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The new geopolitics of China’s climate leadership

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Since 2014, China has embarked on a new era of confident, independent international policy activism under President Xi Jinping – the origins of which can be traced back to the Chinese Communist Party’s 2014 Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs. That conference marked the end of Deng Xiaoping’s 30-year-old dictum of “hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead.”

The origins of China’s newfound desire to play a leadership role in the global fight against climate change can also be traced back to 2014. This includes Xi’s landmark joint announcement on climate change with President Barack Obama less than three weeks before the Party’s Central Work Conference.

Since then, China has shown a steady determination to demonstrate its own climate credentials, which increasingly has become a bright spot in China’s position on the world stage. Yet, Xi’s announcement this September that China will aim to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060 marked an important new milestone. For the first time, China has signalled it is not just willing to be a participant in the international fight against climate change, but that climate leadership has crossed the geopolitical Rubicon in Beijing’s eyes. In other words, it has become a central priority for China irrespective of the steps taken by other countries, including the United States.

This marks an important new era for the geopolitics of China’s climate leadership, but also one in which Beijing must understand that it will be judged more sharply than ever before, including by its developing country compatriots. This is especially the case as President-elect Joe Biden takes office in the United States with a wide-ranging and ambitious programme to tackle climate change both at home and abroad.

To best navigate these newfound expectations and responsibilities, China will need to significantly bolster its short-term efforts to reduce emissions through its 2030 Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement, especially with regards to its future use of coal. Piecemeal steps forward in the short-term will be insufficient in the eyes of the international community. At the same time, China must also demonstrate a propensity to achieve Xi’s vision of carbon neutrality as close to 2050 as possible and start to seriously re-orient its support for carbon-intensive infrastructure overseas through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Without these steps, any goodwill generated by Xi’s recent announcement risks quickly becoming a thorn in China’s side because of the geopolitical benchmarks it has now set for itself.

Ecological civilisation

While it was President Hu Jintao that first used the phrase “ecological civilisation” in 2007 to describe China’s own brand of environmentalism, it is Xi that has made it part of the Party’s lexicon and a key pillar for the country’s development.

In doing so, Xi has deliberately sought to differentiate China’s approach from traditional Western notions of liberal environmentalism. This includes by underscoring the economic importance of environmental action, as evidenced by his regular pronouncement that “clear waters and green mountains are as valuable as mountains of gold and silver”, a phrase Xi first used in 2005 when he was Party Secretary in Zhejiang province.

Until now, domestic imperatives have been driving China’s creeping environmentalism. The single greatest inspiration for the change in behaviour between the China the world grappled with at the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen in 2009 and the China that was instrumental in the securing of the Paris Agreement in 2015, was rising concerns amongst the Chinese population on the level of air pollution in their cities. Declaring a “war on pollution” during the opening of the 18th National Party Congress in March 2014 underscored this.

Popular opposition to toxic air pollution levels in China’s cities played a central role in the country’s increasing engagement with environmental issues (Image: Alamy)

However, that same year, Xi’s rhetoric also started to emphasise the international imperatives of climate action. This included his declaration that “addressing climate change and implementation of sustainable development is not what we are asked to do, but what we really want to do and we will do well”. Nevertheless, China remained cautious, as demonstrated by Xi’s decision not to attend a climate summit convened by former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in September 2014, which was billed as the most important moment in the lead-up to Paris.

Nevertheless, in 2015 and 2016, Xi embarked on an intensive environmental reform effort within the Party, including through embedding the concept of ecological civilisation in the 13th Five Year Plan and pitting it alongside the concepts of “The Chinese Dream” and “The Two ­Centenary Goals”, including to double China’s GDP by 2020. China’s vision of ecological civilisation was also a central concept in the 2015 NDC it tabled as its first commitment under the Paris Agreement.

This helps demonstrate why, by January 2017, just days before the inauguration of President Donald Trump who was elected on a platform of withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement, Xi was prepared to use an address to the World Economic Forum in Davos to signal China would nevertheless stay the course with the Agreement. The significance of Xi’s statement at the time should not be underestimated. If China had chosen to use Trump’s formal confirmation in June of that year of his intention to withdraw from the Agreement as an opportunity to obfuscate on its obligations – or worse to also seek to withdraw from the Agreement altogether – it is unlikely that the Agreement would remain intact today. For that, the world owes China a debt of gratitude.

A new era

Xi’s announcement this September that China will achieve carbon neutrality before 2060 marks an important new era for the geopolitics of China’s climate leadership. Xi’s announcement was his most important speech on climate change since his January 2017 address in Davos and his November 2014 joint announcement with Obama.

For most of the Trump era, China’s approach to the international fight against climate change had been akin to that of a substitute teacher. Beijing had never signalled a desire to do more than simply cover the field in Washington’s absence. Important initiatives such as the establishment of the Ministerial on Climate Action (MoCA) alongside the EU and Canada were more at the behest of Brussels than Beijing. And for Beijing, this was an easy win until the breakdown in relations with Ottawa beginning with the arrest of Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou in late 2018, which made the optics of co-chairing this forum difficult.

However, September’s announcement demonstrated that China’s diplomatic calculation has now changed. With a deadline looming next year for countries to respond to the Paris Agreement’s invitation to develop long-term decarbonisation strategies for mid-century, and to enhance their short-term climate targets (NDCs), few expected China to make any serious pronouncements on either before the outcome of November’s US presidential election was clear. And in the event of a Biden victory, Beijing would still have a sweet spot between November and January to make announcements to head off future pressure from a Democratic administration in Washington. The fact Xi decided China should nevertheless be prepared to adopt – for the first time – a clear pathway to decarbonise its economy was therefore hugely significant.

The fact that Xi’s announcement also made no reference to China’s traditionally hard-held bifurcation between developed and developing country responsibilities, or indeed linked China’s actions in any way to the action of others, was also hugely significant. Xi’s dismissal of the Europeans’ attempts to extract such an announcement just a week earlier during a virtual EU–China leaders’ meeting underscores he clearly now sees greater geopolitical value in China’s preparedness to signal its desire to act alone compared to the domestic value of being seen to use minor steps by China as a lever for extracting stronger commitments from the developed world in return.

New geopolitical benchmarks

The challenge for China now is to live up to the new geopolitical benchmarks it has set for itself in the eyes of the international community. This includes among its G77 developing country compatriots, including the many island nations whose very existence hinges more than anything else now on the actions of developing countries such as China, as well as India (with Xi’s announcement, India is now clearly forecast – for the first time – to become the world’s largest emitter). In other words, China will now be judged on an increasingly level playing field to the United States, European Union, and regional powers like Japan, rather than simply rewarded for coming to the table.

At the same time, China will need to be conscious that with President-elect Biden’s inauguration in January, any goodwill it has built up in recent years for staying the course with the Paris Agreement will quickly be eclipsed by the weight of Biden’s own ambitions. This includes Biden’s determination to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, aggressively ramp up US short-term action through a new 2030 emissions reduction target, and to have completely decarbonised the domestic energy system by 2035.

US President-elect Joe Biden stands with his national security team, including John Kerry, who has been appointed Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change (Image: Joshua Roberts / Alamy)

China would be wise not to cut against this, including given the troubles with the wider bilateral relationship. It is in both countries’ interests to rebuild the cooperative relationship on climate change they established under the Obama administration, and which Biden – and his anointed Special Presidential Envoy John Kerry – played a key role in creating. That is because, from Biden’s perspective, any attempt to address climate change without China doing more will inherently remain limited.

From Beijing’s perspective, a cooperative relationship will help take the heat out of US attempts to extract additional efforts by China, including with regards to its domestic use of coal and the Belt and Road Initiative – as well as potentially the implementation of carbon border tax adjustment policies and alike. Through a new framework of managed strategic competition, this can also be achieved while the overall relationship remains difficult. Indeed, climate change can be the topic that protects against the “decoupling” narrative across the board, and which builds a cooperative bridge to the United States and the broader West.

This will require a sophisticated approach by China, including to overcome its traditionally tin-eared response to the views of the international community on its climate credentials, and instead to demonstrate a willingness to understand genuine areas of geopolitical weaknesses on climate and to seek to overcome them.

Mid-century ambition

First, China would be well advised to confirm that Xi’s September announcement will cover all greenhouse gas emissions and not just carbon dioxide. According to modelling by Xie Zhenhua’s Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development at Tsinghua University, and a separate study by the Asia Society Policy Institute and Climate Analytics, this would put the goal squarely in-line with the global temperature limits set by the Paris Agreement, especially if coupled with deeper cuts in the short term to avoid higher cumulative emissions over time.

Ideally, China would also join the Biden administration and European Union, plus every other G7 economy, including Japan (and now also South Korea), in committing to reach this goal closer to 2050. Few governments have a propensity for effective and centralised long-term planning as China. The celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 2049 provides a ripe milestone for Beijing to have in mind.

The five-year anniversary of the Paris Agreement provides the perfect opportunity for Xi to further clarify China’s position, ameliorating criticism from some quarters of his September announcement while cementing a second wave of praise for what is at its heart a very bold step. At the very least, China could use this as an opportunity to formally deposit its long-term decarbonisation strategy with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in line with Xi’s September announcement – but unless this is met with at least some indication of a genuine attempt to build on this deadline over time, it risks merely being met with an increased level of scepticism by the international community.

Short-term ambition

At the same time, China must be prepared to do much more to reduce emissions in the short-term, including through depositing a new NDC next year in the lead-up to COP26 in Glasgow. While President-elect Biden will begin the process of rejoining the Paris Agreement on his first day in office, the United States is unlikely to be able to produce a 2030 NDC before the northern summer. And once it has, this is likely to represent a significant first restorative step, potentially by elevating the Obama administration’s pledge to reduce emissions by 26-28% by 2025 (on 2005 levels) to somewhere between a 38 and 54% cut in emissions by 2030.

China would therefore do well to heed that timeline and not seek to simply make piecemeal advancements to its own NDC before the end of 2020. While the literalists in China’s diplomatic corps will be conscious of the Paris Agreement’s original deadline of 2020 for the updating of NDCs (prior to the impact of Covid-19 and the delaying of COP26), the reality is the international community will judge the country more harshly for hastily delivering an insufficient NDC. And what is already clear is that Xi’s other announcement in September that China will now aim to peak emissions “before” – as opposed to “around” – 2030 will simply not cut it in the eyes of the international community who will be looking for China to reach this milestone by 2025, while also taking action to address the other three quantitative targets contained in its existing NDC.

Notwithstanding the flexibility provided by the likely timing of the Biden administration’s own NDC, it is also in China’s own interests to wait to table a new 2030 NDC until the main elements of the 14th Five Year Plan (2021-25) have been finalised in the first quarter of next year. By all accounts, this is likely to see improvements to China’s carbon intensity and energy efficiency measures, as well as with regards to the domestic use of coal.

But in order to be credible, China must use the Five-Year Plan process, including the production of a “Special Plan for Combating Climate Change and the CO2 Peaking Action Plan”, as well as the “Plan for Energy Development and the Plan for Electricity Development” – to commit to a cap of 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions by 2025, and to control non-carbon dioxide emissions at two billion tonnes. This would require China to also commit to limiting total coal power capacity to no more than 1,150 gigawatts in 2025 and work towards a complete phase-out of all domestic coal generation by 2040. This would mean China would also cross the symbolically important threshold of reducing the share of coal in total energy consumption to below 50% before the end of 2025.

The Five Year Plan also allows China to ground the NDC in a government-wide process, rather than simply an effort contained to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE). In other words, waiting for the Five Year Plan would provide for a stronger NDC and one with more domestic buy-in to deliver it. It would also mean the NDC can help reinforce, rather than be seen to detract from, Xi’s vision of carbon neutrality.

However, much of this will rest even more immediately on the decisions China continues to take as part of its economic response to Covid-19. The approval of a large number of new coal-fired power plants this year does not augur well for ensuring there is a green economic recovery, even with Beijing’s investment in so called “new infrastructure” such as electric vehicle charging stations and rail upgrades. Indeed, the total capacity of coal fired power generation now under development in China is larger than the remaining operating fleet in the United States.

The Belt and Road Initiative

A third area that will require a sophisticated reset by Beijing concerns the Belt and Road Initiative, and especially China’s support for large amounts of carbon-intensive infrastructure around the world, including coal-fired power stations. By some estimates, China is currently involved in the construction of more than 100 gigawatts of coal-fired power stations around the world, including in South East Asia, Africa, and even Eastern Europe.

While some would counter that China’s hand in support of coal actually extends far less than that of Japan’s or South Korea’s, this is not the case when considering foreign direct investment alongside development financing and the exporting of equipment and personnel. In fact, most estimates would put the ledger at least two-thirds in the direction of China, and only likely to get worse with Japan announcing in July that it would not finance any new coal projects abroad. South Korea’s parliament is also looking to put in place a ban on their own financing, including after the state-owned utility Kepco announced it would scrap two coal projects in the Philippines and South Africa.

Hassyan coal power project in Dubai, the first power station in the Middle East to be built with Chinese investment (Image: Alamy)

Beijing should be careful not to underestimate the extent to which this has the potential to significantly impinge the BRI – the jewel in the crown of Xi’s foreign policy – in the years ahead. Already moods are shifting in many recipient countries. The awarding of the prestigious environmental Goldman Prize to Chibeze Ezekiel for organising his fellow Ghanaians against plans for a Chinese-supported coal plant in the African nation provided a powerful example of this. And this attitudinal shift will only accelerate once additional and more accessible sources of clean energy finance become available.

President-elect Biden has not only pledged to shine an uncomfortable light on China’s offshoring of emissions through the BRI on the campaign trail, but his commitment to massively ramp up America’s overseas clean energy investments also has the potential to result in a sophisticated diplomatic squeeze on China. If China does not want to be seen to be moving only at the behest of US pressure, it would be well advised to begin to make these reforms earnestly.

While the recent effort ostensibly overseen by MEE to establish a “traffic light” system for new BRI projects is to be welcome, it will require more teeth to be effective. Ultimately, the most powerful thing China could do would be to follow Japan and South Korea’s lead and halt its overseas support for coal entirely. The economic hard heads in China will find that difficult, especially as the country winds down its domestic coal sector and seeks to redeploy its human and financial capital in the sector elsewhere. But the extent to which China can at least extend many of the laws and regulations it has put in place domestically in recent years to equally apply to its overseas projects will be an important first step.

Xi’s announcement in September marked a new era for the geopolitics of China’s climate leadership. Gone are the days when China would be lauded for simply coming to the table, or for holding the table together in the absence of the United States. The decisions that China takes now as the world’s largest emitter will be judged increasingly on the same playing field as those that the United States is prepared to take, as well as the rest of the international community.

Whether China’s leaders understand this new geopolitical paradigm remains to be seen. The decisions they take in the period ahead with regards to its 2030 NDC and towards Xi’s vision of reaching carbon neutrality will be the clearest indicators of this, as will the reforms they are prepared to put in place around the Belt and Road Initiative. Piecemeal steps forward will no longer cut it, including in the eyes of their developing country compatriots.

Xi’s legacy as a climate leader in China may be assured. But his legacy as a climate leader internationally is not yet guaranteed. This is a key international opportunity for China and a key international opportunity for Xi. It is also one which aligns with the country’s domestic interests of upgrading its economy, cleaning up its environment, and shoring up its energy security.

From our partner chinadialogue

Kevin Rudd was prime minister of Australia from 2007 to 2010 and then again in 2013. He is president of the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York and chair of the Global Partnership on Sanitation and Water for All.

East Asia

Russia and the end of North Korea’s Tong-mi bong-nam strategy

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North Korea’s decades old strategy of ‘Tong-mi bong-nam’ (Engage the United States, Block South Korea) and its rare variant ( ‘Tong-nam bong-mi’ or Engage South Korea, Block the US) of breaking the Washington-Seoul axis by alternatively cooperating with one in order to isolate the other so as to manoeuvre its way through it has seen a shift recently as Pyongyang moves closer to Russia.

Tensions have been high on the Korean Peninsula since the election of the conservative President Yoon Seok-youl, who has adopted a “Kill Chain” strategy to preemptively target the Kim regime in the face of an imminent nuclear threat. Cooperation has been restricted to calls for reunion of families across the border along with disarmament linked “audacious”  economic aid in order to denuclearise Pyongyang, which stands at the cusp of its worst economic crisis post the pandemic. However, surprisingly, North Korea has not only rejected the offer but has declared itself a nuclear state by adopting a law which rules out the possibility of denuclearisation by allowing Pyongyang to conduct preemptive strikes to protect itself. With a possible nuclear test on the cards, the Russian hand behind such bold moves cannot be overlooked.

Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has emboldened North Korea in more ways than one: it has not only challenged the invincibility of the Western powers whom Pyongyang defines as “hostile” but has also created demands for North Korean weaponry for a sanction pressed Russia to continue the war, promising to fill Pyongyang’s coffers with much needed foreign reserves. While North Korea has denied these claims, its increased proximity with Moscow is too conspicuous to gloss over. The most significant consequence however has been a change in North Korea’s policy towards Seoul and Washington.

Efficiently using it to challenge Seoul’s participation in any peace negotiations since the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953, the strategy of Tong-mi bong-nam was employed again in 1994 when faced with recurrent famines and massive food shortages, Pyongyang agreed to denuclearise under the Agreed Framework and eventually normalise its relationship with the US. The idea was to extract economic aid while isolating Seoul after tensions soared over the latter not sending official condolences on Kim il-Sung’s death. 

The strategy was reversed in South’s favour  when relations with Washington soured after it imposed a fresh series of sanctions against Pyongyang’s nuclear proliferation programme in April 1998 and North Korea positively responded to Kim Dae-Jung’s Sunshine Policy which resulted in the historic June 15 summit of 2000, where the  the leaders of the two Koreas met for the first time post the division in 1945. President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” comment further worsened US-North Korean ties which led Pyongyang to not only break off contacts with both the US and South Korea but also withdraw from the NPT in January 2003. Although South Korean efforts and North Korea’s mounting economic crisis  succeeded in bringing Pyongyang to the Six Party Talks where Seoul argued that North’s security concerns be taken into account before pushing for denuclearisation, Washington’s rigid stance that North Korea denuclearises first  resulted in a stalemate. Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test in 2006 inviting more stringent sanctions and eventually withdrew from the Six Party talks in 2009. After successive conservative governments which favoured a hard stance towards North Korea virtually stalled negotiations, President Moon Jae-in’s friendly approach resulted in a major breakthrough in Inter-Korean relations in the form of the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration which called for phased disarmament, at a time when Pyongyang’s economy was at its lowest in the past two decades and tensions with the Trump administration soared high. The breakdown of the 2019 Hanoi Summit between North Korea and the US finally ended cooperation.

The above cases illustrate how efficiently North Korea has used Tong-mi bong-nam as a manoeuvring tool where negotiations were undertaken only during times of economic crisis while nuclear proliferation continued to remain a priority to achieve  reunification of the peninsula in a way favourable to Pyongyang. Moreover, Kim Jong-un has learnt from the case of Gadaffi’s Libya that engaging the West in denuclearisation would only provide limited respite while possession of nuclear weapons not only creates a strong deterrence against attacks by much powerful adversaries but also fuels nuclear nationalism thus reproducing regime legitimacy even at its weakest moments. Hence, he has nipped all chances of achieving complete denuclearisation in the bud. While China has so far played a major role in moderating Pyongyang’s aggression by prioritising regional stability considering its own geopolitical and economic interests over countering the US; Russia’s bold violation of UNSC sanctions by not only trading with Pyongyang but also demonstrating active interest in  employing North Korean workers and labelling the bilateral relationship as being of “mutual interest” speaks volumes about the greater latitude it is willing to provide its anti-American ally in pressing forward with its agenda.

Though Tong-mi bong-nam has served North Korea’s interests by aiding it in extracting economic benefits while dodging commitments over complete denuclearisation, it has simultaneously acted as the only window for Seoul and Washington to negotiate with Pyongyang. As its raison d’être, namely North’s economic and diplomatic isolation, wanes with Moscow’s support; the hope for denuclearisation might be lost forever specifically as the US and South Korea continue to  seek “overwhelming” military response to resolve the crisis which might lead to unimaginably dangerous consequences. The need of the hour is to multilaterally engage with both Russia and North Korea on disarmament and lift sanctions in a phased manner while ensuring that the two abide by their commitments.

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The SCO seeks for a new role in the post-Ukrainian crisis world

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During the Samarkand summit which was held during September 15-16, the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) signed the landmark Samarkand Declaration, advanced Iran’s accession, start the process for Belarus to become a full member, while approving Bahrain, Maldives, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Myanmar as dialogue partners. Additionally, the SCO issued groundbreaking statements and documents, marking the first time that member states have jointly spoken out on emerging issues, such as climate change, supply chain security and international energy security. All of these progresses verify that the SCO has come of the age over the past two decades. There is no question that the SCO is now the largest regional cooperation organization in the world. Over half of the world’s population lives in its member states, accounting for about 25% of the global GDP—and those states have a powerful intellectual and technological potential and a considerable part of the global natural resources.

As one of the two leading drivers of the SCO, Russia has played the tremendous role in its development and solidarity of all member states in principle and in reality as well. This year, despite the Ukrainian war drags on for over 200 days, Russia still acted influentially to promote Iran’s “earliest possible accession” to the SCO legally and Belarus’s beginning the accession process. As President Putin said during the summit, “There are many more countries that seek membership in or association with the SCO. All are welcomed because the SCO is a “non-bloc association and rather working with the whole world.” It is also true that in a very complicated international situation, the SCO is not “marking time,” but rather continuing to develop and build its role in addressing international and regional issues—maintaining peace and stability “throughout the vast Eurasian space.”

Echoing the coming changes in global politics and the economy which are about to undergo fundamental and irreversible changes, it is obvious that there are new “centers of power” emerging, and the interaction among them is inclusively based on universally recognized principles of the rule of international law and the UN Charter, namely, equal and indivisible security and respect for each other’s sovereignty, national values and interests. Given this, this article aims to argue what role the SCO would be able to play in the next twenty years?

The SCO holds tremendous potential for the future of international community and particularly in the fields of ensuring energy security and food security. Accordingly, the latest joint statement proposes to avoid excessive fluctuations in the prices of international bulk commodities in the energy sector, ensure the safety and stability of international food and energy resources’ transportation channels, and to smooth the international production and supply chain. To insure these ends, the statement also underlines adherence to the principle of technology neutrality as it is the key to encourage the research and application of various clean and low-carbon energy technologies. Given this, the Samarkand summit is a milestone both in the development of the SCO and building of a SCO community with shared future. Accordingly, the SCO will adhere to the principle of not targeting third parties as the Final Declaration states that the SCO seeks to ensure peace, security and stability. In reality, SCO members intend to jointly further develop cooperation in politics and security, trade, economy, finance and investments, cultural and humanitarian relations “in order to build a peaceful, safe, prosperous and environmentally friendly planet Earth.”

In the overall terms, China has played the significant role in joint promoting of the SCO as Russia admitted that in unison with the Chinese side, the existence of a unipolar world is impossible. Moscow and Beijing have agreed that it’s an impossible situation when the wealthy West is claiming the right to invent rules in economy, in politics and the right to impose its will on other countries. The foundation of the unipolar system has started to seriously creak and wobble. A new reality is emerging. Now it is more apparent that the obsolete unipolar model is being superseded by a new world order based on the fundamental principles of justice, equality, and the recognition of the right of each nation and state to its sovereign path of development. Put it more precisely, strong political and economic centers acting as a driving force of this irreversible process are being shaped in the Asia Pacific region.

Echoing the consensus among the SCO member states and their partners in the Eurasian domain, President Xi spoke at the summit that the successful experience of the SCO has been based on political trust, win-win cooperation, equality between nations, openness and inclusiveness, and equity and justice. They are not only the source of strength for the development of the SCO but also the fundamental guide that must be followed strictly in the years to come. Given that under the volatile world, the SCO, as an important constructive force in international and regional affairs, should keep itself well-positioned in the face of changing international dynamics, constantly enhance strategic independence, consolidate and deepen solidarity and cooperation, and build a closer SCO community with a shared future.

More specifically, China has not only presented the Global Development Initiative and the Global Security Initiative, but also carried out the initiatives with real actions. In addition, the SCO greets the new round of the largest expansion of the SCO membership has consolidated its status and influence as the most populous regional cooperation organization with the vastest territory in the world. The expansion fully demonstrates that the SCO is not a closed and exclusive “small clique” but an open, inclusive “big family”. As a new type of international organization comprising 26 countries, the SCO is increasingly showing strong vitality and bright prospects for development including that it will inject new impetus into peace and prosperity in Eurasia and beyond and play an exemplary role in building a new type of international relations and a community with a shared future for mankind.

In sum, the SCO has gained greater significance with the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine, where an economically weaker Russia is turning to East in general and China in particular as Beijing and Moscow vow to be a partner with no limits and leading coordination over the SCO. In addition, the comprehensive strategic partnership of China and Russia covers a bilateral agenda, multilateral trade and economic cooperation and shared security concerns of all concerned. In the face of outrageous Western sanctions, the SCO demonstrates stability, continues to develop progressively, and gains momentum. China is sure to play the constructive role of promoting their business to the global level, including strengthening the basis of economic cooperation among SCO member states, allowing the launch of free economic zones, and implementing large-scale infrastructure projects globally.

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Factionalism in the Chinese Communist Party: From Mao to Now

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With the crucial 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) set to commence on October 16, here’s a look at the different factions that have historically existed within the Party, otherwise considered a highly centralised and monolithic organisation.

Democratic Centralism

Described by Lenin as “freedom of discussion, unity of action”, Democratic Centralism is a Marxist-Leninist theoretical concept which attempts to strike a balance between inner Party democracy and organisational unity as an assurance that decisions could be efficiently made without stifling ideological struggles within the Party which emerge in the form of dissent. It was first specifically adopted as the organising principle of a Marxist party in the Soviet Union by both Bolshevik and Menshevik factions of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP)  at their separate conferences in 1905 and was unanimously adopted at the Party Unity Congress in 1906. Initially seen to be compatible with the existence of factions, a more rigid idea of Democratic Centralism was adopted at the 10th Party Congress in 1921 when all factions were outlawed in the name of Party unity. While the intention was not to wipe out the democratic discourse altogether, ‘monolithic unity’ vertically imposed by the late 1920s supplanted all free debate.

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) at its 17th Congress in 1934  defined the four cardinal points of Democratic Centralism as follows:

election of all leading bodies of the Party; their periodic accountability to their respective organisations; strict party discipline &  the subordination of the minority to the majority and decisions of higher bodies to be absolutely binding on lower bodies and on party members.

 In other words, free debate and discussion would be allowed to exist within the ranks of the Party till a decision is taken by the higher body after which it must be faithfully followed and implemented by all lower ranks in the name of Party discipline  without any collective attempts to block the decision. Factionalism thus, came to be seen as a serious offense of sabotaging Party unity. The Third Communist International (1919-43) called for  Democratic Centralism to be strictly implemented by all fellow Communist parties across the world which continued even after its dissolution in 1943.

The Chinese Communist Party, through the  slogan ‘Centralism based on Democracy and Democracy Under Centralist Guidance’ (《民主基础上的集中,集中知道下的民主》), describes its role as focused on the inclusion of popular opinion which is considered  extremely important not just for the successful implementation of its policies but also as the raison d’être of its rule however concurrently, it considers them too vague to be implemented as they exist. The CCP thus sees itself as the central sieve through which mass opinions would be filtered off their vagueness and effective policies could be formulated as it is considered to be in best possession of both the knowledge of Marxism-Leninism and interests of the masses. Party cadres would go to the masses and raise their demands at the Party meetings followed by a debate, also known as the Mass Line approach. Once the decision is taken, there would be no further discussion and the cadres would faithfully implement the policies among the populace with iron discipline.

After a brief period of decentralisation post the 1978 Reform and Opening up, Centralism was reintroduced following the Tiananmen Square Movement of 1989 and more so after the fall of the USSR in 1991 in order to avert a possible legitimacy crisis. Since then streams of Centralism and Democracy have alternatively dominated leadership views. In his speech at the 17th Party Congress, Hu Jintao emphasised on the need to strengthen intra Party democracy as a part of Democratic Centralism. In contrast, Xi Jinping in 2016 emphasised on the need to integrate centralisation on a democratic basis while urging the members to display “pure and utmost” loyalty to the Party.

Guanxi (关系)

Though Articles 3(5) and  10 of the CCP Constitution  prohibit factionalism within the Party in the name of Democratic Centralism, interest groups nevertheless exist through informal networks based on  personal ties called Guanxi (关系). Guanxi has its roots in the Confucian tradition which emphasises on the feeling of belongingness among members of a family or an organisation. Such a  nexus functions in a reciprocal way where the followers look for career security and advancement under the protection of a senior leader who ensures their interests are served in the upper rungs in exchange for their support, for instance, Hu Jintao was known to have led a group of his comrades from his Communist Youth League (CYL) days  called Tuanpai (团派) in his entourage. While in itself testifying the presence of factionalism, this relationship often results in emergence of factions due to its unstable nature. All chosen successors to the General Secretary in the Party’s history have been purged by their own patrons (Mao and Deng) with the sole exception of Deng Xiaoping’s protégé, Jiang Zemin. Inconsistent leadership decision making, with opinions swinging between “Left adventurism” and “Right opportunism” under Mao and “Emancipation of Mind” and “Socialist Spiritual Civilisation” under Deng too has given rise to interest groups within the Party.

Other features of China’s political system which give rise to factionalism include  power entrusted to individual leaders in a hierarchical context; the monopoly of the Communist Party over all legal channels of expression of diverse interests; absence of a formal structure of decision making and interference of the military in politics.

Factions at a glance

The origins of Guanxi networks can be traced back to Shantou (山头)or “mountain top” alliances which date back to the Party’s early days. Facing a hostile Nationalist Party (国民党) and Japanese forces, the CCP was nurtured in independent and isolated rural basecamps which were often located in rugged hilly terrain. Thus, each Shantou became a locus of its leader’s power.  The hostile and dangerous conditions necessitated a close bond between leaders and their followers which fragmented member’s loyalty towards the CCP as a Party as the primary allegiance was paid to the leader and not to the organisation.

Though Mao in his On Contradiction (1937) defined intra Party differences and discussions as a symbol of its vitality and liveliness, he was very strict about expression of dissent outside the Party apparatus which was seen as an attempt to break away from the Party and resulted almost always in purges. Even as Mao successfully established his line of thought as the single ideological core of the Party during the Yenan Rectification Campaign of 1942, ground realities built conditions for the existence of factions which continued as external channels of communication among political associates, outlets of their diverse interests and command system of their forces. Informal Factionalism continued to drive the Party’s inner politics even after the victory in the Civil War in 1949. While Mao could establish himself as the Chairman, his sole legitimacy to rule still faced challenges since all his associates had comparable experience and contribution to enlist. As a result, though working under Mao, leaders such as Zhou Enlai and Peng Dehuai continued to remain influential in a system where they were not expected to do so. Cautious of not upsetting Mao,these leaders often collaborated amongst themselves to weather any crisis which Mao read as a threat to his own power and hence, he launched the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) as an anti-organisation movement so as to tie all strands of loyalty to himself and not the Party where other leaders still exercised influence.

Interestingly, a penchant for a similar policy did not always translate into unity among members, the classic example being the fallout between Liu Shaoqi and Mao Zedong who did not just share policy preferences on most issues but had also joined the Party at the same time and worked together. Similarly, both Lin Biao and the Gang of Four (四人帮) were on the same page in the trajectory of the revolution but it was the power struggle amongst them which ultimately led to Lin’s fall. During Deng’s regime, Chen Yun and Peng Zhen’s shared conservativeness did not prevent Chen from blocking Peng’s path to the Politburo Standing Committee. Both Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang were reform minded but Zhao held his silence when Hu was ousted. Similarly, it was on the basis of personal networks that Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun remained the most powerful leaders throughout their lives without holding any official position. 

The economic reforms of the post Mao period further split internal unity into those who continued to stick with the Maoist line, demanding strict obedience to the socialist model of development and those who believed in inching closer to an open, market oriented economy. Economic interests thus play a major role in guiding factionalism, with the emergence of a ‘Petroleum faction’ within the CCP of those associated with the crude oil industry being a noticeable example.

Common political origins have also formed a ground for development of factions. Like Hu’s Tuanpai, Jiang Zemin was known to promote those who had worked for him previously in the Shanghai administration which led to the rise of a “Shanghai Clique” when he ascended the top position. Xi is similarly known to be leading a  “Fujian Clique” as his ascension to power was soon followed by the promotion of his former associates Wang Xiaohong and Deng Weiping to senior positions. He has also promoted his protégés from his home province of Shaanxi. Xi is not only known to secure the interests of “Princelings” (太子党 or children of high ranking Communist leaders as himself) but to also further promote a “Tsinghua Faction” of his alma mater which is known to have existed since 2008 when 1 of the 7 members of the Politburo Standing Committee and 3 of the 25 members of the Politburo were alumni of the prestigious Tsinghua University. Xi Jinping has also actively promoted leaders such as Ma Xingrui and Zhang Qingwei from the Defense-Aerospace industry (军工航天系) to top civilian positions. Perhaps the starkest episode of factionalism within the CCP was the fall of Bo Xilai, Xi’s contender to the position of the General Secretary in 2012, which not just revealed the fault lines within the Party but also brought into question the fragmented loyalty of the military as many senior PLA officers closely associated with Bo such as Zhou Yongkang were found to have actively aided him in securing the most coveted position and were later tried and arrested for charges of corruption and abuse of power.

With speculations high that Xi is likely to evade the “seven up, eight down” (七上,八下) rule which restricts reappointments of senior leaders above the age of 68 and  the retirement of Li Keqiang as the Premier, groups such as the CYL faction are likely to be further marginalised while the prominence of those close to Xi Jinping is bound to prevail at the upcoming Party Congress which might result in the likely promotion of leaders like Chen Min’er and Ding Xuexiang. 

Factionalism within the CCP does not just stand as the testimony of the dynamics in Chinese politics but also provides a window into the otherwise opaque world of its functioning.

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