Zhang Lifan, November 2, 2019
This is a translation of Beijing-based historian Zhang Lifan’s interview by Deutsche Welle’s Chinese Service. In the interview, Zhang Lifan (章立凡) gives his views on the recently concluded Fourth Plenum of the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Central Committee, as well as the overall direction of the Chinese regime.
DW: Could you briefly analyze the main takeaways of the Fourth Plenum?
Zhang Lifan: There isn’t anything noteworthy in the entire official report, which is basically just bureaucratic jargon, typical Communist Party literature (党八股). The focus is on nothing more than the so-called modernization of the system and capacity of national governance (国家治理体系与能力现代化), which is in actuality just strengthening one-party dictatorship. Also, as relates to Hong Kong, the communique specifically mentioned the term guan zhi (管治, literally “to manage and govern” but implies harsh measures), which they never used before. The Chinese Communist Party might, using national security as a pretext, revive legislation in Hong Kong similar to Article 23. But the CCP may not be able to do so without completely demolishing the “one country, two systems” label, because taking such an approach to things would only create even more negative fallout for its strategy to bring about the “peaceful reunification” of Taiwan and mainland China. However, they may not really be planning for the reunification to be peaceful, in which case no more need be said.
DW: Looking at domestic Chinese policy, will the government intensify its control over civil society?
Zhang Lifan: Right now, the regime suffers from a strong sense of insecurity, because both internal and external situations have cropped up that are beyond their control. In terms of economics, they may even use more force to “cut chives” (割韭菜), like in the forced demolitions in Xiangtang village in the Beijing suburb of Changping. This cutting of “chives” of the “middle-quality population” (中端人口, contrast with 低端人口, or “low-end population”) by violating their property has sharpened social conflict. It also shows how the CCP is doubling down on their tactic of applying hardline measures to “cut chives.”
In addition, their emphasizing the modernization of the system and capacity of national governance at the Fourth Plenum symbolizes how they are becoming tougher in their administrative methods. This includes using advanced technological means to carry out social control, as well as blockchain, which was not long ago introduced as part of national policy that may well be implemented. It’s inevitable that they will tighten the screws in these regards, because otherwise they have no way of ensuring the continued existence of their regime.
DW: Before the Fourth Plenum concluded, outside observers were constantly speculating about potential personnel shifts at the meeting, including possible candidate for Xi Jinping’s successor. In the end, however, the official report made no mention of this. What’s your view?
Zhang Lifan: The results were unsurprising. I’d avoided getting mixed up in these guessing games from the very start. I believed that given the present situation, the possibility of such change of guard taking place was low, and indeed most people’s predictions came to nothing. Xi Jinping has shown himself to be firmly in charge this time around; and if he weren’t solidly in charge, he wouldn’t have convened the Fourth Plenum. Given that he decided to hold it, it means that he has considerable confidence in his power. As for the ideas about so-called successors, it’s quite possible that it was misinformation deliberately spread by the CCP’s overseas propaganda (大外宣).
DW: Will the CCP’s tactics of strict control be able to further reinforce its power, or will it cause it greater difficulty in exerting control when facing societal blowback in the future?
Zhang Lifan: I think the latter is likely, because when you get to the root of things, no economic reforms can have much significance in the absence of reforms to the political system. In addition, the government’s use of high-tech social controls creates some difficulties in that once it faces resistance, or in the event that high-tech controls fail, the state will face the eventuality of total collapse. So I believe that right now there is a lot of wishful thinking going on in the Communist Party.
DW: Do you think that the CCP has started to become aware of the need for political reforms, or will it continue its hardline rule under Xi Jinping’s leadership?
Zhang Lifan: As things stand, this kind of hardline governance could become the system’s undoing, because the more it tries to shore up its rule, the less it may be able to actually hold on to power. This kind of mentality, which places the interests of the Communist Party above those of the country and the people, is a dead end in my view. But I believe that it would be very difficult for the Communist Party to make any fundamental political reforms, because the current leaders are not entertaining these ideas at all. The CCP has been incessantly exterminating all competitors for the last 70 years, it doesn’t allow any competition that exists outside its system. This in and of itself weakens the regime. For any political party, change is only possible in the presence of competition; if there is no competition, the party will have no vitality.
Zhang Lifan (章立凡) is a Beijing-based historian specializing in modern Chinese history and one of the authors of the 12-volume “The History of the Republic of China” (《中华民国史》，中华书局，2011). His blogs and social media accounts in China have been censored, and over the recent years he has been an active commentator on Twitter as well as Voice of America’s Chinese broadcast.
Communists are fascinated by contradictions. China faces a big one, Economist, October 31, 2019.