BY THE INITIATIVE | INTERVIEW
Arthur Ding is a Professor Emeritus and Adjunct Professor in the Graduate Institute of East Asian Studies, National Chengchi University, Taipei, Taiwan. His research focuses on China’s security policy, national defense policy, arms control and non-proliferation policy, and the international relations of East Asia.
Professor Ding spoke to The Initiative in April 2018. In his interview, he discussed the reforms taking place in China and their implications for China, Taiwan, and the U.S.
THE COMMUNIST PARTY OF CHINA (CPC)
What the Party’s long-range goals (re: world, Taiwan, U.S.)?
There is no doubt that the CPC wants to re-unify Taiwan as they have made every effort to accomplish the goal. Re-unifying Taiwan is part of the Great Rejuvenation of Chinese national, a dream which has been advocated and pushed by Xi Jinping.
What is the content of the Great Rejuvenation? Xi spells this out in his political report of the 19th party congress: modernized and strong socialism state. Many Chinese analysts advocate that China is content with current order with inevitable piece meal change, but again, no elaboration is provided. But, implicitly, Xi dreams of a G-2, as he said to President Obama, the Pacific Ocean is big enough to accommodate China and the US, and this G-2 status carries tremendous implications.
What are the Party’s near to mid term national priorities to reach the long range goals?
Be it G-2 or wealthy and prosperous nation with strong army, domestic issues have priority. These include: reducing financial risk as a result of excessive loan by shadow banks, bubbled real estate market, and rising government debt by local government, as well as continuing to upgrade tech sophistication. Nevertheless, this priority does not exclude overseas engagement in order to boost China’s international status.
What are the critical challenges the CPC and General Secretary Xi face in the 21st century from inside and outside of China?
For the CPC, the biggest challenge is on Xi himself. Apparently, Xi will stay on power for long (probably at least 15 years after 2012 when he assumed the leadership at the 18th party congress), but he completely broke the tacit agreement on the power arrangement, which was established in the past three decades. Who can succeed him? And based on what rule is the political succession made? Briefly speaking, legitimacy is involved. This is the political aspect.
Economically, how can innovation be inspired as the CPC’s control is being strengthened? All bureaucrats have become so conservative without initiatives from below for fear of any perceived “wrongdoing.” The society is required to follow CPC’s whatever rigid party line.
In foreign policy field, as Xi centralizes all power in his hand, a central question over “who can speak truth” to him has become more urgent problem. This problem can be reflected in China’s policy toward Seoul over the THAAD issue.
All in all, the critical challenges actually lie on Xi himself as he personalizes all power in his hand.
Can you outline the major political and economic reforms and their implications?
Xi has launched many reforms, including reform on PLA, party and state apparatus, more state control of Chinese society over cyber, religion, civilian organizations (NGOs), SOEs, and “private business.”
The implications of the reforms are simple: the CPC controls everything.
What do the reforms mean for the PLA and the state of party-army relations?
Xi’s un-precedent organizational reform/re-structure of the PLA is really significant in the PLA history. Briefly speaking, Xi overhauled top-tier organization, and the reform completely breaks those institutions practiced for eight decades. What he has done included: setting up PLA Army, re-naming PLA 2nd Artillery into PLA Rocket Force and making the Rocket Force service status, breaking the four general departments into fifteen staff departments/offices, and setting up five Theater Commands to replace the three decades old seven Military Regions(MRs).
First, CMC has full control of military apparatus from top to basic levels. For instance, the four general departments, General Staff Department, General Political Department, General Logistical Department, and General Armament Department, had command power and were able to issue instructions to lower apparatus. Now, the four general departments were totally broken down into 15 staff departments directly under the control of CMC. The four “mountains” were totally eliminated.
Secondly, it breaks the power monopoly of PLA ground force. Along this line, for the first time in PLA history, PLA navy and air force generals were appointed head of Southern and Northern Commands respectively. This implies all services are in equal status from now on.
Thirdly, setting up Theater Command is significant. MR was more of inward looking military organization with a focus on defense. But Theater is more of outward looking organization. In other words, with the above elimination of power monopoly of PLA ground force, PLA is being transformed from a defense oriented force into offense oriented one. As all services are equal, joint operation can really be kicked off although it takes time to learn how to really launch joint operation in battle field.
Fourthly, Xi is able to completely break down decades old guanxi network of the four general departments. This decades old guanxi network became protection mechanism for hundreds of PLA officials. Xi broke this protection network and rebuild or impose a new system. This is an extremely difficult task that he made it.
In brief, Xi has set up a brand new military system and this new reform is really un-precedent in scale and nature. Voice for further military reform had been there for long, but it seems that no one before Xi could do it because Hu Jintao was a weak leader while Jiang Zemin needed support from PLA senior officials in order to stay longer as CMC chairman. This reform also was probably driven by a need to break old guanxi network so that Xi can have full control of the military.
Also, Xi is emulating American military institution built under the Goldwater-Nichols Act to organize Theater Command. CMC chairman directly gives command to Theater Commander under the advice of newly organized Joint Staff Department and other CMC members.
Implications for Party-Military relations?
Some puzzles remain unanswered for this comprehensive military reform. For instance, why Xi could make such a comprehensive military reform?
But, one conclusion is sure after five year in power, and that is: Xi is a strong man. As a strong man, Xi has full rein of the military. The next question is what is the implication for party-military relations?
Regarding this question, this author likes to pose another question: is this party-military relations or Xi-military relations? If Xi is not a strong man, can he rein the PLA? What if Xi’s political successor’s relations with PLA?
Different experiences under Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping tell us that party-military relations has not been institutionalized yet. As a weak leader, Hu Jintao, had no full control of the military, while his two vice chairmen of CMC, Gen Guo Boxiung and Gen Xi Caihou, wielded tremendous autonomous power.
If the above observation is correct, we probably can say that there is no party-military relations under Xi; rather, it is Xi-military relations and real test will be seen after Xi steps down.
POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC CHANGES
What are the main drivers and expected outcomes of the PRC’s fifth constitutional amendment to the Constitution?
Strengthening the CPC’s control so that Xi is able to concentrate all power in his hand to reverse the old problem of fragmented power structure as a result of collective leadership, a rule instituted by Deng Xiaoping to avoid power concentration in one leader because Deng and other revolutionaries all suffered during the Cultural Revolution period when all power was concentrated in the hand of Chairman Mao.
What do the suspension of term limits for the PRC’s presidency and vice-presidency; the enshrinement of “Xi Jinping Thought” in the Constitution; and, the formalization of government “supervisory commissions” mean for the PRC?
The general direction is to concentrate and personalize all power in Xi’s hand. The Supervisory Commission should be another issue to be handled separately.
What are the most important institutional reforms?
The most important institutional reforms include giving party units more power to govern. For example, the reforms include upgrading various central leading small groups to central commissions.
Will the pace of institutional reform continue to increase or even off?
Xi has announced those reforms, and it will take time to make this very extensive re-organization work.
Will economic reforms follow a pattern of opening up and reform or the opposite?
There is no uniform direction. As for SOEs, it is generally called “mixed reform,” and protectionism measures and state dominance stay. As for big “private businesses,” such as Alibaba, Baidu and Tecent, more state control has been put in place. Regarding the financial and banking sector, which is highly anticipated by western counterparts, policy announcements to remove restrictions have been made, but we need to watch how real practice is implemented.
Will the reforms usher in what China calls a “new era” for China? Redefine U.S.-China relations? Lead to a new era characterized by friction and competition or simply greater competition?
I do not know what is the “new era”, a term frequently used in China. For U.S.-China relations, what I can see is more competition and friction between the two, though competition and friction is not likely to escalate into conflict.
What will a tightening of Communist Party control mean for Taiwan?
There is no change for the tightening of CPC control for Taiwan as, for a long time, Taiwan policy has been control by the CPC under CPC Central Leading Small Group on Taiwan Affairs (LSGTA), and the General Secretary is always the head of the LSGTA. The only difference between Xi and his predecessor is that Xi links the Taiwan issue to the Great Rejuvenation of Chinese Nation, and this linkage will inevitably push him to do something on Taiwan.
What impact will the recently introduced cross-strait measures (e.g., PRC’s 31 Measures, etc..and Taiwan’s Four Directions, Eight Strategies) have on relations?
It is China’s attempt to attract Taiwanese without engaging in consultations with the Taiwan government. Official relations between the two sides will remain cold, as China does not want to deal with the DPP, which does not endorse the “1992 Consensus.” Also, this may further divide Taiwanese society as some will benefit from the new measures whereas others cannot benefit.
Do you envision any changes in the mainland’s policy toward Taiwan?
As long as the DPP is in power, there will be no change at all. Further, it seems that Beijing has no or low expectation toward KMT, as KMT’s overall influence is declining in Taiwan. A critical point to watch is the 2018 year-end local election: if KMT can make progress in the election.
What are the most important triggers that could cause China to use force to reunite / unite Taiwan with the mainland?
The most important trigger would be a formal announcement by DPP to change the name of government. But the likelihood is very low for DPP to take that step.
What are the most effective political warfare measures the PRC might use to reunite / unite Taiwan with the mainland? And how is Taiwan countering these measures?
Economic attraction is probably the most effective measure as this may create attract talented Taiwanese people while cause brain drain for Taiwan. Nevertheless, as said earlier that Taiwanese society may be further divided and re-unification remains remote.
It is urgent for Taiwan to develop economic statecraft. Two dimensions need to be tackled: domestically to develop and build new industries to attract talented people and externally to join FTAs with major countries.