“Tulip or turnip?” that’s the wonderfully romantic way Duke Ellington re-phrased Cole Porter’s great question…”Is it the real turtle soup, or only the mock?”
Or as it is posed in the realm of global politics, “Are we talking about real reform or just regime change?”
Admirers of Xi Jinping, the President of the People’s Republic of China, and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party call him a reformer, and point to his noble promises: fairer rule of law, curbed corruption, redressed environmental damage, expanded social welfare benefits, and increased market freedoms.
Critics note that the Chinese courts are still systemically unfair to political dissidents and that while several once-powerful corrupt politicians and businesspeople have been jailed, corruption itself is more resistant to change.
A “free market with Chinese characteristics” has the economy growing at a healthy clip — just under 7% for this year, but there are several dangerous bubbles in an economy burdened with lots of corporate and government debt. Which bubbles get to burst to a soft landing and which debts are forgiven and which are foreclosed are still governed by a political process in which the names and loyalties change, but the protections for “princelings” of party or government families, and just cronies of those in power remain.
So, what’s new about the Xi regime? For one very important thing, its personal approach to regime change, which is to put it off.
Since the fall of Mao Zedong the Chinese Governing Tradition has been two 5-year terms for a President and Party leader and then pass the baton. At the recent 19th Congress of the CCP, the Chinese Communist Party, President Xi, who is just ending his first term, he made it clear, he wants more than the customary seconds — a third term…and then…who knows.
It was part a bright-side self-assessment of “don’t mess with success,” and part a darker-toned “don’t mess with me. I’ll let you know when I’m done as leader.”
Whether he’s really for reform, we now know Xi Jinping is against regime change, at least for a while, and there are few signs anyone in China is prepared to challenge him on this.
Another thing we know Xi Jinping is for is more aggressive expansion of China’s military and economic interests. Should America challenge Xi Jinping’s growing network of missile pads and other military emplacements on artificial islands being built in the South China Sea? And, if so, how? Also, are there economic and political challenges to the United States in Xi’s One Belt One Road infrastructure and trade initiative?
Timothy Heath is a senior international defense researcher at the RAND Corporation and member of the Pardee RAND Graduate School faculty. Prior to joining RAND in October 2014, he served as the senior analyst for the USPACOM China Strategic Focus Group for five years. He worked for more than 16 years on the strategic, operational, and tactical levels in the U.S. military and government, specializing on China, Asia, and security topics.
Heath has published numerous articles and one book. Fluent in Mandarin Chinese, he has extensive experience analyzing China’s national strategy, politics, ideology, and military, as well as of Asian regional security developments. He earned an M.A. in Asian studies from George Washington University and a B.A. in philosophy from the College of William and Mary. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Political Science from George Mason University.