Clean, transparent government is a basic tenet of Western political liberalism, so we are naturally inclined to support government reform efforts elsewhere. But in the case of the People’s Republic of China, should we be rooting for Xi Jinping’s version of an anti-corruption campaign to succeed, or to fail, in its intended purposes? Or should we hope it succeeds spectacularly in ways not intended by Communist Party leaders, as glastnost and perestroika did under Mikhail Gorbachev?
Xi’s campaign is designed to accomplish multiple Party objectives, none of which necessarily serve Western interests in regional peace and stability.
His first goal is to expand and consolidate his personal power over any challengers in China’s political and military bureaucracies. Targeting political rivals as financial miscreants, bribe-takers, or power-abusers is a time-tested way of dealing with them (and not just in China). Would a more powerful and potentially more autocratic Xi be more or less likely to confront the West? Given the aggressive predilections he has demonstrated since taking China’s helm, there is little reason to be sanguine about a further accretion of Xi’s political, and military, power.
The broader aim of the current crackdown – as with past efforts – is to refurbish the tarnished image of the CCP and restore some of its lost legitimacy as the moral guardian of the Chinese people. Communist ideology has long ceased to motivate ordinary Chinese, or even many Party leaders. Instead, they rely on economic success – ostensibly distributed fairly across society – and their default position: enhanced military power and virulent nationalism against the United States and Japan.
The economic fairness pillar of domestic legitimacy has been crumbling in recent decades. The nation’s remarkable growth in wealth, combined with the CCP’s ongoing monopoly on power and opaque governance, has spawned massive corruption at all levels of political and military authority. Every year, China experiences almost 200,000 public protests against land seizures, environmental degradation, bribery, and other official misconduct.
To the extent Xi’s team can clean up the Augean stables of official corruption – or to be seen as seriously trying – they may win at least grudging public approval and thus have less need to play the anti-West, anti-Japan card.
The problem with that scenario is that the limited, half-way measures Xi is deploying are exceedingly unlikely to get at the core cause of official corruption. As with all dictatorships, that is the absolute political power wielded by the CCP and the lack of transparency and public accountability that enables and protects the wrongdoers.
Moreover, there is little reason to believe that greater public approval of Xi’s rule and a transitory semblance of political legitimacy will moderate the increasingly aggressive foreign policy embodied in his “China dream.” He has made it painfully clear to China’s neighbors that Deng Xiaoping’s days of hiding capabilities and biding time are over.
The period of China’s “peaceful rise” has yielded to military muscle-flexing, sweeping regional claims, and aggressive actions not only against smaller, weaker countries, but also against a U.S. now seen as irresolute and faltering, and a Japan clearly divided on the use of military force, despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s strong security emphasis.
Which brings us to the third major purpose of Xi’s corruption crackdown: the reform and strengthening of China’s military. The People’s Liberation Army has long been riddled with graft and illicit business collusion. In a dramatic demonstration that the PLA will not be immune from the cleanup, the CCP last week expelled Gen. Xu Caihou, former vice chair of the Central Military Commission, the highest military official purged since the Mao era.
Since his ascendancy to China’s pinnacle in November 2012, Xi has made further growth of China’s military power a paramount objective of his rule. His first official travel was to key PLA bases where he urged the troops to make ready for “real combat.” He sees military corruption as impeding the PLA’s emergence as a modern, effective fighting force able to execute expanding missions, particularly in the maritime domain. That is not a result the West will welcome.
There is an analogy in U.S. policy toward China. Decades of Washington’s obsession with military-to-military engagement provide an object lesson in what a more efficient and effective Chinese military brings us.
That officer-to officer interaction was intended (a) to develop greater personal contacts and understanding at all levels of our military establishments in order to avert or manage potential crises; (b) to help “professionalize” the PLA and imbue it with such Western values as subordination to civilian control and respect for the population it is charged with protecting; and (c) to impress Chinese observers with America’s awesome technological capabilities and dissuade them from challenging U.S. military superiority.
The well-intentioned U.S. initiative has failed on all three counts:
(1) During the EP-3 crisis, America’s ambassador in Beijing tried in vain to reach any of the military contacts he had assiduously cultivated during his stint as head of the Pacific Command.
(2) The PLA has indeed become more professional, capable and effective – and more confident in challenging other navies, including the U.S. Seventh Fleet, in the East and South China Seas and the Taiwan Strait.
As for subordinating military aspirations to civilian control, yes, the PLA understands the concept, but its loyalty is to the Communist Party, not to the Chinese state or citizenry. It demonstrated that sad reality on June 4, 1989, when the People’s Army turned its guns and tanks on the Chinese people: the students, workers and professionals gathered peacefully in Beijing and cities across China.
(3) Far from being awed or intimidated by American technical prowess, the PLA has exploited the close contact to correct its own technological and operational deficiencies. Using know-how freely given by trusting Americans, or stolen from them, China has developed asymmetrical capabilities that have enabled deployment of a serious counter-deterrent strategy of its own. A growing fleet of attack submarines and an expanding arsenal of anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles now provide China with a credible area denial/anti-access strategy, greatly complicating U.S. planning for contingencies in the Taiwan Strait and elsewhere in East Asia.
Given the aggressive ends to which an improved Chinese military will be put, we cannot wish Xi well in his quest to make it more effective. The region was safer with the inferior PLA capable only of defending the homeland rather than projecting Chinese power throughout the region – and with a PLA rife with corruption and inefficiency.
The Chinese people, the region and the world will be more secure with a China that undertakes the ultimate clean government project: changing the Communist Party itself and its inherently corrupt monopoly of power.
A Chinese government confident in its political legitimacy will not need to fear its own people or whip them into nationalist hostility against conjured foreign threats. It will develop in peace with its neighbors and play a constructive role in a regional and international order that already has immensely benefited modern China.
The Chinese people themselves want that kind of country and understand the need for fundamental structural change. They showed that at Tiananmen Square and in the millions of civil protests over the ensuing twenty-five years.
Yet many in the West will agree with the Chinese government’s self-serving argument that such fundamental political change will inevitably lead to massive domestic and regional instability. That need not be the case if China’s leaders will openly put the nation on the path to gradual, staged, predictable democratic evolution as Taiwan and other Asians have done. Voice of America and Radio Free Asia should encourage that process in China as VOA and Radio Free Europe did in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the Cold War.
The risks of stirring political ferment in China and incurring the (further) resentment of its leaders must be weighed against the dangers posed by the course they are presently pursuing, one that is leading inexorably to regional conflict.
Until the world is presented with a strong and democratic China, it is better to face a militarily weaker authoritarian China. It is in regional and Western security interests for Xi to fail in his narrow reform goals designed to prepare China for coercion and conflict and instead to pursue a larger, more benign China dream.
Joseph A. Bosco is a member of the U.S.-China task force at the Center for the National Interest and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously served as China country desk officer in the office of the secretary of Defense from 2005-2006.