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Communist China keeps a grip on the gun

Jeremy Clarke |  14 October 2012

'China' by Chris JohnstonThese have been difficult times to be a diplomat. First there was the death in Libya of the US ambassador, Chris Stevens; then there were protests in Sydney outside the US consulate. Recently the streets of China have been filled with protestors outside the Japanese embassy.

Whereas diplomats in Sydney and Benghazi might have felt scared, this was most likely not the case in Beijing. That says much about the political situation in China, both in general and especially this year.

Many people know the first part of one of Mao's most famous dictums: 'Power comes from the barrel of the gun'. The truth of this has been shown often in post-1949 China, including during the democracy protests in Tiananmen in 1989. Fewer people know the second part of Mao's dictum: that 'the Party must control the gun'.

The Communist Party of China's approach to governance rests on maintaining control, on ensuring that the Party has the ultimate authority and the means to exert it. Allowing the army's guns to fall into the hands of others, or of having their own grip on those guns weakened, is the ultimate threat to the Party's longevity — and it knows it.

Thus 1989 was seen as a problem needing a drastic solution because it appeared that the Party was losing control. The use of guns allowed the Party to maintain power in the heat of the moment. It also bought them time to implement economic reform policies even more strongly and thereby satisfy many of the complaints of the protestors, ultimately restoring the Party's long-term control.

This year two events have challenged the Party's grip on the gun, and raised a more fundamental question about who is actually in control of the Party.

First has been the lead-up to the Party's 18th National Party Congress. At this meeting, on 8 November, the installation of the next generation of leaders will take place. This leadership transition has seen much jostling behind the scenes and brutal intra-party politics, as faction takes on faction, and patrons call in favours.

Usually most of this is beyond the view of outsiders but this year the amazing case of former high-ranking leader Bo Xilai has brought these internecine fights to the fore. The fact that the Party has now convicted his wife, tried his police chief Wang Lijun and expelled Bo from the Party to face charges means the infighting has reached a kind of resolution. The grip has firmed again. Or, at least, Party leaders are once more trying to show a united face.

Second, the Party has again been able to play the patriotic card as a convenient distraction, thanks to the flare-up over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. In this instance, the card was first played by the Japanese; it is unclear why the Tokyo governor acted provocatively when he did, but at any rate, Japan purchased the islands and relations between Japan and China reached a new low. This led thousands to protest on the streets of China's cities.

What was most noticeable in Beijing was that there were also thousands of police, soldiers, fire brigades and public security officials on the street. For all that protestors held signs that read 'Choose war with Japan', 'Get lost Japanese dogs' or more simply 'Kill, Kill, Kill', there were police corralling groups of protestors along the streets, standing guard in front of businesses and protecting the embassy. There was no loss of control.

The Party could allow a street protest because it unified the people against a hated enemy (the wounds of the Second Sino-Japanese War run deep) and because it took focus away from their internal troubles. But it would not allow the protests to get out of hand as that could spiral too quickly into an assault on the Party's grip on the gun.

Thus for a Japanese embassy official these were difficult times but not deadly ones. For the Party they were yet more challenges in the difficult leadership transition, which might not even be resolved by the Congress.

Jeremy ClarkeFr Jeremy Clarke SJ is an Australian Province Jesuit and an Assistant Professor of History at Boston College. He is on research leave in Beijing. 



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Submitted comments

An interesting , thought provoking article . It will be interesting to see how things play out for the National Party Congress in November. Stability in PRC is important for Australia and the world.

Barry O'Keefe 15 October 2012

My understanding was that the protests were occurring before the islands were bought from their private owners and that the purchase was an attempt to de-escalate the problem. While still in private hands, it was possible that exploratory drilling could occur and that would have been even more provocative. By purchasing the islands, the Japanese government ensured that nothing would happen in terms of the alleged resources there, presumably until the issue was resolved. But of course, such subtlety is beyond most of those who were protesting.

ErikH 15 October 2012

Living in a part of Sydney that is very Chinese- Australian, I sense the determination of Chinese parents to support education of their child(ren) and I wonder if this is a reflection of the meeritocracy of Chinese society extending back generations. A recent book about Matteo Ricci by Po-Hsu made note of the rigorous national examinations in the late 1500s. My question to Fr Clark is what will be the effect of the Communist Party's attempt to transfer 'the barrel of the gun' to their own children, aka 'the princelings'. Do you believe Chinese academic meritocracy can be so easily subverteed, especially when the ordinary Chinese student does so well, and studies so hard?

Dr Mark Hanley 26 October 2012

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