A tale of two parties' "internal contradictions"

The imperial President of China flies in tomorrow. The Labour party anoints its new leader today. What links the two?

Xi Jinping is China’s most powerful leader since at least Deng Xiaoping and maybe since Mao Zedong. He has centralised power in Beijing and in himself.

Rowan Callick, former Beijing correspondent for The Australian and author of “Party Time”, a book on China’s Communist party, says Xi is reasserting the party’s control over the government and the military and tightening discipline within the party, in part by arrests for corruption. (Don’t ask about Xi’s extended family’s vast wealth.)

To reverse the old saying, the mountains between local officials and the capital are now low and the emperor is nigh. No one is secure. Dissent is circumscribed.

Xi also actively promotes China internationally and is assertive and at times aggressive on China’s regional strategic claims. He is building on China’s astonishing economic climb to reclaim great power status, lost 200 years ago. China and the United States are now an unofficial “G2” of quasi-equals.

Xi made that evident at the recent APEC summit he hosted.

First, he got backing for a two-year “strategic study” of a free trade area of Asia-Pacific and the Pacific (FTAAP), first proposed in 2004. This would build on a 16-country Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) on which there have been five rounds of negotiations, with a sixth due in early December.

Don’t expect a fast track, despite Xi’s invocation to be innovative. But it does counterpoint the United States-centred Trans-Pacific Partnership and the United States-European Union Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Protocol.

The second way Xi asserted “great power” status at APEC was in his agreement with United States President Barack Obama on climate change. China is to peak its emissions (at what level?) by “around 2030”. The United States is to extend its 17 per cent 2005-2020 emissions cuts to 26-28 per cent by 2025 (how if climate-change-sceptic Republicans decide to block it?).

Those gestures won’t hold warming to the 2 degrees United Nations target. But they might prod others, including this country (more on that next week), to make slightly less defensive post-2020 “intended nationally-determined commitments” next year in the global negotiations.

Add to Xi’s initiatives an OECD forecast that China will outspend the United States on research and development by 2019.

It adds up to power. But, to reach back to Karl Marx, on whose ideas Xi’s party was founded, “internal contradictions” abound in Xi’s China.

These centre on how to open the economy but keep politics closed, how to replicate capitalism’s innovation-driven-and-driving “creative destruction” when the state controls wide swathes of business and how to manage high debt, killer-pollution, water shortages, a cavernous rich-poor divide, an internationally mobile, aspirational middle class and restless minorities.

Nothing so complex need bother John Key in his bilateral with Xi on Thursday. For Key the China issue is how to sell more there while not getting too dependent and how to accept investment without a voter revolt.

At the G20 he was defensive on climate change. In that he can rest his case on a special Treasury climate change briefing to incoming ministers (BIM), which dealt only with the cost, not the opportunities, of action.

And that BIM was heavily “redacted” — censored — after ministers’ perusal, a disturbing new constraint on the “free and frank” advice public servants are supposed to give and not exactly at the multidisciplinary “frontier of economic thought” Treasury Secretary Gabs Makhlouf spoke of two weeks back and noted here last week.

Labour, along with the Greens, has a different take on climate change — more to do with duty and opportunity than cost.

But a Labour-Green regime is years from power. And both parties have yet to reapply first principles to develop policy geared to 2010s global and local realities.

The leader Labour anoints today has a choice between safe change through tougher and more skilful management — Andrew Little, the proven union reorganiser — and the sort of risk Deng took in 1978 to set China on the road to riches — “new-generation” do-or-die Grant Robertson and running mate Jacinda Ardern.

Either way, Labour has to unpick multiple internal contradictions, which include smart middle-class MPs purporting to represent “ordinary” folk, the 1970s-80s focus on minorities which isn’t top of mind in mortgage-land and the tension between universal and targeted public services which in 2005 produced a Labour-anomalous upward transfer, the wiping of interest on student loans.

So here is the link with Xi.

Xi is reinstating an authoritarian governance that ultimately failed under Mao. If Labour reaches back to the 1930s-70s and not forward to a (social democratic) “frontier of thought”, it might win power from time to time but not match National term for term.