“When Deng Xiaoping (left) opened up the Chinese economy three decades ago, he did so on the premise that economic liberalization would precede political liberalization,” writes Yukon Huang:
For an impoverished generation that was still coping with the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, the chance at a better material life far outweighed the need for political expression. That trade-off held for many years; as recently as 2008, China topped the list of 24 countries included in the Pew Global Attitudes survey for its citizens’ satisfaction with their nation’s economy.
But there is now renewed speculation about political transformation to match China’s stunning economic success, he says:
A growing, newly socially conscious middle class has taken to the streets to decry the government’s response to the 2008 tainted milk scandal, to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and to the harsh working conditions for migrant laborers in factories such as the electronics manufacturing firm Foxconn…..These instances of unrest — and they are but a few of many — expose a growing discontent with three fundamental facets of China’s modern rise. For one, Beijing’s distinct economic management style has created vast inequality. Second, the economic system has led to almost intractable disputes over a finite resource — land. And third, the Chinese system relies heavily on migrant workers, who are stripped of many rights and protections, and therefore all the more likely to protest.
The growing grassroots pressure for political reform is the reason why the Communist Party elite’s normally staid annual meeting of the National People’s Congress is attracting unprecedented attention.
“The politicking is intense, and despite predictions of a ‘smooth’ transition, it is now clear that the transfer of power, from the so-called Fourth Generation leaders, led by Hu Jintao, to the Fifth, will be turbulent,” writes Gordon S. Chang:
This time, the handover from one set of leaders to the next is provoking real debate among party luminaries because there is a sense that things must change in the country. So it is not only the wholesale turnover in party leadership that is consuming the assembled deputies. There is now talk of fundamental reform, political as well as economic.
The thesis that economic liberalization begets political liberalization has proved true in such states as South Korea to Chile, Huang writes in Foreign Affairs, but China’s distinctive local-central political dynamics will give its trajectory a distinctive favor:
China, too, will eventually face the same forces. Yet the country is a unique case. Its decentralized political management style and strong regional differences in attitudes and customs have fostered a sharp distinction between how most Chinese view local authorities and how they view those in Beijing. Indeed, the capital’s senior leaders are still perceived as having the people’s best interests at heart, while local leaders are blamed for whatever goes wrong in citizens’ daily lives. Accordingly, Beijing’s worries over regional protests will likely prove overblown. In China today, for better or worse, local problems beget local reform.
There are a dozen reasons why analysts think that Xi will sponsor change once he takes over after the First Plenum: his father was a reformer, members of Xi’s Princeling faction are bolder than the technocrats, new Chinese leaders always try to clean house if they can. All this makes sense, but there are also a hundred reasons why Xi will act to protect the status quo: Xi is close to conservative generals, he will protect the business interests of fellow Princelings, he will need years to consolidate his political base among the hard-liners controlling Beijing.
“In truth, we do not know what Xi really thinks or how he will exercise power, should he in fact take over the Communist Party this fall,” Chang writes. “Yet among the NPC deputies now in the Chinese capital, there is a sense of anticipation that his rule will see great change. And the desire for change is the one precondition for progress.”
But don’t expect rapid democratic reform, Huang warns:
Real systemic change would be a long and slow process, and so far, authorities have been reluctant to provide more responsive outlets for voicing complaints. They have also been less accommodating of village-level governance experimentation as they were a decade ago, when a number of such experiments flourished. Despite China’s impressive economic achievements, the next generation of senior leaders taking office this year must find a way to move on political liberalization that meets popular aspirations but is acceptable within the party system. When a country is growing so fast, it can only kick change down the road for so long before the ride gets very, very bumpy.
And, he might add, the hardline neo-Maoist and nationalist factions associated with party chieftains like Bo Xilai are unlikely to quietly consent to political opening.