While China's external environment has become unfavorable more than ever before, its internal problems are also growing considerably. Chinese President Xi Jinping is in a hurry to realise his two centenary goals -- ‘China Dream’ and catching up on the US by 2049. However, both seem to be slipping out of the grasp of his leadership.
In the middle of a disastrous pandemic, in a speech in April 2020, Xi Jinping said: "Great steps in history have always emerged from the crucible of major disasters." He told the professors and students that the calamity was ripe with possibility for China.
It reminds us of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, who in 1956 infamously threatened the Western ambassadors at the Polish embassy in Moscow, stating, "We will bury you!" Thirty years later, there was no USSR. Today, China has created such a hostile environment across the globe; in all probability, it is going the USSR way and much faster.
As they say, there is another story beneath every story, and there is no smoke without fire. The news slipping out from within China reveals that a large population is ready to break free. It is reaching a tipping point where most of its regions could turn into free nations.
Besides the growing political dissension, divisive fissiparous tendencies within the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are coming to the fore, and secessionist forces are waiting to break away from the totalitarian stranglehold regime. CCP is facing significant confrontations between the party and the people. The gap between the poor and a handful of rich is widening; corruption amongst CCP officials is widely prevalent, and those who have close connections with the top leadership are prospering. Without the emergence of some 'rule of law,' it is hard to see how China can protect its people from cadre-capitalist privilege abuses.
The middle-class number has expanded enormously. The CCP is yet to find a political model that can accommodate this new, educated urban majority's aspirations for greater government decision-making participation.
The handling of COVID and the financial crisis has put the country into negative economic growth and falsified financial data. The spending national wealth on faraway countries on defunct programmes like OBOR is angering the Chinese youth. While the economic disparity in China is at an all-time high, the Chinese youth are upset with the CPC for squandering national wealth on Xinjiang and Tibet's unnecessary appendages. Floods, insects, and famine affect food supplies and livelihood, leading to the CCP losing its previous reputation of superhuman competence in managing economic affairs.
They take part in hundreds of demonstrations across the country daily. However, CPC disperses them before it can take the shape of a movement. People do not see any political reform in the CCP, causing a rise in the rebellion sentiments from within. The citizens desperately want to uproot the CCP and are waiting for a catalyst to start a movement. The exponential rise in anti-China sentiment worldwide also worries China of foreign powers fanning the sentiment leading up to a state of internal conflict. If played well, the Hans (the majority) could be the mainstay of this rebellion with a helping hand.
A lot also depends on the level of discontent within the CCP, particularly its middle and higher echelons. Many wealthy people of China are hedging by shifting part of their wealth abroad. The UK announced that it might ban the visits of CCP executives from Xinjiang and Tibet provinces and seize their properties for their human rights violations. It has sent strong resentment in CCP executives, fearing that other countries may also follow it.
Two factors are causing concern for Xi right now. The first is the economic situation. Second, the sources of voiced discontent. Many intellectuals, academics, and students are also waiting for an opportunity to voice their criticism.
The socio-economic factors inside China have also reached a high explosive point, and it has the potential for its breakup. In East Turkistan, Muslim minorities are living in miserable conditions. For several years, China has been carrying out a cultural genocide and mass extermination of their ideas and beliefs. Some of the Uyghur minorities have embraced Islamist terrorism in pursuit of an independent national identity. Tibetan Buddhists -- who along with Uyghur Muslims, are among the most persecuted religious groups in China--are also restive. Besides, Southern Mongolia (Inner Mongolia) has seen many protests where the Mongolian minority is denied political rights and is subject to ethnic discrimination.
China’s economy is also deteriorating at a fast pace. The unemployment situation is terrible. There is an increase in loans turning bad with many cases of defaults and delayed repayments. The BRI, which was the primary tool for the Chinese expansion, has become unsustainable. For the last several years, its defense budget has also increased in the double-digit, pushing its economy further downwards. China is in dire need to clean up its toxically polluted environment to realise the true potential of the investment it is making in its scientific, technological, and engineering workforce.
The trade war with America has adversely impacted the Chinese economy. India’s boycott of Chinese goods is also a substantial economic blow to China. China also has opened up fronts against Australia, Japan, UK, Canada, Vietnam, Myanmar, Bhutan, Taiwan, Philippines. This fallout and the exodus of MNCs from China are severely affecting many key Chinese corporations. Alibaba, Huawei, and Tencent are a few prominent names facing the international backlash. On top of that, the CCP's Central Committee has laid out a plan for the party to have better control over private businesses.
These corporations have strong ties with the military leadership. Their financial losses will be felt by many PLA generals, personally. Furthermore, unhappy generals could only add threats to the stability of China’s one-party regime.
The most dominant feature of Chinese politics in this decade has been the return of repressive autocracy. CCP's Chairman-for-life, Xi Xinping, is worried about maintaining absolute authority. Two factors are causing concern for Xi right now. The first is the economic situation. Second, the sources of voiced discontent. Many intellectuals, academics, and students are also waiting for an opportunity to voice their criticism.
So, in an attempt to paint a nationalistic picture of China’s future, Xi is escalating the non-issues and trying hard to keep the focus on the Taiwan, Ladakh standoff and posturing in the South China Sea, to galvanize his dwindling support base. Nevertheless, more and more people do not believe in his propaganda. Adding to Xi's discomfort, the world also is not cowering. Taiwan, India, Japan, or Vietnam have stood firm in Chinese threats and intimidation.
A nervous CCP, through its state-affiliated media, is now trying to convince its people that its Army can fight a war and has an advantage over India and the South China Sea. It clearly shows that China is on the back foot by both India and Taiwan's aggressive stance and is posturing to give its people hope.
The liberals in China give themselves political cover by citing 'Deng's-Doctrine' to criticise Xi without mentioning his name. However, known for his outspoken political views, the retired Professor Zheng Yefu dared the ruling CCP to "step down gracefully from the historical stage."
The high-profile arrest of professor of constitutional law, Xu Zhangrun, is a veiled warning to them all to silence internal dissent. Xu had criticised China's response to the coronavirus and what he sees as a Mao-like cult of personality under China's current leader. A Chinese billionaire Ren Zhiqiang, who criticised President Xi's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, has been jailed for 18 years on corruption charges.
Another concern for Xi is that he has to contend with is grumbling generals. Retired Major General Qiao Liang openly contradicted Xi’s aggressive threats to take control of Taiwan by force. A serving PLA Air Force Colonel Dai Xu was even blunter about a Cold War's potential cost with the US in an essay.
“China has provided assistance to many countries, benefiting them in many ways, but at this critical moment, none of them has taken any unified action with China," Colonel Dai bemoaned.
These developments are humiliating for emperor Xi, and it hints that the rumbles are beginning within his halls of power. For the Communist regime, no price is too high, nor any means too unethical to reach the seat of commandeering its people. Ironically, President Xi's actions are only a repeat of history in which the ruler terminates reforms and ultimately threatens his own throne.
If China loses the diplomatic option to assert its sovereignty claims, Chairman Xi could see military action as its only recourse. More so with a new-found confidence in its vastly expanded and modernised military
China has a future of multiplying uncertainties and potential crises in the store. However, when cornered on all fronts, Beijing has a well-established tendency to respond to pressure with escalation.
In the absence of an India-China border settlement, the PLA continues to scuffle with the Indian Army along the contested LAC in the Himalayas. While there is a high voltage tussle with Taiwan, to grab it by force, the possibilities of an armed conflict with Japan and the United States are also nurturing in the East and South Chian Sea. If China loses the diplomatic option to assert its sovereignty claims, Chairman Xi could see military action as its only recourse with a new-found confidence in its vastly expanded and modernised military.
In the coming years, what China will face, will be fundamentally shaped by the outcomes of the dramatic political, economic, and social transformations unfolding in that country today. In other words, a political churning leading to its disintegration and the ouster of Xi Jinping, or a multi-front military confrontation, either of the two is inevitable.
(The writer is a researcher, blogger and columnist)