Zuma and Xi: Uncanny similarities, vast differences

By IndepthAfrica
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Sep 21st, 2012
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Both South African president Jacob Zuma and Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping face momentous party congresses before the end of 2012, and both are expected to emerge as national leaders by the time those congresses close. Both have also been challenged by internal unrest. Is that where the comparison ends? By KEVIN BLOOM.

Two months ago, Chinese vice president and leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping arrived at Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guesthouse for a meeting with President Jacob Zuma of South Africa. Although it wasn’t the first time the pair had met, it was arguably their most significant encounter. Zuma was in the Chinese capital to attend the 2012 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), where China was about to pledge $20-billion in loans to the African continent, doubling the amount pledged at the previous forum, in 2009.

To underline what this moment meant for Sino-Africa relations, there could have been no better choice of venue. For starters, there were the implied allusions to the relationship’s historical underpinnings. During the Cultural Revolution, the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse was the permanent residence of Chairman Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. Even today, the largest construction project completed by the Chinese in Africa remains Mao’s $500-million railway line connecting Dar es Salaam to Zambia’s copper belt.

Then there were the other events that took place in these perfumed halls over the years. Built in 1959 to mark the 10th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse is one of China’s “Ten Great Buildings,” and since inception has accommodated more than 1100 visiting heads of state. It was here, in 1972, that a breathless Henry Kissinger, just informed by Premier Zhou Enlai, rushed to tell his boss that Chairman Mao was finally ready for an audience with the United States.

So Xi and Zuma would no doubt have been keenly aware of the setting in which they stood in mid-July. Of course, the actual substance of their meeting was never intended to match its symbolic heft. According to an official statement out of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Xi praised the two-year-old China-South Africa Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, adding that ties between the countries were among the most “energetic” of either’s diplomatic roster. Zuma, for his part, noted that he was satisfied with how things were working out between the African National Congress and the Communist Party of China.

But beneath these anodyne proclamations – and in a way this may have been as significant as FOCAC or the famous venue – was what the two men had in common. Because both were facing momentous party congresses before the year was up, and both were expected to emerge as national leaders by the time those congresses closed. Also, in the months to come, both would have their positions challenged by disturbing internal unrest.

In Xi’s case, the hard-line centrist party he was destined to inherit has only recently started to crumble, with September’s anti-Japan protests being the latest iteration of the emerging rifts. While outgoing Chinese leader Hu Jintao has managed through most of his term to keep reformers on the right and radicals on the left in close check, it seems almost certain that the incoming president is going to have a much tougher time of it.

In China, where the definition of “rightist” and “leftist” has not always been consistent, and where the terms are defined differently to how they are in the West, it can be tricky to get the references correct. Suffice to say, Mao’s purge of rightists in the ’50s and ’60s was aimed at seemingly pro-capitalist intellectuals, and that discussion of the “Anti-Rightist Movement” is still subject to heavy censorship.

So while rightists are pushing hard for political reform, having been heartened by moves towards softer methods of “social management,” leftists are intent on reminding China of its Maoist heritage. While the latter were incensed earlier in the year by the crackdown on Bo Xilai, their populist standard-bearer, the slow pace at which the case against Bo is proceeding has acted as a pacifier. Needless to say, the anti-Japan protests, being nationalist in character, work in the leftists’ favour.

On 17 September, the Wall Street Journal’s Beijing-based analyst, Russell Leigh Moses, spelled out the broader implications for the Communist Party: “The last Party Congress, held in mid-October 2007, came with nearly two months’ notice. Authorities have yet to announce a date for this year’s meeting. It appears increasingly clear that the delay this time around is not about resolving the case against Bo Xilai or sudden health problems among leaders who have shown every sign of being fit up to now. The snag is that the political strategy that has kept the hard-line centre in shape is no longer sustainable.

“That leaves Xi Jinping and his camp in a very tough place. They’ve not only got to consolidate their position more quickly than they perhaps expected—they also have to start making some hard choices about what sorts of policies will attract political support and placate the Chinese street. Surely they recognise that theirs is not only a new leadership, but that they will be leading a new China.”

On one level, the difference between how the CPC conducts its business and how the ANC operates is patently obvious. Through the whole of 2007, while South Africa’s ruling party was being cracked open by the war between Thabo Mbeki’s centrist supporters and Zuma’s populists, there was never any question that the national congress would take place in December. Instead of keeping the date open and working behind the scenes to achieve real unity, the party kept on insisting that the media’s perceptions about disunity were false, even trotting out this line at Polokwane while just outside the press room the factions seemed on the verge of tearing each other apart.

Is the comparison rendered inadmissible by the fact that South Africa has a free and robust press where China does not? Only to an extent. Given the prevalence of social media networks like Weibo, unrest can spread like wildfire in the People’s Republic, and the consequences of political instability for the nation’s citizens are no less severe than they are in countries with impeccable constitutions. (Indeed, given China’s status as the world’s second-largest economy, the argument could be made that the consequences, unlike in South Africa, are global.)

As it was in 2007, so it is in 2012. In the face of the tragedy at Marikana, where in August the police force shot dead 34 miners who by all accounts were supposed to represent the core of the ANC constituency, party leadership is relying on rhetoric instead of strategy.

“They are actually wrong,” Zuma said when asked, from the sidelines of a European Union meeting in Brussels on Tuesday, how he responds to critics who contend he has lost touch with his voters. “I am with the people on a continuous basis in huge meetings. Those people are really just telling what they think without looking at the facts. I am very much in touch with the people.”

The more worrying difference between the ANC and the CPC, however, is on the level of policy. To paraphrase the words of Leigh, the ANC has to start making some difficult choices about what policies will attract political support and placate the South African street. As the Bo affair proved once again, China’s ruling party is among the most endemically corrupt on Earth, but at least under Hu it delivered growth rates to keep the lid on the pot.

Importantly, none of the above is to suggest that the Chinese state’s penchant for meeting popular dissent with brutal force isn’t a huge factor. The chasm between an authoritarian regime and a democratically elected executive is vast, and where the ANC must always consider the potential loss of votes to the opposition (a likely scenario after Marikana), the CPC is the only horse in the race. To witness hundreds of Chinese riot police clad in black fatigues and thick helmets, as this writer did on the streets of Guangzhou after inadvertently stumbling into an anti-Japan protest Tuesday evening, is to feel the menace of a government that is accountable primarily to itself.

Still, to come back to Xi and his relevance to South Africa, it probably bears mentioning that five years ago China’s next leader was compared to Nelson Mandela by none other than Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore.

Wrote Time magazine of that under-reported assessment: “After a meeting that was either an hour long or 40 minutes long, depending on whether you believe the Straits Times or Chanel News Asia, Lee told Singapore journalists that Mr Xi’s experiences during the Cultural Revolution, when he spent some seven years working on a farm after being sent down to the countryside like tens of millions of other young people, had made him a ‘thoughtful’ man. (Said Lee): ‘I would put him in Nelson Mandela’s class of persons. A person with enormous emotional stability who does not allow his personal misfortunes or sufferings to affect his judgment. In other words, he is impressive.’”

Strange as the comparison may be, in the years ahead, as China’s relationship with Africa deepens, the continent will need there to be some truth in it. Addressing the FOCAC delegates in Beijing the day after his meeting with Xi at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, Zuma as good as asked the People’s Republic for restraint and equanimity in its dealings with Africa.

“Africa’s commitment to China’s development has been demonstrated by supply of raw materials, other products and technology transfer,” said Zuma, minutes after Hu had pledged those new loans worth S20-billion. “This trade pattern is unsustainable in the long term. Africa’s past economic experience with Europe dictates a need to be cautious when entering into partnerships with other economies.”

In light of Zuma’s history as a member of the South African Communist Party politburo, not to mention the aid and training provided by China to the ANC when it was fighting the Apartheid regime, Xi might have been particularly stung by the colonialist insinuation. But coming from the man at the helm of the continent’s largest economy, it was perhaps a sign that the Sino-Africa relationship was maturing, an acknowledgment that the dissimilarities would remain as entrenched as the common ground. DM

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