China’s ruling Communist party will soon approach its Soviet predecessor in longevity, assuming the current troubled transition happens.
What’s more, the one-party dictatorship will survive for at least another decade, according to an international survey of China experts. But some analysts believe the party’s political monopoly is an unsustainable anachronism
“Without political reform, the party is doomed because all these strange events only happen because the party is still a Leninist Party — still basically a party run on very old, obsolete institutions from the days of the Soviet Union,” said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, an adjunct professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Failure to adapt “will affect everything, even economic development,” he said.
Whether he has or hasn’t reappeared in state media today, the recent confusion and speculation over the whereabouts of heir apparent Xi Jinping “underlines the question of how long China’s model of top-down governance will remain viable,” writes Jonathan Fenby, author of “Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today.”
The Bo Xilai scandal has enhanced the significance of “showing unity at the top in a state where allegiance to the system has always been the prime virtue, the law is used to coerce citizens, information is controlled and dissent is equivalent to treason,” he notes. But emerging trends and forces will make the status quo unsustainable:
The growth of social media, among citizens who enjoy far more individual liberty than in the first decades of Communist party rule, has revolutionised public discourse……Secrecy may be par for the course in China, but it is increasingly unhealthy for a country where social change is a far greater challenge to the political status quo than calls for democracy. The people’s republic is changing fast in ways the establishment finds hard to deal with. The investment-led, cheap labour model that has brought China so far looks increasingly unsuited for an era of declining external demand, rising wages and an ageing population.
“In my recent meetings with senior government officials and advisers in Beijing, many of them said they felt that the party is losing control over the discourse and just isn’t able manage the message like it could before Weibo came along,” said one well-connected Chinese economist.
“Ceding more space to political opposition” may help the 82 million-strong party maintain control of the world’s second- largest economy, says former UK diplomat Kerry Brown, a professor at the University of Sydney.
But that seems unlikely, even if the ruling party has become more attuned to public opinion on such issues as nationalism and social unrest.
“But when it comes to the leadership, the old conspiratorial instincts of an underground party come to the fore,” said Richard Rigby, a former Australian diplomat and China expert at the Australian National University.
Any form of power-sharing, pluralism or liberalization is unlikely to happen on the watch of leaders like Li Keqiang:
He helped cover up an Aids scandal that wiped out entire villages. While he was a provincial governor, hundreds died in a series of big fires. But he did not resign in disgrace or go to prison. Instead, he is about to become China’s next premier.
Li Keqiang is one of the men the Communist party of China will present a few weeks from now as the country’s leaders for the next decade. And, although there are myriad complex challenges ahead in running the world’s most populous nation, the party looks set to choose a line-up not of the most outstanding but of those, like Mr Li, most adept at navigating its internal politics.
According to one party insider, Li is typical of a new generation of party leaders lacking either legitimacy or competence and demonstrating that mediocrity and mendacity rise to the top in the current party.
“In the era of Deng Xiaoping, they could do a lot of things because they were revolutionaries, they had political capital. But now our politicians are all bureaucrats who have risen through the ranks,” says Ren Yi, a liberal ‘princeling.’
“To put it simply, they are more mediocre – they are not leaders but just follow policy,” he says. “Those who are sharp and independent-minded will be eliminated by the system, and the most obedient ones, the ones without edges, will get promoted.”
As a provincial governor, Li sought to cover up a rampant Aids epidemic and persecuted doctors, citizens and Aids campaigners until Beijing intervened.
“Under Chinese law, Li Keqiang as the top government official in the province at the time should have borne the political responsibility for this,” says Wan Yanhai* (left) a prominent Aids activist who fled China in 2010 to escape political persecution.
“The party leadership was protecting Li Keqiang because he had already been chosen as a leader,” says Hu Jia, another dissident, who worked with Mr Wan to combat the spread of Aids in Henan during Mr Li’s term there.
This week’s unexplained disappearance of Xi Jinping shows that Beijing is as secretive now as it was in 1971, when another high-level disappearance soured the leadership transition, according to Kathrin Hille in Beijing and Jamil Anderlini in Tianjin.
“Sadly, 41 years on from the Lin Biao episode, Chinese politics still carries a feudal flavor, though China is now the world’s second-largest economy,” ,” writes analyst Yun Tang. “The selection of a ‘successor’ and the upcoming power transition looks like a dynastic succession.”
“A theory I have is that Xi Jinping is busy working out, figuring out, negotiating a solution to the Bo Xilai case,” Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, told National Public Radio.
“The most tantalizing idea circulating in Beijing political circles is that Mr Xi is a closet democrat – the Mikhail Gorbachev of China – just itching to unleash political liberalization,” writes the FT’s Anderlini:
Proponents of this argument point to his father’s relatively liberal reputation, his support for the reform-minded 1980s leader Hu Yaobang and his opposition to the 1989 crackdown on student-led democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s central Tiananmen Square.
Even the tiniest details have been taken as evidence of Xi Jinping’s democratic yearning: the fact that his father for decades wore a watch that was given to him by a young Dalai Lama in the 1950s; that his mother sent a wreath from her and her children to the 2005 funeral of Zhao Ziyang, the liberal leader who was purged in 1989 for refusing to crush the democracy protests.
Stronger evidence that Mr Xi may harbour a secret desire for political reform can be found in the writing of his former PhD adviser, Professor Sun Liping of Tsinghua University.Prof Sun has published some scathing essays on the need for braver political reforms and eventual democracy in China, most of which have been censored.
“When the Chinese speak of ‘democracy,’ they are not referring to the Western model — that is, Jeffersonian, representative, of the people, by the people, for the people,” claims analyst Tom Doctoroff. “Instead, they crave an efficient, responsive, self-correcting government, one capable of managing — and adapting to — the ever-increasing complexity of the Chinese economy and their country’s role in global affairs.”
In what may yet prove to be another irony of history, the political ambition of neo-Maoist Bo Xilai may have encouraged pro-democratic tendencies that could inject pluralism into the ruling party.
“His example shows that we’re already on the verge of a multi-party system,” says a dissident formerly active in organizing a democratic party. “He has a programme and he has a support base. On the other end of the spectrum, you have [premier] Wen Jiabao with a contrasting programme and an opposing support base. Take this just a little further, and the Communist party will split into two.”
External challenges to the party have also increased. Activists say the claim that there is nothing to replace the Communist party no longer holds.
“The legacy of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao is the emergence of a pluralist society,” says the head of an unofficial Beijing Christian “house church”. “Civil society is booming, and we will see NGOs gain influence on politics.”
“People here don’t want a revolution,” says the dissident. “It is up to the Communist party itself if China goes down the path of Taiwan or of Romania.”
Further evidence of the party’s nervousness over Xi’s disappearance comes from China Digital Times, which notes that the following search terms are blocked on Sina Weibo (not including the “search for user” function):
Xi Jinping: Hu Jintao’s presumed heir apparent has not been seen in 11 days, leading to wild speculation about his whereabouts.
- · back injury : One rumor has it that Xi has disappeared to nurse a hurt back.
- · crown prince: A netizen nickname for Xi.
- · crown prince
- · jinping: Pinyin Romanization.
- · XJinping : A combination of pinyin and Chinese characters invented to get past the censors.
- · Jinping + car accident: Another rumor has spread that Xi and Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) member He Guoqiang were in a car accident on September 4. This has yet to be verified.
- · Guoqiang + car accident .