Leadership itchy over Yugoslavia's people power

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 October, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 October, 2000, 12:00am

THE EVENTS IN Yugoslavia during the past fortnight have had a stunning impact on the Chinese Communist Party leadership. This is despite the fact that the fall of former president Slobodan Milosevic and the rise of Belgrade-style people power took place half a world away, and few world leaders and commentators have drawn parallels between the Serbian and Chinese situations.

The Yugoslavian crisis was discussed at length at a Politburo Standing Committee meeting last week. According to a party source in Beijing, the senior cadres agreed that despite the apparent differences between the two countries, the leadership had to take the utmost caution in preventing Yugoslavian-style instability from striking the mainland.

'We must raise our guard against unexpected events and shocks,' Mr Jiang reportedly said at the meeting. 'We must preserve stability above all else. A single spark could set the whole plain ablaze.' The President pointed out that fellow cadres must draw the lesson from how, in Yugoslavia, 'drastic changes could come suddenly; the tide could turn in a single day'.

The party source said Mr Jiang's views were seconded by conservative and moderate members of the Politburo. 'There was a consensus among the senior cadres that the Milosevic regime had fallen victim to an anti-socialist conspiracy spearheaded by the United States,' the source said.

He added that while Beijing grudgingly offered its recognition to the new president, Vojislav Kostunica, who was sworn in on Saturday, it had no doubt the new leader could not have succeeded without Western support. Moreover, the party leadership fears that after crushing the last holdout of the ancien regime in Eastern Europe, the emboldened US-Nato juggernaut may cast its gaze elsewhere.

A source close to the Jiang camp said the leadership's reaction to Milosevic's disgrace was more intense than that towards comparable events such as the demise of the Suharto dynasty in Indonesia in 1998 or the downfall of the Kuomintang in Taiwan earlier this year.

'A senior leadership adviser compared the rise of people power in Yugoslavia to the convulsions at the Berlin Wall and in Romania in the early 1990s, which set off the chain of events that dismantled the entire Soviet bloc,' the source said. 'The adviser indicated there is a possibility that Milosevic's demise, coupled with a new determination by the Western alliance to topple Communist regimes, may trigger a chain reaction threatening the world's remaining socialist states.'

It is understood the Beijing leadership fears that the next Communist country to fall might be Cuba. Beijing strategists have indicated the US might exploit the fact that ageing President Fidel Castro has not found a strong successor.

It is not known what specific recommendations Mr Jiang gave at last week's Politburo Standing Committee meeting, other than that the media should be ordered to report the events in Yugoslavia in a low-key manner.

The leadership pointed out that Web sites should be closely monitored so that no platform would be provided to bourgeois-liberal intellectuals who wanted to use the Yugoslavian experience as a pretext to introduce political reform. Last Friday, for example, one writer left this note on the People's Daily chat site: 'China is always so backwards. It will be the last country to realise democracy.'

Jiang analysts believe the Yugoslavian situation has confirmed the President's resolve to beef up efforts to snuff out dissent and other threats to the regime. They quoted Mr Jiang pointing out at another leadership brainstorming session: 'China's military prowess and control apparatus are strong enough to withstand attacks and infiltration by the West; the party will only be endangered if it fails to quash internal challenges so that it comes under fire from both within and without.'

The analysts say Mr Jiang will redouble the party leadership's time-tested, double-pronged strategy to maintain stability - boost the control apparatus such as the police and the People's Armed Police on the one hand, and promote nationalism on the other.

It is not surprising that the Yugoslavian crisis has coincided with a nationalistic campaign centred on the condemnation of the Vatican's canonisation of 120 Chinese-based Catholic martyrs and foreign missionaries on October 1. Beijing has asserted that many among the beatified were 'accomplices and lackeys of imperialists and colonialists' who did grave harm to Chinese during the 19th century.

In the past week, 'patriotic' religious groupings, as well as conservative intellectual elements in places including Beijing, Shanghai, Hebei, Shanxi, Fujian, Guangdong and Guizhou, have held meetings and gatherings to denounce the Vatican's alleged effort to humiliate Chinese and interfere in the country's domestic affairs.

It soon became apparent, however, that the propaganda exercise was meant mostly for internal consumption: the anti-Vatican movement has become a nationalistic, sometimes even xenophobic, campaign to bolster pride in the nation and trust in the party leadership's ability to combat what it calls the 'anti-China plot of the neo-imperialist West'.

China watchers were astounded by an article in last Friday's overseas edition of the People' Daily, which tried to rehabilitate the reputation of the Boxers. While most Chinese believe the Boxers were at least initially motivated by patriotism, their rabid xenophobia has been criticised by generations of liberal intellectuals.

The People's Daily article, however, eulogised the Boxers as the heroic forerunners of China's anti-colonial crusade. Analysts said this year being the centenary of the Boxers' movement, another elaborate nationalistic campaign would be waged to remind Chinese of the need to raise their guard against the marauding neo-imperialists.

Party insiders say it is unlikely that the Yugoslavian crisis - as well as the canonisation controversy - would be discussed at length at the plenary session of the party's Central Committee, which ends today.

They fear, however, that Mr Jiang - and other conservatives - may cite the new threat from the West as an excuse to roll back reform. Take rejuvenation, a major theme of the plenum. While Mr Jiang has reiterated the importance of passing the baton to the Fourth Generation of cadres led by Vice-President Hu Jintao, there are worries the supremo may point to a burgeoning 'anti-China containment policy' to hang on to power.

While giving credit to the ability of heir-apparent Mr Hu, Mr Jiang has more than once indicated he has misgivings that young men who have no first-hand experience in fighting the treacherous neo-imperialists may not be tough enough to beat back the unprecedented challenge.

Willy Wo Lap-Lam is a Post associate editor

Graphic: will11gfa



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