The great in­ter­preter

Wasser­strom dis­cusses China’s politi­cal evo­lu­tion un­der Xi Jin­ping and tells he sees lit­tle rea­son to be hope­ful

Business Standard - - ISSUES AND INSIGHTS -

Ahead of China’s widely scru­ti­nised reshuf­fle of its se­nior lead­er­ship last month, Jef­frey Wasser­strom was asked by CNN to name the five most pow­er­ful peo­ple in China. Such lists, much beloved of Time and Forbes, seem nowhere more silly than in China, akin to judg­ing a for­eign-lan­guage film blind-folded. In­deed, over the past few years, the in­ner work­ings of the Com­mu­nist Party have be­come even more im­pen­e­tra­ble as Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping has pur­sued an of­ten an­ar­chic anti-cor­rup­tion cam­paign. With his char­ac­ter­is­tic di­rect­ness, Wasser­strom, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Irvine and the au­thor of em­i­nently read­able books on mod­ern China, de­clined to play along, telling CNN that the five peo­ple to watch were “Xi, Xi, Xi, Xi and Xi.”

Even though the com­ment was made a fort­night be­fore the new stand­ing com­mit­tee of the Polit­buro was re­vealed, Wasser­strom’s proved to be the most pre­scient sum­ma­tion of the 19th Party Congress well be­fore Xi, 64, made an epic three-and-a half hour speech and strode the stage on Oc­to­ber 24 with the six other mem­bers of the stand­ing com­mit­tee, none of whom seem des­tined to suc­ceed him. The el­e­va­tion of “Xi Jin­ping thought” to a place in the Chi­nese con­sti­tu­tion cod­i­fied his po­si­tion as the most pow­er­ful Chi­nese leader since Mao.

The sub­ject of Wasser­strom’s lunch-time talk — in­creased cen­sor­ship in China — at the For­eign Cor­re­spon­dent’s Club in Hong Kong was likely set months in ad­vance. The en­su­ing dis­cus­sion seemed less sub­stan­tial and top­i­cal than a talk by a lead­ing Si­nol­o­gist ought to have been in early Novem­ber. Wasser­strom’s gifts as a his­to­rian with a keen an­tenna for ev­ery­day life still pro­vided re­veal­ing in­sights. He re­called how when he “in­tro­duced two peo­ple in Bei­jing in the 1990s, they im­me­di­ately told a joke about Li Peng (the un­pop­u­lar former premier of China through much of the nineties)” that in­volved an IQ mea­sur­ing ma­chine and the size of Li’s head. Few would have the courage to do so openly to­day. He ex­plained how China has three ge­ogra­phies of cen­sor­ship. Hong Kong, be­cause of an in­ter­na­tional covenant that gov­erned its re­turn to China in 1997, is the freest. Politi­cal con­trols in Xin­jiang and Ti­bet are the most se­vere; own­ing a book by or about the Dalai Lama in Ti­bet is likely to get one pun­ished. In the rest of China, the state, with en­thu­si­as­tic help from tech­nol­ogy gi­ants Ten­cent and Alibaba, is ex­ert­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary elec­tronic sur­veil­lance. By 2020, the party will cre­ate a so­cial score of each ci­ti­zen’s on­line be­hav­iour that may be used to deny out­bound visas or pro­mo­tions, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent ar­ti­cle in Wired mag­a­zine. All this un­der­lines the irony that lit­tle more than a decade ago peo­ple pre­dicted that “the in­ter­net would trans­form China. We should keep in mind the un­pre­dictabil­ity of the world”, ob­serves Wasser­strom.

Wasser­strom and I ate our lunch — rub­bery chicken in teriyaki sauce for me, sea bass for him — about ten feet away from each other. He was sit­ting on a stage at a ta­ble for club com­mit­tee mem­bers. Af­ter lunch was over, I ar­ranged to meet Wasser­strom for tea at the Fringe Club next door. We made our way down a nar­row iron stair­case to a café in a vault that a hun­dred years ago was used to store ice. I first asked him about what seemed a con­scious ef­fort at the Party Congress not to sig­nal the anoint­ing of a suc­ces­sor to Pres­i­dent Xi, who will com­plete a se­cond term in 2022.

Wasser­strom replied that the con­ven­tion of a suc­ces­sor be­ing tele­graphed well in ad­vance is rel­a­tively re­cent. Deng Xiaop­ing, the fa­ther of China’s eco­nomic re­forms, dis­pensed with two po­ten­tial suc­ces­sors deemed too lib­eral be­fore set­tling on Jiang Zemin, who served as party gen­eral sec­re­tary for more than a decade and was fol­lowed by Hu Jin­tao for 10 years. What has made Xi’s reign dif­fer­ent is a re­lent­less mow­ing down not only of op­po­nents, but also of those seen as po­ten­tial suc­ces­sors. Sun Zheng­cai, hith­erto the youngest Polit­buro mem­ber at 54, was stripped of all his ti­tles just a month be­fore the Party Congress. (In­ves­ti­ga­tors ac­cused Sun of cor­rup­tion, but also of be­ing “lazy and in­ac­tive and se­verely bu­reau­cratic,” a star­tling in­dict­ment for any­one ac­cus­tomed to Lu­tyens’ Delhi’s in­er­tia.) “Ba­si­cally, we don’t know (what comes next). Xi is a black box,” he says, but as the con­ver­sa­tion turns to the ar­rest of prom­i­nent hu­man rights lawyers in China and a throt­tling of the his­tor­i­cally more lib­eral press in Guang­dong, the prov­ince just across the bor­der that I cov­ered for three years un­til 2013, his tone turns som­bre. He is trou­bled by the ero­sion of politi­cal free­doms in Hong Kong, which un­der the terms of its re­turn to China in 1997 en­joys a sep­a­rate ju­di­ciary and govern­ment un­til 2047.

In a con­tro­ver­sial case, the Hong Kong govern­ment, be­lieved to have been prod­ded by Bei­jing, pushed for the re­trial of the leader of the mas­sive democ­racy Um­brella Move­ment protests in Hong Kong in 2014, who was sen­tenced to six months in jail, just months be­fore he turned 21. Hong Kong’s high­est court in­ter­vened in late Oc­to­ber to grant him and the other lead­ers bail; the ex­pec­ta­tion is that they will not serve out the rest of their sen­tence. Wasser­strom sees this lat­est twist as a pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment of Hong Kong’s spe­cial free­doms: “I can’t think of any other Com­mu­nist coun­try where a court can op­er­ate (independently) in this way.” Un­like in the first decade af­ter the han­dover, how­ever, when China it­self ap­peared to be be­com­ing more lib­eral and Hong Kong was still cru­cial to China’s de­vel­op­ment, he now sees the flow of con­trols and ideas mov­ing the other way. When Wasser­strom, 56, first trav­elled to Hong Kong as a Berke­ley stu­dent in 1987, it seemed “a com­plete de­par­ture from China, like West Ber­lin. Now, the worry is Hong Kong could be like West Ber­lin if it had been ab­sorbed by East Ger­many”.

This gen­er­ally op­ti­mistic and very read­able his­to­rian mem­o­rably char­ac­terised Com­mu­nist China as more re­sem­bling Al­dous Hux­ley’s Brave New World — a mostly sat­is­fied pop­u­la­tion dis­tracted by en­tre­pre­neur­ial op­por­tu­ni­ties and the neon ad­ver­tis­ing docu­d­rama of its fu­tur­is­tic cities — rather than the Or­wellian night­mare of 1984. He re­counts be­ing in an in­ter­net café in Bei­jing in 1999 on the an­niver­sary of the anti-im­pe­ri­al­ist May 4 move­ment led by stu­dents in 1919. Wasser­strom no­ticed he was the only one check­ing the net for mes­sages about the an­niver­sary. The young­sters around him were play­ing video games.

Circa 2017, he is more gloomy. “I don’t see any­thing to point to that is hope­ful at the mo­ment,” Wasser­strom says of Xi’s crack­down on the lim­ited politi­cal free­doms Chi­nese en­joyed and the ten­dency by the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to give him a “free pass” on hu­man rights is­sues. He is dis­tressed that there was “such lim­ited crit­i­cism of the first No­bel Peace prize win­ner (Liu Xiaobo who died in July) dy­ing in cap­tiv­ity since the Nazi era”. He also sees Xi as more mil­i­taris­tic than his pre­de­ces­sors. “The Amer­i­can fear of the Chi­nese mil­i­tary is overblown. The coun­tries that should be con­cerned are China’s neigh­bours.” I ask if that in­cludes In­dia, my tea-cup rat­tling a lit­tle with the stand­off at Dok­lam a re­cent mem­ory. But, he means China’s neigh­bours in the South China Sea. Wasser­strom is struck by the man­ner in which his­tory is be­ing used in con­tem­po­rary China. As in In­dia, hy­per-na­tion­al­ism now trumps eco­nomic ide­ol­ogy. (Wolf War­rior 2, a blind­ingly vi­o­lent film about a covert Chi­nese res­cue mis­sion in Africa that de­feats mer­ce­nar­ies led by an Amer­i­can, was a huge hit this sum­mer.) “The Com­mu­nist Party needs to have sto­ries to tell: ‘Un­der our watch China be­came more re­spected and its ter­ri­to­ries got larger’,” Wasser­strom says. “The party to­day talks about its guer­rilla fight­ers against the Ja­panese, not about or­ga­niz­ing fac­tory protests.” Wasser­strom’s sunny Cal­i­for­nian de­meanour not­with­stand­ing, the turn in our con­ver­sa­tion made the café feel about as chilly as an ice vault as we de­part.

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