Could China sink like the Titanic?

December 07, 2015 15:58
(From left) Chinese leader Xi Jinping with former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao at a military parade in Beijing in September. Xi wanted his wife Peng Liyuan on the podium with him, but party elders challenged him on the matter. Photo: AP

Readers of China’s most popular newsweekly were astonished to read their president compare the country to the Titanic, the world’s largest passenger liner that sank with the loss of over 1,500 people in April 1912.

“We are a great country,” said Xi Jinping in a 13,000-character article in the latest issue of Southern Weekend (南方周末). “In fundamental questions, we absolutely cannot have mistakes that will overturn us. The Titanic truly sank. That was a sinking. A small sailing boat can turn over in the water and after a few waves can come up again.”

Published in Guangzhou, the weekly has a national circulation. The public considers it the most truthful among Chinese publications that have been subject to increasing censorship since Xi became head of the Communist Party in November 2012.

Many of its editors and journalists have been dismissed and arrested for their writing.

The title of the article is “These Three Years of Xi Jinping’s Reforms”. It is three years since December 2012, when Xi made a five-day visit to Guangdong, his first inspection trip outside Beijing since he took office and the longest of the 35 he has made since then.

It was an echo of the famous “Southern Tour” of Deng Xiaoping in the spring of 1992 to the same cities in Guangdong. He used it to relaunch his agenda of economic reform, despite the fact that he held no formal role in the party or the government.

Using the word Titanic is proof that the article was not written by Xi’s entourage. They would never have allowed the use of this metaphor; the ship is a symbol of national pride and engineering prowess that went to the bottom of the ocean on its maiden voyage.

The article tells us of the enormous obstacles to reform.

“The golden age of China’s economy was from 2001 to 2008. After the global financial crisis of 2008, China greatly expanded investment and stimulus measures. While these reactivated the economy, they left many hidden dangers, like the property bubble, local debt and the inundation of shadow banking,” it said.

It quoted Wang Yu-kai, a professor at the National Administration College, as saying that the gap had become wider between city and countryside, rich and poor and one district and another.

“The public will find it very hard to continue trusting the party and the government if promises on medical care, education, social welfare and insurance are not met,” he said.

The article also described the enormous resistance to many reforms from interest groups who stand to lose. One example is a tax on property and a declaration of assets owned by civil servants; the laws have been written but not passed because those who own many properties do not want to declare them or pay taxes on them.

“The vested interests of not only individuals but also departments have blocked reforms,” it said.

These include medical insurance at the township and village level, which was blocked by those who do not want to give up their power.

Xi’s latest target of reform is the People's Liberation Army. “This is the toughest bone – reform of the defense and army structure.”

The article can be read two ways. It sets out in detail what Xi has tried to do since taking power. At the same time, it implies that his ambition is too large and his power too concentrated.

The comparison with Deng Xiaoping does not work in his favor. Deng was the unquestioned "Emperor", a man who could rule China without a formal position.

He led the group of elders who overthrew Zhao Ziyang, then head of the party, in the spring of 1989, without going through a party or government process. He handpicked Zhao’s successor, Jiang Zemin.

Xi would like to have Deng’s power and status but does not.

At the PLA's grand anti-Japanese parade in Beijing in September, he wanted his wife Peng Liyuan on the podium with him.

At the last minute, Jiang and other elders challenged him on the matter, saying that and said that since their wives would not be present, Peng could not be either. He was forced to back down.

At a similar parade in Moscow in May this year, Peng was allowed to stand on the podium, after Vladimir Putin gave his permission.

Jiang has supporters throughout the government and the party, even at the highest level. They argue that Xi’s reforms are too sweeping: the anti-corruption campaign is making officials reluctant to take decisions because they fear investigation and arrest.

As ever, Southern Weekend is on the white line of the ping-pong table. Through the fog of government propaganda, it is trying to tell us the complex truth of the reform process and the bitter party power struggle.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.