1. 6th Plenum: outcomes
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The most significant outcome of the plenum is the adoption of a resolution on history. The full title is the Resolution on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century 《中共中央关于党的百年奋斗重大成就和历史经验的决议》.
The text of this highly anticipated resolution has not yet been made public, but we can infer its key message from the communiqué, which discusses history in some length.
Coming in at 7,400 Chinese characters, the plenum communiqué is the longest in recent decades. Essentially, it tries to do three things:
- It lionises Xi Jinping and paves the way for him to resume a third term in 2022 at the Party Congress.
- It justifies the Party’s monopoly of power by providing an account of its past achievements.
- It draws a linear and distorted historical narrative that supports Xi’s leadership and the Party’s rule.
Xi is the one
In the leadup to and during the plenum, we saw some cringeworthy sycophancy that portrayed Xi as the chosen one. One Xinhua profile, for example, painted this picture:
Since being elected general secretary of the CPC Central Committee in November 2012, Xi has been seen as a man of determination and action, a man of profound thoughts and feelings, a man who inherited a legacy but dares to innovate, and a man who has forward-looking vision and is committed to working tirelessly.
On the new journey, Xi is undoubtedly the core figure in charting the course of history. How will he lead the Party in the face of opportunities and challenges? How will he bring China back to the world’s center stage? Today, the world is watching Xi just closely as nine years ago.
Likewise, the plenum communiqué lionises Xi, lavishes praise on his leadership record, and characterise him as indispensable:
The Party has established Comrade Xi Jinping’s core position on the Party Central Committee and in the Party as a whole…[this] is of decisive significance for advancing the cause of the Party and the country in the new era and for driving forward the historic process of national rejuvenation.
the Central Committee, with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core, has demonstrated great historical initiative, tremendous political courage, and a powerful sense of mission…it has prompted historic achievements and historic shifts in the cause of the Party and the country.
The building of Xi’s cult has been going on for some time, but it is now at new heights.
What it all boils down to is the reality of power: the communiqué and the resolution on history demonstrate Xi’s power and are in turn instruments for its consolidation as we move towards the 2022 Party Congress.
History as farce
The communiqué provides a linear and twisted version of history, one that is sanitised, unreflective and oppressive. In this version of history, the CCP has stood China up, freed its people from oppression, and dragged them out of poverty. In this version of history, a glorious future is already carved into the stone of destiny.
Given the Party’s “extraordinary historical achievements,” is there a reason for the Chinese nation and its people to change the vehicle of historical change that is the Party as they embark on a “new journey” (whatever that entails)? This is the Party’s argument for its continued monopoly of power, one that is seductive to many in China. After all, how can one disagree when “The Party has proved to be a great, glorious, and correct party” by virtue of historical truth?
But as you and I both know, this version of history does not reflect the tortuous roads modern China has travelled, the darker sides of the Party’s past, and contingency in the making of history.
What the Party calls history, then, is actually drudgery in the service of power. It involves waging an eternal war against truth and memory.
You’ll be hearing more from us on the 6th Plenum, but for now, we leave behind politics and present you with a poem, a quote and a song:
Ozymandias (by Percy Shelly)
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The fundamental pillar of the present totalitarian system is the existence of a single, central agent of all truth and all power (a kind of institutionalised ‘rationale of history’) which also becomes, quite naturally, the sole agent of all social activity. This activity ceases to be an arena in which different more or less autonomous agents square off; and becomes no more than the manifestation and fulfilment of the truth and the will of a single agent. In a world governed by this principle, there is no room for mystery; proprietorship of complete truth means that everything is known ahead of time. And where everything is known ahead of time there is no soil for the story to grow out of.
(from Stories and Totalitarianism by Václav Havel, translated by Paul Wilson, quoted by Geremie Barmé in History as Boredom)
And finally, a song to break the monotony and hubris:
Fighting evil by moonlight
Winning love by daylight
Never running from a real fight
Xi will never turn her back on a friend
Xi is always there to defend
Xi is the one on whom we can depend
2. Climate declaration
The US and China announced a surprise joint declaration on climate change.
The fact that the US and China made a deal in the current deteriorating strategic environment is a positive sign — cooperation is possible despite geopolitics. And this is especially unexpected as President Xi did not attend COP26, yet a sideline deal was made.
However, we should not be too optimistic about the future of bilateral relation. After all, climate change — or “climate crisis” as referenced in the Declaration — is the biggest challenge facing the world right now. So it is good to see that the two biggest emitters recognise the “seriousness and urgency of the climate crisis” and are committed to “tackling it to avoid catastrophic impacts”.
Despite this, some skepticisms will remain regarding China’s commitment. However, on this, we believe the Chinese Government does intend to act — climate change is not just about looking good internationally, but also “sustained development of the Chinese nation”. The question is how fast and how far they go.
The Declaration covers issues such as methane, power generation, and deforestation. In practical terms, it flagged the establishment of a Working Group that will “meet regularly to address the climate crisis”. This provides a forum for continued engagement between the two governments.
And on that, we will hear the outcome from the first meeting (albeit virtual) between Xi and Biden soon.
The Declaration also highlighted the responsibilities of developed countries towards developing countries, including languages on “common but differentiated responsibilities” and the reference to the commitment “to address the needs of developing countries”.
This Declaration will likely mitigate some criticisms that China has been receiving about its inaction and Xi’s absence at COP26. For the Australian Government, this declaration may not be a good look for two reasons: 1) it draws more attention to Australia’s inaction, and 2) it shows that other countries with deteriorating relations with China can still make deals with it while Australia could not.
3. Keating speech
Keating is known for using colour phrases and analogies. In this speech, he said the current vague plan for submarines is “like throwing a handful of toothpicks at the mountain”. He called certain journalists “ning-nongs” (a phrasing that I had to look up).
Overall, I agree with Keating’s critique of Australia’s foreign policy in general but disagree with his characterisation of the Chinese Government and the relationship with Taiwan.
On what I agree with. First, I agree that the Australian public debate and the government position is largely informed by the spooks. I have already observed this while working inside the government two years ago. In general, there is a lack of Asian literacy in the Australian public service (I wrote about this in the Lowy paper).
Due to this lack of literacy, as well as the fact that “secrets” is seen as more exciting and trustworthy (they are not on both accounts), intelligence agencies play a larger role. The best thing about this is that intelligence officials can always rebut anyone’s questions with “but you don’t have the information I do”, and selectively leak intelligence to the press to back their claims and sway the public debate.
Second, I also agree that the government is not consistent on human rights. We know that the Modi regime is using similar tactics as the Xi regime to suppress dissent. Yet, the Australian Government would not criticise the Indian Government for human rights violations, because they’re seen as an ally in the effort to counter China. Human rights in China is considered a “strategic policy” while Modi is invited as a keynote speaker at a technology conference.
But I’m sure if one day India was the one threatening the US primacy in Asia, we’d hear much more about human rights in India than in China. So human rights concerns are a symptom, not a cause, of the deteriorating relations.
On what I disagree with. I think Keating is too unrealistically optimistic about China’s current domestic trajectory. The Chinese Government has intensified crackdown on civil societies, including targeting human rights activists, feminist activists, LGBT groups, and labour activists. The Chinese Communist Party is centralising power away from businesses. It is enforcing a single party-approved view of history, where any history questioning the role of the Communist Party is banned.
And on Taiwan, I disagree with the characterisation that Taiwan is a civil matter internal to China. Taiwan has a separate political system that is democratic. It has a history longer than the People’s Republic, and it has successfully transitioned to democracy. Although it used to lobby other countries to be recognised as the true legitimate government of China, this has changed over time.
But what’s missing in the debate is the voice of people in Taiwan — we should at least acknowledge their views and preferences first.
A follow up on the explosive but under-reported MeToo story. The Women’s Tennis Association, the governing body for professional tennis tours for women, has called for China to investigate the sexual assault allegations made by Peng Shuai against the former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhang Gaoli. It also called for an end to censorship of Peng:
Peng Shuai, and all women, deserve to be heard, not censored. Her accusation about the conduct of a former Chinese leader involving a sexual assault must be treated with the utmost seriousness. In all societies, the behavior she alleges that took place needs to be investigated, not condoned or ignored. We commend Peng Shuai for her remarkable courage and strength in coming forward. Women around the world are finding their voices so injustices can be corrected.
The governing body for men’s tennis has backed the WTA’s call.
No doubt this would have caused private fury inside the Chinese Government. This episode may affect the future of tennis in China.