This past Thursday, the Reiff Center had the pleasure of hosting a discussion entitled: “China on the World State: Understanding China’s Military Rise and Human Rights Record,” and welcomed two esteemed guest panelists to Christopher Newport University. Our first panelist, Dr. Larry Wortzel, is a former Army intelligence officer and eight-term Commissioner of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission of the United States Congress. Dr. Wortzel’s portion of the discussion was devoted to China’s development in its military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
China is poised to become potentially become the second world superpower. It has the second largest economy in the world, boasting a GDP of over 10 trillion US dollars, and at the current rate of growth is on track to become the largest economy. It has a growing projection of power in the international community, especially in South East Asia. To accommodate this projection of power, the military has transformed and has adequately evolved to fit the needs of modern warfare. Historically, the Chinese military has had four missions: reinforce the military’s loyalty to the Communist Party, ensure China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and domestic security, safeguard Chinas expanding national interests, and finally, ensuring world peace. However, in 2012, President Xi Jinping added one more mission for the army. He declared that the People’s Liberation Army must work to recover from what
he calls a “century of humiliation”. In 1842, the Qing dynasty of China relinquished control of ports to the British under the Treaty of Nanking to end the Opium War. It was then invaded again in 1901 by the Eight-Nation Alliance in response to the Boxer Rebellion, and invaded twice by the Japanese in the First and Second Sino-Japanese Wars. In the 21st century, China is focusing on projecting its power and protecting from potential foreign invasions.
China’s foreign military interests lay in the Pacific. It cannot directly project military power in the east due to the five “stans,” i.e. Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. China fears that aggression towards these countries would anger Russia, who still has close ties to the former Soviet Republics. Its focuses on Pacific defense are known in the United States as Anti Access Air Denial, and in China as Counter Intervention. It should be noted that these defenses are for “counter intervention,” rather than foreign engagement. Yet the People’s Republic of China (PRC) could use these defenses against Taiwan, which it insists it will go to war against if the country declares national independence. This would legally obligate the United States under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide “arms of defensive character” to Taiwan, if not lead the US to directly enter a war with China if it felt the need to do so. China also claims several islands that the United States ceded to Japan after WWII. But the major contention over land is in the South China Sea, within the so called “9-Dash Line”. The PRC claims all territories within this line, and has so far seized control of the Scarborough Shoal, the Paracel Islands, and the Macclesfield Bank, as well as 3000 acres of
water, which have been turned into airfields, in an initiative some have ironically dubbed the, “Great Wall of Sand”. These advances are disputed both by Taiwan, who has historical claims over the South China Sea. The area as a whole is an overlap of disputed Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), which the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines as expanding up to 200 nautical miles from a country’s coast. This zone guarantees access to marine resources, but reserves the surface waters for international use. Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the PRC all have overlapping EEZ claims. The PRC’s territorial claims of islands in the South China Sea would also limit the navigability of other country’s ships to twelve nautical miles outside PRC territory without permission. The United States and China both dispute the former’s involvement in China’s EEZ. The US is not a member of the UNCLOS, yet it claims to reserve the right to conduct military surveillance in the area. China has condemned these operations, saying that it would not permit “coercive action that seeks to militarize the South China Sea region,” or the “abuse” of the US policy of Freedom of Navigation. Beijing has stated that if US military operations continue in the South Chinese Sea, it will “increase and strengthen the building up of our relevant abilities”.
Internally, China’s military has transitioned from seven to five “theaters of operation”. This is a large part of an ongoing effort by President Xi Jinping to reform the corrupt PLA. Earlier this year, President Jinping shuffled the military command of each theater to discourage the bribery that had been taking place at the top levels of the military, and to “increase China’s capability to undertake joint operations”. This move has also has put the United States military on edge. As of now, nobody, baring Beijing and PLA command, are certain how far some theater’s operations extend, and whether they could be used against the United States. Furthermore, the PLA has been modernized in recent years to have the capabilities of potentially countering US military operations. Yet if this happens, it will not be for a few years, as the reassigning of military command will for the most part paralyze the PLA for a few years while it acclimates.
The second panelist of the night, Dr. Yawei Liu, is the Director of the China Program at the Carter Center. His presentation related the beginning of his presentation to China’s military by discussing the protests of Tiananmen Square, which he called an intersection of Chinese military and human rights. The treatment of the student protestors by the PLA was the last time the military was used to put down dissent, and since then, the world has wondered if, or how, China will become a democracy. In about four years, the Communist Party of China (CPC) may become the longest lasting political party to rule in the world, outlasting the PRI in Mexico. Yet the CPC does not seem to be diminishing in power. Xi Jinping has stated that China’s goal is to become a, “modern socialist country that is prosperous, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious” by 2050, and will have national elections that year. No Chinese leader has ever verbally opposed the ideas of democracy and human rights being applicable to China, but only one, Wen Jiabao, the former Premier of the People’s Republic of China, articulated an action plan for achieving democracy. Despite this, China is doing so well as an economy that many dissenters of democracy believe that the Beijing Consensus model of government, or a free market economy without a liberal democracy, may replace democracy as the ideal of governing in many countries.
If Beijing does plan on transitioning to a democracy by 2050, the signs of progression towards that goal are sparse. In 2011, the Standing Committee Chair of the National People’s Congress, Wu Bangguo, famously announced a set of interdictions, referred to as the “five no’s”, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. They were “No system in which multiple parties govern in turn, no diversification of guiding ideologies, no separation of the ‘three powers’ or creation of a bicameral system, no federalization, and no privatization.”. The only hint of democracy in China is the competitive village election system, which allows for direct election and representation. At the national level, candidates elected to the National People’s Congress are first filtered by the Communist Party, which in turn
actively manipulates the elections. The same goes for Presidential Elections, which are voted in Congress. President Xi Jinping was elected in 2013 by a slim margin of 2952 votes for to 1 against.
A transition to democracy in China would be a long, difficult process. Some believe that China could function as a bottom-up democratic meritocracy, with more free, competitive, and functional elections at the village level, gradually influencing the national level, till China peacefully transitions to a more democratic form of government. Daniel A. Bell, author of The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, argues this point, and adds that American democracy is ineffective in that the best leaders are often not chosen. Though the idea of a vertical democratic meritocracy is good in theory for China, it is simply not the reality of the political process. The pitfall of China’s government that prevents any real democratic practice is that there is virtually no free oversight of the CPC. The Party controls media, and dissenting opinion is blocked by the Great Firewall of the Chinese Internet. The people as a whole are disenfranchised at the national level. And minority rights are still not guaranteed. Perhaps most concerning to any hopes of a democracy is the fear the Xi Jinping will consolidate power at the expense of open society reform and economic success, which has been waning in recent months relative to the massive previous growth it has experienced in the past. This notion of politics over economics could bring about problems that have plagued other dictatorships, and dispel the notion that Chinese meritocracy could be a viable governmental model for the future. Dr. Liu wondered himself at the end of this presentation if the CPC could last much longer under its current governing policies. Tellingly, on April 2nd, both the Economist and Time magazine published covers likening Xi Jinping to Mao Zedong, and that same day, both websites were blocked by the Chinese government. Under President Jinping, Chinese democracy is nowhere in sight.
On behalf of the Reiff Center at Christopher Newport University, I would like to thank Dr. Larry Wortzel and Dr. Yawei Liu for speaking to the students and staff of this university.
Disclaimer: “The views expressed in this post solely reflect the author’s opinion, and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Reiff Center or Christopher Newport University.”