Author : C.Uday Bhaskar


In less than two weeks, on November 8, China will embark upon its once in a decade top leadership change and the Hu Jinato–Wen Jiabao combine will step down from their respective positions as President and Prime Minister respectively. The orientation of the top Chinese politburo leadership has always had a bearing on how Beijing deals with its external interlocutors – be it the USA, Japan or India - and hence the current political developments within Beijing are of considerable relevance to Delhi.

It is a mere coincidence that this transition is taking place soon after the extensive and emotional recall in India of the 50th anniversary of the Chinese attack on India on October 20, 1962. It is pertinent to note that this anniversary received much lesser notice in China. Concurrently the USA is all set to elect its next President on November 6 and this event also has a bearing on how the triangular relationship between China, USA and India will evolve over the next decade.

The most dramatic revelation on the eve of the Chinese leadership change has been a New York Times report implicating PM Wen Jiabao in charges of misuse of his high office so as to benefit immediate family and the clique associated with him to a tune of USD $ 2 billion. It may be recalled that this follows the even more dramatic downfall of Bo Xilai, the former Communist Party chief in Chongqing, who was once regarded as a contender for induction into the highest body of governance in China. After various charges of corruption and murder came to light, the powerful Bo has been tried in court and expelled from the Communist Party, the legislature and is to face prosecution. This is a rare development in the cloistered and opaque environment that surrounds factional fights in China and is also being perceived as a response to the mounting anger in China over the manner in which the top Communist Party leaders are practicing double-speak and rampant hypocrisy. Party leaders and officials, it is averred, pay lip service to the values and ideology of the Communist party in public while amassing wealth and disproportionate assets in private. The correspondence with what is currently happening in India is indicative of the complex problems related to institutional integrity in large nations that are on the path to quick prosperity against the backdrop of globalization in trade and economic activities controlled by the state.

Leadership change in China at the top level is an intense and complex activity which takes place in a subterranean and secretive manner. A Chinese academic once wryly remarked to me - off the record - that in the run-up to this decadal transition, factions engage in what might be described as ‘mortal combat’ and when it is all over – not just blood on the floor – there are dead bodies also…which are secretly disposed off !

The metaphor is not misplaced and the pre 1962 contestation in China which saw Mao Zedong consolidating his position by skilful manipulation of his hard-line faction is case in point. At the time the core team comprised Mao, Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi, Zhu De, Chen Yun, Peng Dehuai and Lin Biao. However soon after, both Liu and Lin – chosen successors to Mao were charged with treason and an attempted coup against the ‘great helmsman’. The ruthless infighting is best exemplified in the mysterious plane crash of Marshal Lin in September 1971, when he was fleeing to Mongolia – a subject that is still taboo on China.

It is not that corruption in high office was confined to just one Bo Xilai. The run-up to the leadership change cuts across party and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) military domain. Currently a high-profile Lt. Gen Gu Junshan, chief of the PLA logistics department, is part of the purge and top level changes in the apex military leadership are also on the cards.

During the Hu Jintao decade, the undercurrent of tension between his faction and that of his predecessor Jiang Zemin was part of the complex lattice of the domestic politics in China. This divergent factional tension has also been referred to as the Beijing versus Shanghai contestation on one hand, while on the other there is the hardcore Mao loyalists (Bo Xila is representative) ranged against the cautious liberal school. This was also reflected in the decision taken by Deng Xiaoping to use force in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 to quell the student protestors.

The short point is that contrary to the seeming calm that the formal images of Chinese top leadership seem to exude, there is intense contestation going on under the surface. Both PM Wen Xiabao and the disgraced Bo Xilai have come under public scrutiny as part of this dynamic. While Beijing is light-years away from introducing an Right to Information equivalent law on the lines of India, communication technology has enabled the growing middle class to form an active – some would say hyper-active net community in China that is seething with frustration over what they see as an inequitable and far from 'harmonious' society – where a few benefit from party and state linkages.

Specific to the bilateral relationship with India, it appears that while Beijing is currently seeking to stabilize its prickly relations with Washington and Tokyo (recall the negative references to China in the recent US presidential debates and the Ishihara initiative to form a new political party with an anti-China focus in Japan), it would seek to ensure a stable and peaceful relationship with Delhi.

Thus in a rare gesture, the acting Ambassador of China in Delhi, Deng Xijun, noted in an op-ed article in the Indian media (Oct 27 ) that while the recall of October 1962 has become a “hot topic” in India, both sides : “….need to have a correct and comprehensive understanding of history. Only in this way can we obtain enlightenment and courage from the past, bury the ghosts of wars and conflicts, and start a new chapter in China-India relations.”

Like their Chinese counterparts, civil society in India will also wait and watch to see how China’s top leaders harmonize their word with deed.

(C Uday Bhaskar is a Senior Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation. He can be contacted at . This article first appeared in the South Asia Monitor on October 28, 2012.)
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