Li Bifeng — formerly jailed for five years for his activities in the Tiananmen Square democracy movement — was charged with contract fraud, but rights advocates dismissed the allegations as specious.
Li’s detention appears to confirm suspicions that the ruling Communist Party’s leadership transition is unlikely to generate political liberalization.
The ruling party describes the selection process as ‘socialist democracy’, ‘people’s democracy’ or ‘intraparty democracy,’” notes one analyst. ”In reality the process is almost entirely top-down, with a tiny group of top officials and retired party elders deciding all major appointments.”
Some observers have suggested that Xi Jinping, the new president, and incoming premier Li Keqiang may be closet reformers or ‘Gorbachevs.’ But others were underwhelmed by the new party line-up.
“I read Xi’s speech,” Jian Heng, a guest professor at Shantou University in Guangdong Province, wrote on Weibo. “He mentioned the word ‘party’ 20 times; ‘people’ appeared 19 times; ‘responsibility’ was said 10 times and ‘problems’ 3 times. Didn’t use anything related to law. No ‘law,’ no ‘constitution,’ no ‘rule of law’ nor ‘democracy,’ no ‘freedom.’ ”
“This is quite a mediocre lineup, and we’ll have to wait and see what they do,” said Pu Zhiqiang, a Beijing-based lawyer who often handles human rights cases. “The way of Chinese politics means that their past performances don’t show what they’ll do in the future.”
Another problem is that the leadership reflects the strong hand of Mr. Hu [Jintao’s]’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin. Although Mr. Jiang, 86, retired a decade ago, he has close ties with at least four of the seven members. That means he was able to override Mr. Hu and place his people in top slots even though he has no formal position in the party.
“The bad news from looking at the political system is that it really seems to have thrown a wrench in our understanding of institutionalization,” said Joseph Fewsmith, a professor at Boston University who specializes in Chinese politics. “This whole institutional idea that people retire and then don’t play much of a role seems to have been pretty well demolished.”
The regime’s model of developmental authoritarianism has delivered such staggering levels of economic growth that it has been able to rely on its performance-based legitimacy to maintain a political base and a certain degree of stability. But that is about to change, analysts suggest.
“We’ve seen very quick growth for almost 30 years but now we have come to a crossroads,” says Mao Yushi, an influential liberal economist. “The [outgoing] administration didn’t push reforms, the force of earlier reforms has been used up and we see mounting problems stemming from the political dictatorship.”
The regime has stopped publishing estimates of the number of large-scale collective protests or “mass incidents” and some officials have claimed a relative decline.
In fact, public defiance is increasing. Sun Liping, a professor from the elite Tsinghua University who is said to have supervised Mr Xi’s doctorate, estimates there were more than 180,000 public demonstrations in 2010, compared with an official estimate of about 40,000 in 2002. The response from the previous administration was to ramp up the budget for domestic security and “stability maintenance” – and to crack down on anyone who was seen as threatening the status quo.
“I would characterise the last five years, and especially since 2009, as a period of authoritarian stagnation in which all political, social and economic reforms were stillborn,” says David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University. “I’m afraid we’re going to get more of that under Xi.”
The government has been able to buy its way out of incipient crisis, but that approach will no longer suffice.
“During their 10 years in power, Hu and Wen relied entirely on the fruits of the investment and development of the previous 13 years [before they took over in 2002],” says Ma Xiaolin, a prominent political commentator and founder of an online discussion forum. “But now in the Xi [Jinping] era, if the leadership cannot solve the major problems, such as serious corruption and problems in the judiciary, then they will definitely not be able to maintain social or political stability.”
According to Shambaugh, the author of China’s Communist Party: Atrophy & Adaptation, “China’s key challenges — social inequity, environmental damage, rigidities of the educational system, lack of innovation, depressed consumer consumption, the demographics of aging and unbalanced sex ratios, labor mobility, lack of transparency and accountability, ineffective rule of law, poor provision of public goods, and weak ‘soft power’ abroad — are all qualitative issues that do not lend themselves to state investment such as building high-speed rail or harbors.”
Another obstacle is institutional. While leaders matter in the Chinese system, institutional interests count for far more. China may not be a democracy, but it has strong bureaucratic and interest-group politics. For the past five years real reform has been blunted by the “Iron Quadrangle”: mammoth state-owned enterprises, the internal security apparatus, the military and the conservative wing of the Communist Party. The coalition of these four power interest groups “captured” Hu, who was too weak and disinclined to stand up to them, and they stalled reforms.
Many commentators have described Xi’s deputy as the most likely reformist within the new leadership.
“China’s best-educated leader, Mr. Li speaks confident English. In contrast with the previous round of leaders who were steeped in leaden party doctrine and Soviet economic theory, Mr. Li has been exposed to a rich palette of liberal thinking,” The New York Times notes.
But others note that as a provincial governor, Li sought to cover up a rampant Aids epidemic and persecuted doctors, citizens and Aids campaigners until Beijing intervened.
“In my opinion, Li Keqiang should be sentenced to life in prison for official misconduct,” said Wan Yanhai (above), the director of an AIDS group, the Aizhixing Institute. “When hundreds of people were dying, he was more concerned about his political career. So he kept quiet.”
[Li’s] six years in Henan were not known for excellence. A series of fires that claimed hundreds of lives in a factory, a cinema and a nightclub earned him the nickname “Three Fires Li.” He was more seriously bruised by a scandal in which tens of thousands of peasants were infected with H.I.V. after they sold their plasma through state-affiliated clinics, which injected pooled blood back into the donors. Although the infections began before his arrival in Henan, public health advocates say Mr. Li was more interested in covering up the crisis than stopping the contamination or finding those responsible.
“Under Chinese law, Li Keqiang as the top government official in the province at the time should have borne the political responsibility for this,” said Wan,*a prominent Aids activist who fled China in 2010 to escape political persecution.
In gauging China’s future after the 18th Party Congress and the potential for reform under Xi, says Shambaugh, “expect more of the same: authoritarian stagnation and gridlock at home, with increased abrasiveness abroad.”
The new leadership is likely to maintain the regime’s increasingly belligerent approach to foreign affairs, says a leading analyst.
“Chinese leaders tend to think of the US as a paper tiger and believe if they show they’re tough on their neighbors and on Washington then that will force everyone to back down,” says Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan, co-author of “China’s New Rulers” and a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.