It may have been Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the podium Wednesday, delivering his government’s work report to the National People’s Congress of China. But the words were clearly dictated by President Xi Jinping, and they will not sound sweet to the West.
The report, like the U.S. presidential State of the Union address, is a significant indicator of the Chinese leadership’s priorities and intentions. For the domestic audience, it included promises to “declare war against pollution” and steps to mitigate China’s yawning economic and social inequities, while giving children of migrant workers better access to public education. Measures will also be taken to improve food and drug safety, especially baby formula.
But there is no movement to empower Chinese citizens though democratic reform. As Mr. Xi recently explained to the Greek Prime Minister: “Your democracy is the democracy of Greece and ancient Rome, and that’s your tradition. We have our own traditions.”
Given Mr. Xi’s promise to further purge China of “decadent things of the bourgeoisie and capitalism,” we can expect enhanced censorship of the Internet and stronger measures to persecute the expanding ranks of principled, courageous defenders of the Chinese constitution, the rule of law, free speech and human rights for religious and ethnic minorities. Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, remains in prison, and his supporters who have not yet joined him there are either under house arrest, have disappeared altogether or are subject to severe harassment by the Chinese state.
Beyond paying lip service, Wednesday’s report proposed no genuine market reforms, such as legal guarantees to level the playing field for foreign (including Canadian) companies seeking to do business with China. Such change would counter the interests of China’s Communist ruling elite, who benefit immensely from state domination of the economy. Ninety of the deputies at this year’s Congress have declared individual assets in excess of $150-million. One, Zong Qinghou, has more than $10-billion in personal wealth. The bottom line is that while China’s system is unquestionably corrupt and economically inefficient, it works very well for those in political power. Its sustainability is another question.
It appears the coming year will not be a good one for human rights in China. Last Saturday’s horrific massacre in Kunming, where dozens of people were killed by knife-wielding Uyghurs, was referenced twice on Wednesday. The government is promising to crack down harder on ethnic minorities that resist Chinese political and cultural domination.
Unfortunately, the signal importance to these minorities of language, culture and religious rights evidently escapes China’s leadership. For many Uyghurs and Tibetans, for instance, the fight for symbols that recognize their identity – their own flag, a seat at the United Nations, a free media that tells their people’s story in their own terms, their own schools and political leaders – is a paramount concern. It is the stuff of their souls, for which some will resort to terror and violence, even laying down their lives in horrible ways. An intensified crackdown by Beijing will almost certainly lead to more ethnic hatred and bloodshed.
As new political institutions further centralize power in presidential hands and diminish the premier’s authority, Mr. Xi is increasingly assuming a role like that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. China certainly supports Mr. Putin in his grab of Crimea, and if Russia leaves the Group of Eight, the Sino-Russian alliance will strengthen commensurately.
Moreover, Wednesday’s report suggests China will step up its struggle for regional power and influence against Japan in the coming year. The government indicated ominously that “we will safeguard the victory of World War II and the postwar international order, and will not allow anyone to reverse the course of history.” Combined with a promise to increase the military’s budget by 12.2 per cent, well in excess of anticipated gross domestic product growth, this cannot bode well.
Nobody wants to see a polarization of international relations, with repressive, authoritarian regimes in China and Russia allied to challenge international institutions based on the imperative to free economic markets and the sovereign right of nations to democratic self-determination. But as Mr. Xi indicated recently, “the situation in Ukraine, which seems to be accidental, has the elements of the inevitable.”
Sometimes, these things just take on a life of their own.
Charles Burton is associate professor of political science at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., and a former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing.