On Tibet, Will Xi Leave the Last Word on Tibet to a Dead Man?
By Thubten Samphel*
The international verdict on the outcome of the third plenum of the 18th congress of the Chinese communist party held from 9 to 12 November is out. The verdict both within China and outside is positive. The breadth of reforms to be introduced is ambitious. If carried through despite stiff resistance from vested interests, these reforms will improve the lives of the ordinary Chinese. The proposed reforms include doing away with the one-child policy, the forced labour camps, loosening the household registration system, putting more emphasis on market forces so that private enterprises could find more level playing ground to compete with the giant state-owned enterprises and the creation of a national security agency to co-ordinate the activities of China’s sprawling and powerful domestic security apparatus, which during the reign of Hu Jintao posed a distinct challenge to the top leadership.
This writer does not have any background on economics to meaningfully discuss the implications of the proposed economic reforms that came out of the third plenum. Instead this writer would like to focus on the establishment of the national security agency, or, what some commentators refer to as China’s state security commission or committee.
Many China scholars and in fact the Chinese government have compared the this year’s third plenum to the third plenum of 1978 that brought far-reaching changes in China and one which set the country to the path of breakneck economic development and prosperity for millions. The reason why China was able to do this back in 1978 was because Deng Xiaoping succeeded in establishing himself as the undisputed paramount leader, able to sway and direct the various factions to his vision of a rejuvenated China. The proposed creation of the national security agency is Xi Jinping’s “Deng Xiaoping moment” when he could rise above the politburo and direct his team to his “China dream.”
However, Xi Jinping cannot accomplish all his proposed reforms if he is hampered by powerful colleagues as was the case with the outgoing President Hu Jintao whose “lost decade” was because he did not command the influence and means to overcome resistance to change that came from politburo members like Zhou Yongkang or shake off the impression that he was operating in the shadows of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin.
Seen this way, the recent third plenum is more about Xi Jinping saying to China and the world he is his own man and with the creation of the national security agency, say with emphasis that he has the means to carry through the reforms he has in mind for China.
The official rationale for the establishment of the national security agency is to tackle “terrorists” and other unsavoury elements within China’s minorities who might derail China’s continued economic growth. This argument seems unconvincing. It seems the real terrorists and real targets of China’s new big gun seems to be regional strongmen who might be attempted to challenge the centre who in their eyes look weak, hesitant and without a sense of direction. The case of Bo Xilai is a clear example. His known links or alliance with Zhou Yongkang, the former security chief who during his tenure commanded a budget that was higher than China’s national defense, nearly disrupted the leadership transition.
China observers say that the new national security agency will come under the direct supervision of Xi. Leading officials from the military, foreign ministry, intelligence, finance and economic will be pulled into the new organ. Xi will be assisted in this task most likely by a close and trusted aide Wang Huning, a top foreign affairs expert. China observers say the new agency will be modelled on the National Security Council of the United States.
In this way, the President of China can avoid the situation Hu Jintao faced when all his major moves were stymied by powerful colleagues like Zhou Yongkang. Or avoid the embarrassing situation that developed around the US consulate in Chengdu in early 2012 when Wang Lijun, Bo Xilai’s security chief in Chongjing tried to seek asylum at the mission. Police forces of these two cities faced each other in an unnerving standoff, each under a different command and with a different mission. The Chongjing police force were directed by Bo Xilai to grab Wang Lijun from the consulate. Hu Jintao wanted the Chengdu police force to prevent the man from escaping the consulate. This standoff was defined as an “armed revolt” by President Hu Jintao. The mandate of the new security agency is to help the Chinese president to prevent or put down such “revolts” from “terrorists” within or without the politburo.
Observers say that the speed with which Xi Jinping is able to amass unprecedented powers within his hands will ensure that he would be able to implement all his proposed reforms. That is good news for China and the rest of the world.
The question for Tibet observers is, will Xi Jinping be his own man on the vexed issue of Tibet. Will he be able to carry forward all his colleagues in the politiburo on the issue? The problem with the Chinese leaders on resolving the issue of Tibet is that the last word on the issue is left to a dead man. According to some reports, Deng Xiaoping’s last political will and testament instructed his successors to treat national minority issues with the utmost care. Otherwise, he said a collapsing mountain could not be put upright or held together by a rope. He was supposed to have said, hold high the flag of negotiations but don’t let outsiders in.
In diagnosing the collapse of the Soviet Union, Xi Jinping said the reason was that no one was man enough to resist the collapse. Will the robust president of China be man enough to break away from the habit developed by Deng’s successors to leave the last word on Tibet to a dead man? Or, will he be man enough to re-start earnest negotiations that truly has the potential for China to usher in an era of greatness and prosperity based on mutual trust and respect?
*Thubten Samphel is director of the Tibet Policy Institute, a research centre of the Central Tibetan Administration.