Friday 6 April 2018

Eric X. Li: compare and contrast

This is what Eric X. Li said in a recent editorial about the elimination of the term limit for Chinese president in the Washington Post:
"Bringing the presidency’s institutional mechanics in line with the office of party general secretary, and for them to be occupied by the same person, will create a more efficient and coherent governing structure and more transparency and predictability in China’s dealings with the world. It lifts the veil of pretense that, somehow, the party and state governance are not one, which is untrue and wholly unnecessary and counterproductive at this stage of China’s development. It signals the maturing of the Chinese political system that shows the world clearly how decisions are made and who is in charge."
 And this is what he said in a 2013 TED talk about term limits:
"...the party self-corrects in rather dramatic fashions. Institutionally new rules get enacted to correct previous dysfunctions.  For example, term limits. Political leaders used to retain their positions for life, and they used that to accumulate power and perpetuate their rules. Mao was the father of modern China, and yet his prolonged rule led to disastrous mistakes. So the party instituted term limits with mandatory retirement age of 68 to 70."
So term limits were apparently necessary rules needed to correct a dysfunction in 2013 but now their elimination is a sign of the maturing of the Chinese political system?

Li seems to seek to solve this conundrum by fixing on the idea that there is still a retirement age that will limit Xi's rule so he will not rule for life. The problem is that (as Li clearly knows) there is no such actual mandatory retirement age for president, merely ages at which it is customary to retire. Xi will have no more problem in breaking these customary norms than he has in breaking any of the other norms of Chinese governance that have stood in his way. The road is therefore open for him to rule for life if he wishes.

[Kudos to Wukailong of Pacific Rim Shots fame for pointing out the WaPo article and Dylan Matthews on Twitter for finding the TED talk]

Monday 2 April 2018

Book Review - Deng Xiaoping's Long War: The Military Conflict between China and Vietnam by Xiaoming Zhang

The history of the Sino-Vietnamese conflict that broke out in February 1979 is one of the most neglected parts of modern Chinese history. As such Prof. Xiaoming Zhang's book on the conflict is a very necessary contribution to the field, it being one of the few books - possibly the only book in English at least - to analyse the conflict using sources other than contemporary news reports, and to cover the ten-year period of extended conflict after the 1979 invasion in any detail.

There are at least three major-takeaways from this book for observers of modern Chinese affairs:

- Whilst Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia was a major cause of the war, the idea that China was being surrounded by the Soviet Union, and that war with the USSR was imminent (as Zhang explains, Deng Xiaoping believed that war would likely break out in 1985), was another cause of the war. This has implications for future US-Vietnamese relations, especially if the PRC leadership believes that it makes an attack on Vietnam necessary to demonstrate the inability of Vietnam's allies to protect it.

 - In any future conflict, at least any launched by choice by the PRC leadership, a period of so-called "political mobilisation" is likely to precede any action. Zhang's book explains in detail the efforts that were put into convincing PLA soldiers and the population at large of the necessity of the "Self-defence counter-attack", an attack where the element of surprise was obviously important. This "political mobilisation" seems to have had an effect, given the suicidal nature in which attacks were carried out at times during the conflcit. Whether this might hold true for an attack on Taiwan, when the populace is already indoctrinated to a great degree about the necessity of "Liberating Taiwan" is an open question.

- Whilst the war is almost never mentioned in Chinese media (Zhang even mention allegations of a secret deal between the PRC and Vietnamese leadership not to mention the war) Sino-Vietnamese war veterans have been favoured in promotions to the senior leadership of the PLA. Whilst the war is not mentioned, the people who took part in it are far from shunned.

My main criticism of this book is that it sorely lacks a chapter on the Cambodian aspect of the conflict. It is possible that I have missed it, but Vietnam's motives for invading Cambodia are not described in the book as far as I am aware, nor are the reasons for the PRC's support of the Khmer Rouge regime before the Vietnamese invasion. A description of the course of Vietnam's invasion, and of the campaigns fought against guerrillas by the Vietnamese army would have greatly helped the reader's understanding of why Vietnam was eventually willing to withdraw from Cambodia and make a rapprochement with the PRC. This is particular when, as Zhang points out, Vietnam's "real problem lay in Cambodia", not so much in the ongoing conflict on the Chinese border.

Of course, as Zhang often points out, the Vietnamese archives are not open to academic study, so the material on which a description of the Cambodian conflict might be based is thin. This also applies to the criticism in some reviews of this book of it being overly Sino-centric - ultimately the Vietnamese side of the story is untold as the Vietnamese archives are not available.