Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 18 September 2021

 China is the main game, and removing Xi Jinping is how to play it

The only way to avoid a devastating conflict is to facilitate a coup within China’s Communist Party. And we can create the international conditions that might favour it.


A China embracing such change will be lauded, favoured, respected. Xi Jinping will receive no such accolades.

A China embracing such change will be lauded, favoured, respected. Xi Jinping will receive no such accolades.

From Inquirer

September 18, 20218 MIN READ57






We have been distracted for several weeks by the debacle in Afghanistan. But China is the main game. Thursday’s announcement that we will acquire nuclear submarines instead of the French diesel ones signifies a dramatic new seriousness in our strategic thinking. The forthcoming Quad conference will add to the sense that the Indo-Pacific is responding coherently to China’s growing assertiveness. Xi Jinping’s Beijing seeks dominance in Asia and pre-eminence globally. It is on notice that the rest of us will not bow to that.

Xi’s crushing of the Uighurs, suppression of democratic dissent in Hong Kong, threats to Taiwan, militarisation of the South China Sea and economic warfare against us all demonstrate what Chinese hegemony looks like. For the common good, this must stop. To that end, Xi needs to be removed from power and a broad path to democratic reform opened up at long last in China. The Communist Party must make the shift to democratic rule that Taiwan and South Korea made from the late 1980s. The Quad should openly call for such a transition.

The Lowy Institute has warned that China now possesses military strike capabilities dwarfing those available to Japan in 1942 and that we must be alert to the threat these pose. Yet we are very distant from China’s shores. Chinese strike capabilities against its near neighbours are far more formidable, and growing.

It openly threatens to go to war to subdue Taiwan. This risks a major conflagration, despite the overwhelmingly constructive role of Taiwan in China’s own economic development since 1979 and the clear will of the democratically governed people of Taiwan to retain their autonomy.

Resistance to China’s aggression is growing. As our former prime minister Kevin Rudd pointed out in a recent essay for Foreign Affairs, the Quad (the United States, India, Japan and Australia) is coalescing steadily. It can provide a rallying point for all those concerned about Xi’s jingoism and arrogance.

Members of a People's Liberation Army band stand together at a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party on July 1. Picture: Getty

Members of a People's Liberation Army band stand together at a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party on July 1. Picture: Getty

As Rudd argues, Beijing was initially contemptuous of the Quad, as some in Australia, such as Hugh White and Geoff Raby have been. But the Quad is of growing concern to Beijing, which blusters that it is an Asian NATO and is being used to create a “new cold war”.

Xi has taken China backwards into totalitarian rule and is threatening so many of his neighbours. He is not wrong to point to a new cold war beginning. But it is wholly of his own making. It must now be won – as the last one was – without disastrous war.

Rudd argues that the Quad could be used by Xi as a lever to engineer the consolidation of his dictatorial powers a year from now, at the Communist Party’s 20th Party Congress. If that happens, it will mark the point at which the new cold war truly begins. Xi is the enemy of progress in China and of openness and the rule of law internationally. He must be opposed. The Quad can and must lead that opposition.

This is our strategic environment, as outlined by Rory Medcalf in Contest for the Indo-Pacific: Why China Won’t Map the Future (2020). The Xi dictatorship has aligned itself with Putin’s regime in Moscow and the hardline Raisi/IRGC regime in Tehran.

Slowly and reluctantly, the rest of us have woken to the danger this presents to world order, peace and prosperity. Every step that Xi takes to strengthen reactionary alliances, intimidate us or other Asian states or push the United States out of the East Asian littoral should only increase that wakefulness, alarm and resistance.

Does this leave us on the brink of a ruinous arms races and a new balance of terror? And even a lurch into catastrophic war, as Hugh White has been worrying for many years, urging the placation of China and the dissolution of the alliances that might resist its menacing ambitions? Perhaps. The question, then, as so often in history, would be: how much do we cherish our liberties?

But there is another way of approaching this matter. It is the way we must take. Xi represents the most regressive and unsustainable elements in Communist Party rule. That and his geopolitical chauvinism are symptomatic of the acute need for a democratic transition in China. We had clung to the hope – for 40 years, despite the shock of Tiananmen in 1989 – that our generosity and the energies of the Chinese people would bring such a transition in due course. The Communist Party has failed to effect it. Xi embodies that failure. Therefore, he must go.

That’s all well and fine, you might exclaim, but you and who else’s divisions are going to bring that about? Roger Garside, a British diplomat, a World Bank development economist and a capital markets development consultant, has argued, elegantly and forcefully, in a recent book, that it is not a matter of us and our divisions, but of the logic of China’s domestic and international interests that will trigger change – as it did in South Korea and Taiwan in 1986-87.

We should, in present circumstances, be paying the closest possible attention to his argument, because the stakes could hardly be higher. His book, China Coup: The Great Leap to Freedom, spells out in detail a scenario in which not ­violent crowds or foreign military forces but the wisest heads within the Communist Party decide to remove Xi and finally make the transition to democratisation.

Util Xi took over, Mutation was still clung to by many as the preferred and “expected” scenario for China’s future.

Util Xi took over, Mutation was still clung to by many as the preferred and “expected” scenario for China’s future.

The scenario he outlines is not less, but actually more plausible than the transition that occurred in China in 1976-77, with the arrest of the Gang of Four following the demise of their master, Mao Zedong. It has much in common with the peaceful removal of Nikita Khrushchev from power in the Soviet Union, in 1964.

It also resembles the scenarios under which South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee was assassinated in Seoul, on 26 October 1979; and with the decisions by Chiang Ching-kuo, dictator of the Republic of China on Taiwan, to legitimize the political opposition, in 1986, and end martial, in 1987.

Why would such a coup happen in China? First, it has been clearly established and accepted by the highest echelon of leaders in China for years that major structural reforms, including political opening and reform, are imperative for China to continue to prosper. This was spelled out in a report prepared jointly by the top leadership and the World Bank, called China 2030.

Second, the obstacle to such reforms is the Communist Party’s political monopoly and the corruption and bad economic policies it generates. Third, the determination to preserve that monopoly, that dictatorship, is costing China more and more domestically and is rousing the world against it.

But isn’t China’s record of growth stellar? Isn’t it poised to displace the United States as the world’s largest economy? Isn’t it set to create a currency zone to rival that of the dollar?

Well, to some extent it depends who you are reading. But the enormous inefficiencies of the Communist Party’s macro-economic and internal repression policies over the past decade suggest otherwise.

Xi and his cronies are in denial. Li Keqiang, who stands quietly behind Xi in the formal apparatus of state power, knows better, but has been notably reticent.

Garside singles him out as the prime mover in a hypothetical coup within the next 12 months, followed by the announcement of a democratic transition that would come as an enormous relief to the masses of China and to the rest of the world.

Writing in 2004, in my own ­assessment of the prospects for China, I outlined four divergent scenarios for its future: Mutation, Maturation, Militarisation and Metastasis.

The first entailed the kind of prosperity and economic rationalisation envisaged in China 2030 triggering a democratic transition.

The second entailed a levelling off of economic growth at middle-income levels because of a failure to enact such reforms.

The third anticipated a shift by the regime to a massive military build-up and xenophobia as a means to entrench floundering Communist Party rule.

The fourth anticipated the collapse of order due to party failure and the crushing of any alternative mechanism for governance.

Until Xi took over, Mutation was still clung to by many as the preferred and “expected” scenario. He shoved it aside and turned back the clock, ramping up repression. He has also embraced Militarisation. Right now, due to the breakdown of economic as well as political reform, China’s huge economy is facing the Maturation scenario, but its political system is courting Metastasis. None of us should want to see this.

Given the obduracy of Xi and his cronies, what is to be done?

Two courses of action are open to us that might contribute to a constructive and peaceful outcome. Garside outlines how an adroit and peaceful palace coup might effect the necessary change. His very articulation of such a scenario, of course, could trigger a bloody purge in Beijing to eliminate Li Keqiang and others whom Garside names. That, in turn, would exacerbate the overall situation. We might hope for the elegant solution as he imagines. We need, however, to create the international conditions that might favour it.

Xi must go, and with him the reactionary dictatorship and hubris he espouses.

Xi must go, and with him the reactionary dictatorship and hubris he espouses.

The first of these is the clear and consistent articulation of an “East Asia Model” of economic growth and political transition, highlighting the renaissance of Japan after World War II, the South Korean achievement, and the remarkable achievements of political order in Taiwan since 1986.

Protestations by the Xi regime should be deflected and even ridiculed. The fact is the best-informed and freest Chinese voices in and outside the party have known and stated for years that such a transition is vital to the country’s future. It should be advocated in direct opposition to the Xi regime’s propaganda.

The second key measure is to create the external conditions Garside stipulates as the triggers for the coup in his hypothetical coup scenario: make clear to the party that it faces growing economic strictures and geopolitical suffocation if it sticks to Xi and that words will not be heeded without actions. Things must change. A China embracing such change will be lauded, favoured, respected. Xi will receive no such accolades.

Xi must go, and with him the reactionary dictatorship and hubris he espouses. This must be our stance. It must be the stance of the Quad. It must be the mantra of all those seeking a peaceful, prosperous future for Asia and the world.

China Yes, Xi No. Sceptical? Your alternative is living with a belligerent or collapsing China. As the subs decision, its Anglo-American alliance basis and Morrison’s offer to talk with China frankly about common concerns show, we are hedging our bets very openly.

Paul Monk was the head of the China Desk in the Defence Intelligence Organisation. He is the author of Thunder from the Silent Zone: Rethinking China (2005) and Dictators and Dangerous Ideas (2018), among other books.

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