Have recent events taken the gloss off the China model?
With up to 1,000 Filipino demonstrators expected to march today on China’s consulate in Manila to protest Beijing’s aggression in a maritime territorial dispute, the regime’s much-vaunted soft power is also looking fragile.
But the spat may rebound to the ruling elite’s advantage.
“For China’s ruling Communist Party, which is heading toward an end-of-year leadership succession, the dispute with Manila can divert attention from recent energy-sapping scandals over sacked Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai and blind dissident Chen Guangcheng (right),” according to one account.
The appeal of China’s “vaguely defined combination of authoritarian politics and state-guided capitalism” was always questionable…..
But now, with the recent political upheavals, and a growing number of influential voices demanding a resurrection of freer economic policies, it appears that the sense of triumphalism was, at best, premature, and perhaps seriously misguided. Chinese leaders are grappling with a range of uncertainties, from the once-a-decade leadership transition this year that has been marred by a seismic political scandal, to a slowdown of growth in an economy in which deeply entrenched state-owned enterprises and their political patrons have hobbled market forces and private entrepreneurship.
“Many economic problems that we face are actually political problems in disguise, such as the nature of the economy, the nature of the ownership system in the country and groups of vested interests,” said Zhang Ming, a political scientist at Renmin University in Beijing. “The problems are so serious that they have to be solved now and can no longer be put off.”
The ruling Communist party is confronting a modern version of an ancient challenge, says Francis Fukuyama (left), a senior fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute, namely the “bad emperor” problem:
China never developed rule of law; an independent legal institution that would limit the discretion of the government. What the Chinese substituted for formal checks on power was a bureaucracy bound by rules and customs that made its behaviour reasonably predictable, and a Confucian moral system that educated leaders to look to public interests rather than their own aggrandisement. This system is, in essence, the same one that operates today, with the Communist party taking the role of emperor. … while unchecked power in the hands of a benevolent and wise ruler has many advantages, how do you guarantee a supply of good emperors?
“But it is the scandal over Bo Xilai, until recently a member of the party’s elite Politburo, that has most humbled those who previously praised the well-oiled nature of China’s political system and its appearance of unity,” the New York Times reports:
The fallout from the Bo Xilai scandal is demonstrating that the ruling Communist party is neither as competent nor as disciplined as many analysts believed. The regime is confronting a challenge that is especially delicate and potentially fraught for authoritarian regimes – managing a transfer of power:
With the dissolution of power, a multitude of factions and alliances are emerging under one-party rule, with no one voice able to impose order. ….“China needs a system in place more than ever,” said Wang Kang, a liberal writer from Chongqing. “Only a system can guarantee stability.”
The CPC has not solved the bad emperor problem, nor will it until it develops something like a genuine rule of law with all of the transparency and formal institutionalization that entails….informal rules observed by a small clique of insiders cannot really substitute for a formal rule of law. As we can see today, modern liberal democracies constrained by law and elections often produce mediocre or weak leaders. Sometimes democracies elect monsters, such as Adolf Hitler. But at least the formal procedures constraining power through law and elections put big roadblocks in the path of a really bad emperor.
Another significant burden on the China model is the “truncheon budget”, the cost of a rapidly growing security apparatus, a response to surging social unrest which is yet another “stress point”:
Its heavy-handed tactics in pursuit of social stability have been called into question by, among other things, more than 30 self-immolations by disaffected Tibetans and a diplomatic crisis between China and the United States precipitated by the plight of a persecuted dissident, Chen Guangcheng. A well-documented uprising last winter against corrupt officials in the southern village of Wukan ignited a debate about how protests should be addressed: by the sword of the security forces, or through mediation by senior officials.
Officials rely heavily on domestic security forces to quell what they call “mass incidents,” which one sociologist, Sun Liping, estimated at 180,000 in 2010. In March, the government announced that it planned to spend $111 billion on domestic security this year, a 12 percent increase over 2011, and $5 billion more than this year’s military budget.
The case of Chen Guangcheng exposed the weakness of the security hardliners’ “stability maintenance” or weiwen tactics and the blind barefoot lawyer believes the party must reform – sooner or later.
“From the few times I’ve engaged with them,” Chen said, “I know they have the intention of reforming, of slowly initiating the rule of law. But I don’t know how soon.”