossroad celebrates life of former leader whose reforms transformed China into economic giant
Making It in China: Food scandal indicative of new era
Kirsten Jacobsen, Special to the Register 2:53 p.m. CDT August 10, 2014
“One coffee and a chicken sandwich,” my co-worker distractedly rattled off in Chinese, ordering his usual lunch at the McDonald’s conveniently located a block away from our west Beijing newsroom. I had followed him here to see if the rumors were true.
“Meiyou jirou,” said the cashier, without skipping a beat, as if the fast food chain had never offered chicken. They inexplicably didn’t have the patties that day (July 28), nor did they have hamburgers, or bread buns softly sandwiching any sort of meat. The recent expired meat scandal originating from Shanghai-based Husi Food Co., Ltd., a supplier to many of China’s largest fast-food corporations, had seemingly scared all big-city McDonald’s locations away from offering any sort of meat product. Coffee, however, they could do.
“Not even a Filet o’ Fish?” my co-worker inquired, choosing the one meat that hadn’t been implicated in the recent scandal. Rumor had it that the fish was still available at some lawless locations.
“No meat sandwiches. Only coffee and ice cream,” the cashier replied in Chinese, as the menu behind him displayed high-resolution images of mile-high burgers and deals on chicken nuggets. (As a vegetarian, this modified menu had exactly zero impact on my occasional afternoon treat.)
From July 25 to the first week of August, thousands of fast-food locations in Beijing, Guangzhou, and other large cities inadvertently went veggie, either to assuage customers leery of the safety of their hamburgers or because they had genuinely been required to dump all available meat products. Yum! Brands, which includes KFC and Pizza Hut, along with McDonald’s, Starbucks and other popular Western fast-food joints who had contracts with Husi Foods were forced to dump thousands of pounds of potentially unsafe meats. Locations of these restaurants in Shanghai will begin offering meat products again later in the month.
Imagine if all major fast food establishments in Des Moines suddenly pulled all products containing beef or pork or chicken from their menus, or if the Iowa State Fair vendors were legally required to dispose of all meat options from their stands right before the yearly event. The reaction in Iowa would likely be similar to the outcry here after the news broke.
The food safety scandal in question, widely reported in China but not warranting much mention in the U.S., arose from an undercover report by Shanghai’s Dragon TV where hidden cameras captured footage of Shanghai Husi Food workers changing expiration dates on packaging, mixing expired meat into fresh, and repeatedly violating basic hygiene laws (like dropping raw meat on the floor, and putting it back into production). China is no stranger to tainted food scares — there wasn’t even a national food safety law put in place until 1994 — but exposing a multinational company that had repeatedly been lauded by the local government as a model business came as a shock to Chinese citizens.
Immediately following the news program, which aired in Shanghai on the evening of July 20, six people in connection with the operation of Husi Food were taken into custody and government agents shut down the factory and opened an official investigation. The U.S.-based OSI Group, which owns Husi Food and 60 other overseas food production sites, immediately issued a mea culpa. Emails from within the Shanghai factory were later leaked, showing that upper-level management knew precisely what was happening on the cutting floor.
The reaction in China was swift and furious: Most wondered how such an “upstanding” corporation was able to pass annual hygiene inspections; a few questioned how so many fast food outlets had failed to ensure the safety of their products. Though it is rarely insinuated in news reports, the likely culprit — at least in the case of the former — is bribery. Despite President Xi Jinping’s continued anti-corruption push, graft exists at all levels in the country, and China’s financial capital of Shanghai is no exception.
What is changing, however, is the punishment of corruption. Alongside headlines splashing the details of the Husi Food scandal were those extolling the Xi administration for finally implicating retired security chief and ex-Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang, 71, for extensive graft and corruption during his time in office. Known as one of the “tigers,” for whom once existed an unspoken law of “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it came to personal income, this suggests a shift in the entire psyche of the upper Communist Party of China echelons.
(As my one fellow American colleague noted, this news is the equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service announcing its audit of a top banker on Wall Street — a place so seemingly full of shifty dealings and ill-earned income, regulators have no idea where to start.)
As Chinese media and politics come into a more open era — where Party bribery can be reported as readily as the latest food safety scandal — it’s hoped that those in power will use this advantage to right the wrongs, pass stronger regulations and legislation, and enforce punishments on rule-breakers. If not, the population will continue to distrust both politicians and “mystery meat” for the foreseeable future.
Kirsten Jacobsen, a Des Moines native and lifelong Iowan, spent a year in China in 2012 teaching English and writing periodically for the Des Moines Register. Now she’s back in Beijing, working for a state-run newspaper and still vowing to become fluent in Chinese “one of these days soon.” She is contributing monthly columns to the Register.
China’s Power Politics
By JOHN GARNAUTAUG. 11, 2014
SYDNEY, Australia — The four Chinese characters that heralded President Xi Jinping’s war against corruption in a speech by a political ally in December 2011 can easily lose impact in translation. “Life-and-death struggle,” while idiomatic in English, is too passive. “Do-or-die” lacks the necessary intent.
“The crude, word-for-word translation better captures the essence,” said Charles Qin, a professional translator. “You die, I live.”
At first glance, the July 29 statement that Zhou Yongkang, a former security chief with motley skin and toad-like jowls, was under investigation was hardly news at all. There had been more than 18 months of furious speculation as cronies, relatives and then Mr. Zhou himself had disappeared.
But to Mr. Xi and his closest supporters the official statement was a declaration of victory in the first phase of their protracted war to save the Communist Party from what they see as terminal decay. For them, the dual objectives of cleaning up the party of corruption and building unassailable personal power are inseparable and mutually reinforcing.
Mr. Xi was raised in a you-die-I-live world where leaders who failed to destroy potential rivals were constantly at risk of losing far more than their jobs. Stalin used bullets to keep such threats at bay. Mao preferred public humiliation and torture behind closed doors.
Even Deng Xiaoping, the exalted economic reformer, used long sessions of harrowing criticism to destroy the officials he was discarding, before locking them in their houses or leaving them in living purgatory at their desks. Effective leaders also found that rolling purges were useful tools for instilling ideological discipline and keeping cadres on their toes.
Gradually, the weaker leaders who rose after the massacres and purges of 1989 extended a bargain of market opportunity and immunity to one another, as they worked to fuse the post-communist Communist Party back together following the Tiananmen crackdown.
Stability prevailed but so too did corruption. Bureaucracies and state-owned companies became empires unto themselves. Leaders’ families grew fabulously rich. The compact of market opportunity and political immunity held for members of the Politburo Standing Committee for 25 years, until Mr. Xi tore it up late last month.
Mr. Zhou, a member of the previous administration’s Politburo Standing Committee, is the highest-ranking leader to have been officially purged since 1989. He controlled the country’s police, justice system and intelligence agencies at a time when official domestic security spending outgrew the defense budget. He was also a godfather-type figure to China’s vast petroleum industry.
While Mr. Zhou is Mr. Xi’s biggest and most recent target, just a month earlier, on June 30, Gen. Xu Caihou, formerly the most powerful figure in the People’s Liberation Army, was handed over to prosecutors to face charges of corruption. Only now, with both men officially destroyed, can Mr. Xi safely say that he is in control of a system where power still flows from the barrel of a gun.
General Xu will probably be courtmartialed for bribes allegedly received in exchange for promotions, and Mr. Zhou will be tried in connection with the massive empire that his relatives built on the back of inside oil deals. But behind closed doors, they may also be accused of political transgressions like conspiring to protect the first Politburo “tiger” who was in Mr. Xi’s sites: the former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, whose rising political power was seen as a threat to Mr. Xi before he was sentenced to life in prison last year for corruption and abuse of power.
Each of these three men — the police chief, the general and the potential challenger — were very badly behaved and dangerously capable of mobilizing political power to serve their own needs. They were three “tigers” who were guarding an edifice of patronage, money and potential violence that had been developing for 25 years.
The center pole of this faction was Jiang Zemin, the former president who came to power in 1989 and refused to fully hand over the reins to his successor, Hu Jintao, in 2002. In the years since, he has insisted on participating in key decisions, protected corrupt leaders and brokered deals, including the elevation of Mr. Xi.
Whatever Mr. Jiang’s earlier expectations in supporting the rise of Mr. Xi, the new president has shown that he will not rule in any former leader’s shadow. Mr. Xi’s step-by-step destruction of Mr. Jiang’s three most dangerous protégés has been a display of cunning and decisiveness that has not been seen since Mao.
It can be difficult to comprehend that Mr. Xi can be serious about fighting corruption and saving the regime, rather than just accumulating power for himself, when his own siblings have accumulated enormous wealth through crony dealings, as forensic investigations by Bloomberg and The New York Times have revealed. But internally Mr. Xi is seen to have moral standing because he has opposed his siblings’ business dealings and ensured that he, his wife and his daughter are clean — as best as any outsider can tell.
Mr. Xi and his close supporters, who were born into the Communist aristocracy as children of former leaders, have won the first round in their battle to save the revolution that their parents fought for. But there is a long journey ahead not least because, like their forebears, they have invested far more effort defining enemies than objectives.
“It is for real now! The breeze is blowing away the evil air,” said an old friend of Mr. Xi’s, Hu Muying, when she convened an association called The Children of Yanan this year at the Spring Festival, a major Chinese holiday.
Ms. Hu warned of a coming protracted struggle against Western culture and general ideological confusion.
“In short, this is a very complicated and difficult fight,” said Ms. Hu. “It is a struggle of ‘You die, I live.”’
John Garnaut, the author of “The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo,” is the Asia Pacific editor for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.