In a recent and widely circulated Chinese political document, creatively entitled “Document Number 9” (apparently, the current Chinese regime doesn’t listen to the Beatles’ White Album…), the Xi Jinping government has identified what it refers to as “The 7 Perils,” any one of which allegedly risks subverting China’s growing global preeminence.
It’s almost as if David Letterman’s writers were to draft a Top 10 List entitlted: “PEACE, LOVE, UNDERSTANDING AND 7 OTHER THINGS THAT REALLY GRIND OUR GEARS” – e.g., “Universal Values,” “Human Rights,” “Western Constitutional Democracy,” and (with an obvious nod toward Big Lebowski fans everywhere) “Nihilism.” (Trust me: the other three just aren’t that intriguing…)
So if there’s significance here (and there may not be – this would hardly be the first time the Communist Party has issued this particular variety of screed), I see it primarily as a question of audience. On the one hand, Document #9 may actually be signaling a new tougher stance toward the West and possibly even closer ties with Putin’s Russia in the wake of the Snowden spy scandal. Although that perspective would comport with Xi’s frequently invoked “Army First” policy, I don’t personally believe these messages were primarily intended as saber rattling – at least not on the global stage. Here’s why:
Instead, since coming to power, the Xi government has become increasingly unnerved by a slowing economy, an increasing number of public protests (frequently inspired by unfathomable levels of environmental pollution or anger regarding unsafe working conditions), and an ascendent Chinese upper middle class many of whom believe that restoring economic growth will require not only market-driven liberalization, but at least steps toward greater political liberalization.
In some sense, Xi finds himself caught somewhere in the middle. Obviously, he recognizes the need to construct a more stable and open economy and that closing China to the world will only make that process infinitely more challenging. But at the same time, Xi’s core supporters in the military have acquired vast fortunes due to PLA-owned and operated entities and are therefore wary of anything that could weaken their position: in particular, free market capitalism coupled with the informational freedoms that more robust and technologically advanced markets will require in order to function efficiently.
And all that brings us back to Document #9 and the question of audience. From my point of view, releasing this broadside now primarily represents Xi struggling to have it both ways: that is, quietly continuing to introduce reforms and address isssues like corruption while simultaneously reassuring traditionalists that he remains “one of them.” Also, I think he’s savvy enough to realize that betting on improved Western trade relations is a much safer long-term wager than Russian oil and the Russian kleptocracy that comes with it.
Will he be able to pull it off? Not only do I have no idea, I highly doubt Xi does either. . .