Party Like It's 1989

Why China's post-Tiananmen political model is running out of steam.

In 1989 Deng Xiaoping, then China's paramount leader, made a long-term calculation that is now receiving its most severe test. Deng knew that China's authoritarian power structure, in which officials at each level are beholden to the people above, had one glaring weak point. Who appoints the person at the very top -- where by definition there is no superior to do the appointing? In China before the twentieth century, the seed of the emperor normally performed this function (as so it is even today in North Korea). If Mao had left a healthy son, his regime might have gone this way as well. But Mao had no such heir, and the top spot was left open for jockeying among peers.

Deng, the victor of the Mao succession battle, decided not only to appoint a successor but to lay down a plan that he hoped would institutionalize succession, at least for a few generations of leaders. Deng named the then Shanghai Party Secretary Jiang Zemin, who had successfully managed his city during the nationwide student protests that culminated in the June 4th massacre in Beijing, to general secretary, and named Hu Jintao, who was from a different interest group within the power elite, to succeed Jiang. The distinguished Chinese novelist and blogger Wang Lixiong, noting that Hu's apparent successor Xi Jinping is allied with the Jiang camp, has written a shrewd analysis of Deng's long-term plan: Two elite groups, one originating with Jiang and the other with Hu, will exchange 10-year periods of center stage while the other waits in the wings. Each group -- knowing that the other will get a turn later -- will have an incentive to be civil. With luck, long-term stability will result.

But now, a few months before Xi's expected ascension to the position of Communist Party chairman, it is worth asking whether Deng solved the succession problem. Wang points out that Deng's vision calls for neither ideology nor charisma in the people at the top; such things could rock the boat and be dangerous. On the surface, the leader should display no outward disagreement and pretend one has no ambition other than to answer the call of the masses; and under the surface, serve the interests of the power elite. Bland managers like Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, interchangeable parts in the system, are ideal candidates, no matter how unsatisfying their personalities or governing styles may be to the Chinese people.  

Enter Bo Xilai, ambitious, charismatic, flamboyant, and until recently party secretary of the metropolis of Chongqing and member of the Politburo, China's elite decision-making body. Bo was adept at manipulating Mao-nostalgia as a means to convert popular resentment of corruption into political capital for himself, and, most galling to guardians of the Deng blueprint, appeared ready to skirt any institutionalized arrangement that might block his route to the top. Wang estimates that the elite establishment was ready to slap down Bo even if charges of corruption and wiretapping -- and the bizarre, and still mysterious, allegations of murder by his wife -- had not emerged. Corruption, and even wiretapping, are normal in elite Chinese politics. (A person with knowledge of high-level officials tells me that some secretly record their own conversations as defensive precautions.) Bo's crime was his violation of the unwritten rules about how to rise within the system, and his very public sacking (though officially for "serious disciplinary violations") has brought Deng's question of succession back into the foreground.

Deng's succession blueprint, and his decision to use lethal force to quell the 1989 massacre of unarmed protestors, were both shrewd, long-term political calculations. Deng's police could have cleared Tiananmen Square using billy clubs. It had been done when the government cleared the Square of a similar large demonstration on April 5, 1976 that grew out of mourning for the death of Premier Zhou Enlai; that repression, although violent, resulted in only a few injuries and apparently no deaths. Water hoses and tear gas could have worked against the students in 1989, too, but Deng chose tanks and machine guns. His calculation that a dramatic show of force would buy him about two decades of popular docility all across China was correct.  

It is very likely that Xi will ascend to party secretary as Deng intended. Meanwhile, voices from both the left and right in China have been critical of how the party elite removed Bo on technical grounds, thereby cutting off address of deeper questions about luxian, the "general direction" in which China should be headed, of which there appear to be two main possibilities. One is the emergence of a new core of authoritarian power. Many who have this possibility in mind look to China's military, but the question is deeper than that, and the pattern could emerge from a number of sources. There is a centuries-old tradition in Chinese political culture of the following combination as a formula for gaining and holding political power: a charismatic leader, a millenarian (and often egalitarian) ideology, and an authoritarian bureaucratic hierarchy that guards secrets. Pre-modern peasant rebellions, some of which overthrew dynasties, exemplify this pattern, as does the 19th century Taiping Rebellion, which borrowed an obscure form of Christianity for its ideology and nearly overthrew the Qing dynasty. Mao's revolution fits the formula closely; European Marxism was his magic egalitarian ideology, but his behavior pattern came straight from Chinese tradition. The Falun Gong movement, although cruelly suppressed, resembles this pattern, as do Bo's populist antics in Chongqing, where he briefly recaptured the Mao charisma.  

The other "general direction" would be a move toward modern democratic rule, including elections of officials, civil rights for citizens, and rule of law. The greatest challenge for China's democratization is how to bring together two levels: an elite of pro-democracy intellectuals, people like the writers and supporters of Charter 08 (a group that includes imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo), and hundreds of millions of ordinary people who have been angered by corruption, inequality, injustice, and environmental destruction. China's rulers' huge expenditure on "stability maintenance," which includes hired thugs and Internet monitors in addition to conventional police and prisons, have brought them considerable success in keeping these two levels separate. The power of the Internet, though, remains an open question. Even inside the Great Firewall, the Internet continues to bring people reliable sources of local news as well as platforms for their own public expression that they never had before. Liberal bloggers rightly see grounds for a certain optimism here. But China's transition toward a democratic system has been rocky, and will likely continue to be so.

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Is America Pivoting to Asia Fast Enough?

Defense Secretary Panetta has put some muscle behind the Obama administration's Pacific ambitions. But will a few more ships really be enough to stare down China?

Over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta delivered his first keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, an annual convention that hosts top defense officials from Asia-Pacific nations. Last year, the talk focused on allegations of Chinese aggression against Vietnamese survey vessels near the Spratly Islands, and sparks flew as China's Defense Minister Liang Guanglie spiritedly defended Beijing's conduct. This year, Liang was a no-show, and all eyes were on Panetta as he laid out the U.S. military's plans for putting some muscle behind the Obama administration's much-heralded "pivot" to Asia, unveiled by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Foreign Policy last November.

Panetta used his bully pulpit to reaffirm American resolve in maritime Asia. Despite budgetary headwinds, he said, Washington will "rebalance" forces to keep faith with regional allies like the Philippines. It will remain the self-appointed guardian of the regional commons -- the seas and skies beyond the jurisdiction of any coastal state, where seafaring nations carry on commerce and project military power. Now as for many decades, command of the commons is the substructure on which U.S. strategy is built.

In material terms, though, the slow-motion redeployment of naval forces Panetta foresees will be a rather modest affair -- the buzz among media commentators notwithstanding (one distinguished pundit took note of the change of terminology from "pivot" to "rebalancing" before concluding, "Whatever it is, it's big."). Whether it's enough to keep pace with swiftly changing circumstances in the greater Asia-Pacific region -- in particular China's rise to maritime eminence -- remains to be seen.

The Pentagon's budget draft, the defense secretary declared, marks "the first in what will be a sustained series of investments and strategic decisions to strengthen our military capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region." He advised the conference's high-level participants to judge "the full measure of our security presence and our security commitment," not just by the number of hulls in the U.S. Pacific Fleet but by the gee-whiz technology boasted by U.S. ships and warplanes. Each new generation of weaponry is far more potent than the one that came before, he rightly noted. Raw numbers can mislead.

Regional audiences should also measure the United States' resolve by its visibility in the region, he said -- showing up is half the battle. "Over the next few years," vouchsafed Panetta, "we will increase the number and the size of our exercises in the Pacific." The Navy will step up port visits not just in the Pacific but in the Indian Ocean.

But the big news was in the numbers the defense secretary affixed to his remarks. By 2020, he announced, "the Navy will reposture its forces from today's roughly 50/50 percent split between the Pacific and the Atlantic to about a 60/40 split between those oceans. That will include six aircraft carriers ... a majority of our cruisers, destroyers, Littoral Combat Ships [LCSs], and submarines." The navy's goal is to field "about 300" battle-force ships total, slightly more than the current 285-ship inventory. Panetta's plan thus equates to reassigning around 30 ships to the U.S. Pacific Fleet over the next eight years.

Will it be enough? Under the 2007 U.S. Maritime Strategy -- a Bush-era directive that the Obama administration has let stand -- the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard vow to stage "credible combat power" in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean for the foreseeable future. By that the strategy's framers mean the capacity to "impose local sea control wherever necessary ... by ourselves if we must." The Navy remains the two-ocean navy it has been since World War II. But the second ocean is now the Indian Ocean -- not the Atlantic, the Mediterranean Sea, or other familiar expanses. Washington reserves the right to take command of Asian waters at times and places of its choosing.

Which raises two related questions. One, which tenth of the Navy will move to the Pacific? Nearly 60 percent of the submarine fleet already calls Pacific seaports home, as part of a redeployment that commenced in 2006. One aircraft carrier will transfer to the Pacific Fleet. That's only a few hulls, which implies that surface combatants -- the cruisers, destroyers, and Littoral Combat Ships Panetta catalogued -- will comprise most of the newcomers to the Pacific Fleet. A contingent heavy on cruisers and destroyers -- vessels sporting the Aegis radar/fire-control system and scores of guided missiles -- would pack a far meaner punch than a force with a large proportion of LCSs.

The LCS is a lightly built, lightly armed man-of-war. It performs a single mission at a time -- anything from antisubmarine warfare to clearing sea mines. The Navy hopes to acquire 55 of them, constituting a significant share of a 300-ship Navy. Four of these small ships will forward-deploy to Singapore at any given time, while eight may reportedly be stationed in the Persian Gulf. That's a dozen total. An old Navy rule of thumb holds that the fleet needs three ships to keep one on station. One is at sea. The second is working up for deployment. The third is in a shipyard undergoing overhaul and completely unavailable.

Multiply by three, and this rough-and-ready formula implies that 30-40 LCSs will join the Pacific Fleet over time. How much combat power that represents is debatable. The LCS has important diplomatic uses but is not designed to go in harm's way against enemy battle fleets. "These are not large surface combatants that are going to sail into the South China Sea and challenge the Chinese military; that's not what they're made for," conceded Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations and America's top naval officer, in April.

As Panetta observed in Singapore, counting ships while overlooking the hardware installed in them can be deceptive. Credible combat power vis-à-vis pirates in speedboats -- the kind of mission for which the LCS is ideally suited -- is different from credible combat power against China's People's Liberation Army Navy. In short, a lighter force may be suitable for noncombat missions like counterpiracy or counterproliferation, but not for slugging it out in a sea fight. What mix of vessels the Navy earmarks for the Pacific Fleet will say much about the efficacy of Panetta's redeployment.

The second question: Why concentrate just 60 percent of the Navy in the vastness of the "Indo-Pacific" theater, when -- judging from the Maritime Strategy -- the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard service chiefs consider the Atlantic Ocean a safe expanse? Why not more?

Apart from a nagging piracy problem in the Gulf of Guinea, off the west coast of Africa, it's hard to name a serious threat in the Atlantic Fleet's area of responsibility. Why not reserve most of the lightweight LCS fleet for Atlantic service, along with an amphibious ready group to respond when natural disasters or humanitarian emergencies strike? Such a naval package would match the "permissive," relatively nonthreatening strategic environment there while freeing heavy ships for the increasingly competitive Asian theater.

As Panetta noted, it's standard practice to divide the U.S. Navy into symmetrical fleets. That is, they're roughly equal in numbers and capability. That tradition may have outlived its usefulness. A two-ocean navy need not be composed of identical fleets. And if something truly dire happens in the Atlantic, generating demand for heavy forces, Pacific Fleet units can always "swing" back through the Panama Canal.

The Pentagon, then, can rebalance the Navy by unbalancing it. The Atlantic Fleet need not be a smaller carbon copy of the Pacific Fleet. Tradeoffs and risk management are nothing new. Indeed, such an asymmetric arrangement would be a throwback to the Navy's pre-World War II history, before the nation chose to invest in a stand-alone navy for each coast.

As late as 1914, three masters of American sea power -- ex-President Theodore Roosevelt, former Naval War College President Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt -- debated where to position the unified U.S. battle fleet during World War I. They concluded it should drop anchor in the Pacific. European navies were evacuating those waters to wage war at home. Japan might seize the opportunity to make mischief. A rump force could guard U.S. interests in the Atlantic while the battle fleet plied the Pacific as a deterrent.

Debates like this one were commonplace before the age of the two-ocean Navy. The Navy's past thus may be its future. Will it? Much depends on China's naval ascent. If Beijing exercises restraint, it can soothe misgivings in Washington and Asian capitals. Barring an overbearing Chinese threat that demands a swift response, there's something to be said for the kind of slow, resolute change to the Asian strategic equilibrium Panetta envisions. It avoids unduly alarming friends, bystanders -- and prospective antagonists.

Dramatic change would also require the U.S. naval leadership to make a mental leap. After seven decades, the two-ocean construct is embedded in U.S. Navy strategy, operations, and bureaucratic routine. It's hard to jettison time-honored practices unless forced to do it.

The Navy aside, "Europe first" has a long pedigree in American foreign policy. A determined constituency defends it. In May, Council on Foreign Relations pundit Leslie Gelb celebrated -- perhaps prematurely -- the pivot's demise. Giving the order to allocate forces unevenly between the Atlantic and Pacific fleets -- beyond a 40/60 split -- would be a political decision of enormous moment for any president. It would stoke pushback like Gelb's, magnified a thousandfold. Why bother unless absolutely necessary?

From a political standpoint, it's far easier to adjust U.S. deployment patterns gradually as circumstances warrant. More abrupt -- or more menacing -- change in the Indo-Pacific would clear minds. And that would clear the obstacles to more dramatic action. China should take note.

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