China’s ruling Communist party has not only cracked down on any sign of dissent in the run-up to its leadership transition. The party may have been described as “the world’s most competitive political system,” but it has tried to project its own elite reshuffle as a seamlessly effective alternative to the unpredictable outcome of free and fair elections.
“The problem is that when the Chinese public receives exposure to democratic elections in other countries, it clearly likes what it sees,” writes Keith Richburg, the Beijing correspondent for the Washington Post.
This isn’t just a matter of watching the U.S.; Chinese are also observing the democratic progress in neighboring countries. Burmese voted in parliamentary elections in April….. South Koreans will vote for a new president in December. And Taiwanese…turned out in large numbers in elections last January ……. One weibo user recently wrote: “All the mainstream web sites are focusing on all the speeches by Obama and Romney about how they’d govern the country. But no one talks about 18th Party Congress. Sina [weibo’s host] even censored the three words ‘18th Party Congress ‘in its search engine. It’s so absurd for them to be so secretive about it. Why don’t you dare stand up and walk in the daylight, if you are going to govern the country?”
“It is said that the Chinese Communist party is the world’s most competitive political system,” one analyst notes.
“No country prepares its leaders more diligently,” says an admiring diplomat. “This is the world’s best management school.”
But other accounts indicate that the ruling Communist party is congenitally incapable of innovation and in bodies like the elite political committee, strategic decision-making is paralyzed by inner-party factionalism:
The committee is a group of aging men with dyed hair and dark suits who make all major decisions about the economy, foreign policy and other issues. Their meetings are not publicized in the state news media. The party chief often presides, but they operate by consensus, which means decisions are generally made only when the members reach agreement.
They also must solicit the input of retired members, now more than a dozen, who at times exert considerable influence, most of all Mr. Hu’s 86-year-old predecessor, Jiang Zemin. Mr. Jiang and other elders are deeply engaged in the backstage negotiations to appoint the next generation of leaders.
Members of the committee represent different patronage networks and hold different portfolios — security, propaganda, the economy and so on — which can result in competing interests. Business lobbies are represented informally on the committee, and the members often have longstanding ties to China’s powerful state-owned enterprises; for example, the current chief of domestic security, Zhou Yongkang, once managed a state-owned oil company and is known to be a defender of the oil industry.
“Each of the nine wants to protect his patch,” said a political analyst connected to central party officials.
“There seems to be a trend in policy stagnation,” said Alice L. Miller, a scholar of Chinese politics at the Hoover Institution, “an inability to arrive at decisions collectively within the standing committee that I think shows up in a number of different ways.”
For China’s dissidents, the forthcoming party congress “has already proved itself to be a slap in the face,” The New York Times reports:
Hundreds, if not thousands, of activists and government critics across the country have been placed under house arrest or forced to take “vacations” far from the capital, often in the company of police minders, according to human rights organizations.
Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan blogger, said national security agents forced her to vacate her Beijing apartment this month. “I guess they consider people like us inharmonious,” Ms. Woeser said, speaking by phone from Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, where she grew up. “They just want us invisible during their big important meeting.”
Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent lawyer in Beijing, said the party’s paranoia served only to fuel public disillusionment. “If the government actually represented the common people, they wouldn’t need to be so strict,” Mr. Pu said. “The party is so cynical they think the people must always be distracted and manipulated in order to maintain stability.”
The party is also riddled with corruption, says a leading analyst, which has created powerful vested interests resistant to change and innovation.
“China is paying a huge price for this kleptocracy,” writes Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California
Corruption has made its economy less efficient and more risky (think of the huge value of bad loans used to finance infrastructure projects that have become gold mines for greedy officials). It has definitely worsened inequality. Even the regime is not spared the ill political consequences of corruption: its legitimacy has plummeted.
“International experience shows that only open economic competition, civil liberties and press freedom can curb corruption,” says Pei.
In the 1980s, a top Party leader brilliantly summarized the dilemma in dealing with corruption. “Corruption will kill the Party,” he supposedly said, “but fighting corruption will kill it, too.”
Three decades later, nothing seems to have changed.
But leading China analyst Andrew Nathan suggests that “runaway corruption may not be the Achilles’ heel that the regime seems to fear and that its critics hope for,” at least judging by the findings of a recent analysis of the issue:
Much of what now goes on in China is not “degenerative corruption,” which eats away at an economy, but “transactive corruption,” which takes place when officials and business people cooperate to promote growth and consider it reasonable to share the proceeds. Despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, Wedeman contends that the Chinese Communist Party’s anticorruption campaign has been effective enough to keep the party from becoming a predatory institution. He sees the country moving into a U.S.-style “progressive era” of even more effective anticorruption measures.
Nevertheless, China’s status quo is unsustainable, says one of the country’s leading economists.
“Sooner or later there must be a crisis,” says Mao Yushi:
[A]fter three decades of fast growth, the country stands at a crossroads…No economy can productively invest more than half its GDP year after year. One economist calculates that half of all China’s physical assets have been built in the past six years.
The party needs to devise a new social contract for China, observers suggest, otherwise the country will continue to see a hemorrhage of its most talented middle class professionals.
Many such people were “voting with their feet,” said Fang Zhulan, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing, calling the exodus “a negative comment by entrepreneurs upon the protection and realization of their rights in the current system.”
China has certainly come a long way from the days when Mao Zedong was “an obedient pupil of the great Stalin,” but the ruling party cannot claim credit for the country’s economic miracle, notes Nathan, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.
“The Chinese market economy was created not from above, by the state, but from below, by entrepreneurs,” he notes. “The state came in later, to legitimize and regulate the institutions that the economic actors created.”
Whether China will remain a democratic outlier will largely be determined by the new leadership and “despite some optimism from those wishing for reform, no one really knows for sure where they stand,’ writes the Post’s Richburg:
“The question is, how capable are they?” said journalist Li Datong. “Can the Party bear the idea that their power will be weakened, and they might possibility lose their regime? Whether the Communist Party is ready for that or not is a mystery.” But while China’s rulers ponder such questions behind closed doors, the Chinese public will continue advancing the conversation without them.