PUNE: ‘Crisis in Command’ is a famous book written by Richard Gabriel, a U.S. army soldier, who in 1978 argued that the U.S. Army was unfit to fight a war, weakened by its officer corps that had abandoned honour and integrity for self-interest. Forty years later, the title seems more apt for the Chinese leadership, more so for their supreme leader Xi Jinping. It’s said to find the right answer, one has to ask the right question. In the current standoff between India and China in eastern Ladakh, much has been written and spoken about but the most important question has remained largely unanswered: Why is Xi Jinping doing what he is doing?
2020, the Chinese year of the Rat, seems to be a bad year for the Chinese leader. He has been haunted by the worst of nightmares. The Corona pandemic has the whole world, especially the European nations, clamouring to crucify China, there is an ongoing trade confrontation with the U.S., the Hong Kong crisis continues, the Taiwanese challenge to name a few, have dogged Xi Jinping. However, he chose to escalate confrontations: this is visible in the South China Sea, also with Japan and Vietnam, he chose to confront issues in Tajikistan, Inner Mongolia, heckled Bhutan over a small border issue and, worst of all, decided to alter the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh. Prudence would dictate that when in trouble with a major trading nation such as the U.S., one should secure other trading partners so that the back door to economic growth remains open. India along with the EU, Japan and Vietnam are amongst the top ten trading partners of China, and Xi’s foolhardiness has disrupted trade with them. Salami-slicing tactics, which have reached the level of brinkmanship this summer, could end in a full-fledged conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.
Why Is Xi Jinping Aggressive?
To understand the behaviour of the Chinese, especially the PLA and their tactics of handling the crisis, one has to understand the mind of the Chinese President. In the early stages of the eastern Ladakh crisis, there were some stray opinions gaining weight that the PLA is acting on its own and going beyond its mandate to engage the Indian Army. The argument being made was that since the re-organisation of the military regions into Theatre Commands, Western Theatre commander Zhao Zongqi has been more exuberant, being a Tibet expert, and has taken it upon himself to teach the Indian Army a lesson. This explanation now seems at best childish. Nothing moves in China without the explicit nod of Xi Jinping. He has consolidated his position as the head of the PLA and purged all opposition to him in the Communist party. Let us indulge a little in the genesis of this state that has come to be in China.
When Xi Jinping took over the reins of power from Hu Jintao in 2012, the Communist party was in a crisis of ideological identity. The debate about ‘collective leadership versus personalised leadership’ was in full force. Deng Xiaoping, a victim of Mao’s purges, in his wisdom had steered the party towards collective leadership in a bid to cure the ills of the Maoist era. He believed that concentration of power in one authority was the genesis of all ills. He brought in the maximum two-term tenure for the president. The collective distribution of power was envisaged as the way forward to the socialist Marxist ideology for the future. However, it harmed the country and party. During Hu Jintao’s time, the reins of the Communist party were weakened due to distribution of power as multiple power centres grew. They ran parallel and, at times, even in contradiction to the party’s interests. Corruption ran rampant as there was no one interested in challenging the people in power. When Xi Jinping assumed charge in 2012, the first declaration he made was to purge corrupt party officials and make party interest paramount in the affairs of the state. Such was the overwhelming support these measures received from the public that it catapulted Xi to the top of popularity charts in China.
Xi Jinping is a princeling who has had an arduous journey to the top of the party hierarchy. His father was exiled to rural Yanchuan County by Mao during the Cultural Revolution. As a teenager, he followed his father and also lived in a cave in the village of Liangjiahe. He toiled hard to get the party membership; it took nine rejections before he was admitted to the party. He worked hard in the provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang as a party worker and governor, respectively. His tireless work and ability to bring investment to the province and his tough stance against corruption, saw him inducted into the central committee and the politburo. His journey to the top has toughened him to the rigours of political skullduggery in the CPC. He came to power as a tough, straight forward and pragmatic leader, poised to take China to greater heights. He did things right in the initial years. He purged at least six top party officials through the discipline commission; they included a vice-chairman of CMC, a standing Politburo member and the security chief, who were known to be his opponents, on charges of plotting a coup. He threw out many party workers to establish party discipline. Over 100 provincial ministry-level officials were implicated in the anti-corruption drive. Amongst the many reforms he introduced were the National Security Commission for internal surveillance, changing the military structures of the PLA, bringing the People’s Armed Police Force under the PLA and legal reforms were definitely with a plan to further his longevity. He proclaimed himself the head of the PLA and now holds the three important portfolios of General Secretary, President and the Chairman of CMC (Central Military Commission). If it was a signal that he wanted to get back to the old Maoist days of a highly personalised form of leadership, it was missed. Was he able to conceal his real intent or did he develop the desire to continue his reign beyond the constitutionally obligated period during his first term is a matter of conjecture.
Nevertheless, somewhere the success of his purges and centralisation of power led Xi to believe in his invincibility as the supreme Chinese leader. Thus, in March 2018, in the 18th congress session, he had the National People’s Congress (NPC), amend the party constitution by removing the two-term clause for the Chinese President and vice president. Constitutionally, Xi can remain president for as long as he wants. An interesting point to note here is why was it essential to change the constitution for the post of president alone, which is a ceremonial position, and not for the other two posts of party general secretary and chairman of CMC. Neither of these posts has any tenure limits as per the party constitution; hence if Xi was to remain in power forever theoretically as the General Secretary of the CPC, he could have continued. But he would have had to bear with a president nominated by the People’s Congress, who could be a thorn in his reign and would militate against his policy of centralised power. Such is the supremacy of Xi Jinping today that he rules all organs of the party and the state. He is the crowned emperor. He successfully avoided nominating a younger successor for the ‘in training’ programme during the 19th Congress in November 2017, indicating his desire to prolong his stay at the top. He has already indicated that he will extend his tenure as the General Secretary of the party, in 2023, and some say may even proclaim himself chairman of the CPC, a post held only by Mao Zedong.
The narrative given above is necessary to understand the state of mind of Xi Jinping. Having decided to stay in power for a personal reason or out of love for his country, Xi’s leadership has come under severe criticism in the social media and public. While he is surrounded by the coterie which sings his praise all the time, there are elements within the party, especially the CPC elites (veterans), who are unhappy about his decision to amass absolute power. He feels insecure and threatened, unable to trust anyone. He takes all decisions, including the one on military strategy. It is thus unlikely that Xi Jinping has not approved the recent confrontation with India in eastern Ladakh. It must have had his implicit seal on it and hence every Indian victory even if it is small, chips away at his image of a tough and successful leader. Nothing can explain his desire to take on so many international conflict zones simultaneously other than the desire to seal his place in the minds of Chinese people as successful and uncompromising. Given this reality, it is unlikely that China will ease its stance in eastern Ladakh unless a face-saving event or occurrence presents itself. This pretty much applies to all other areas of conflict, such as the South China Sea and Hong Kong. It would be fair to assess that in his perception the Taiwan problem would outweigh eastern Ladakh by a couple of notches. Loss of face on Taiwan would have a disastrous effect on his image and plans at home.
Last point: how does a pragmatic, rational and progressive leader lose his essential traits and display character traits alien to his early life? Possibly ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. The desire to amass power is like an altitude-triggered explosive device. Once it is armed while ascending, its safety mechanism lies only in climbing higher. In Xi Jinping’s case, he may have reached a point of no return.
(The author is a former Artillery officer, headed College of Defence Management, one of the most prestigious training institutes of the Indian military, is also a strategic affairs analyst. Views expressed in this article are personal.)