China’s 2013 yin-yang: Reforms and security

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At the Third Plenum of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee, the new regime in Beijing decided that social reform and national security will be its priority for the next nine years

For millennia, Chinese philosophy has believed in the concept of ‘yin’ and ‘yang’; seemingly opposite forces are interconnected and give rise to each other; ‘yang’ is white with the black dot, while ‘yin’ is the reverse, black with the white dot. Wikipedia says: “Many natural dualities are thought of as physical manifestations of the yin-yang.”

The new leadership in Beijing seems to have adapted the concept to political philosophy; after four days of discussions (from November 9 to 12), the Third Plenum of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee has, amongst other things, delivered two new leading groups: One on reforms (it was expected) and more surprisingly, another on national security. The statement issued at the end of the conclave explains: “The general objective of the approved reforms is to improve and develop socialism with Chinese characteristics… development is still the key to solving all problems in China.”

That is the ‘yang’, but for the ‘yin’, President Xi Jinping and his colleagues believe that the doom of the former Soviet Union (where internal security apparatus had become weak, corrupt and ineffective) needs to be avoided at all cost. The regime thinks that if effective reforms are not introduced, the days of the Communist Party are counted. They may be right.

Referring to the Third Plenum of 1978 which saw Deng Xiaoping implementing large-scale economic reforms, the party said that the then ‘reform and opening-up’ led the CPC into a ‘new era’, adding that the present reforms would decide the destiny of modern China. The statement concluded with “the need to deepen reforms in order to build a moderately prosperous society, and a strong and democratic country, as well as realise the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation”.

It might just be a dream, though Sinocism, an excellent newsletter, which analyses current events in China, commented: “The decision is impressive and shows that the leadership is both aware of and committed to deep reforms... the truly hard part is not the drafting but the implementation of changes that will affect interests throughout society. But at least Xi has clearly articulated [his] resolve and vision for reform.”

Amongst the sectors to be reformed, the Plenum mentioned building a more impartial and sustainable social security system; encompassing improved housing guarantee; strengthening protection of intellectual property rights and encouraging innovation.

The 204-member Central Committee has further decided to allow more non-state-owned capital into the market to develop a mixed-ownership economy; to accelerate the reform of the hukou system (household registration) in order to help farmers become urban residents and promote market-oriented reform in state-owned enterprises by breaking monopolies and introducing competition. The Chinese masses will particularly welcome the loosening of the one-child population policy.

Another welcome decision is that economic growth regardless of environment will not be permitted in regions located in ecologically fragile areas. Does it mean that China will drop its plan to divert the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) or other rivers originating from ‘fragile’ Tibet? Let us hope that common sense prevails and the nefarious plans are shelved.

A measure to be watched is the abolishing of the infamous re-education through labour system. But what will replace it, already question many Western human rights organisations? Beijing has also announced that it will, step by step, reduce the number of crimes subject to death penalty. A host of other measures have also been taken to ensure that the “authority of the Constitution and laws is upheld”. All this is easier said than done and only the future (the next nine years) will tell us if the Communist system is reformable, or if it is condemned to follow the Soviet Union’s model.

But there is a more important side (‘yin’?) to the ‘yang’ coin — the ‘stability’ factor. According to Beijing, these new open-policies are possible only if China is stable: “State security and social stability are preconditions for reform and development”, said Mr Xi while justifying the creation of the National Security Commission.

According to the President, “The main responsibilities of the National Security Commission will include construction of the rule of law system concerning state security, research, resolving major issues of national security, setting principles and policies, as well as stipulating and implementing strategies.” The NSC will deal with internal and external issues. “China is facing two pressures: Internationally, the country needs to safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interests; domestically, political security and social stability should be ensured”, explained Mr Xi. He added: “The variety of predictable and unpredictable risks has been increasing remarkably, and the system has not yet met the needs of safeguarding state security.”

Reuters said that it “will enable the Government to speak with a single voice when it comes to dealing with crises at home and abroad.” Internal security has traditionally meant muzzling opposition to the regime. It will continue to be the case. While actively popularising the Internet, the Plenum decided to “reinforce its overall administration over cyberspace in accordance with the law and accelerate formation of a sound Internet management system”. It is quite ominous.

Though analysts believe that the NSC is based on the National Security Council of the US, it will have snooping facilities like the US notorious National Security Agency. Reuters says that the NSC “would increase coordination among the various wings of China’s security bureaucracy, split now among the police, military, intelligence and diplomatic services”.

Tibet and Xinjiang are two of the ‘internal’ threats which will be dealt by the new body. Recently, repression has increased in both restive regions with the state tightly monitoring the lives of the Tibetans and Uyghurs. Self-immolations in Tibet have been the most visible consequence of the stiffening of the security apparatus.

The New York Times concludes: “One year after taking leadership of the party, Mr Xi is looking like an assertive, even imperial President, who sits well above his six colleagues on the Politburo Standing Committee.” Will the new ‘Emperor’ reform the Middle Kingdom? We shall have to wait a few years to know. In the meantime, New Delhi should be alert as the NSC will be responsible for the Sino-Indian border issue. The ‘lack of coordination’ during the Depsang incident in April is probably one of the many reasons which led to the creation of the NSC. New Delhi should also take a few pages from China’s reforms programme but presently it is too busy distributing Bharat Ratnas.

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