“Moving to complete only its second smooth leadership transition in more than six decades of rule, The New York Times reports, “the Chinese Communist Party ended a weeklong conclave on Wednesday as its departing general secretary, Hu Jintao, prepared to hand the reins of power to Xi Jinping, son of a revered revolutionary guerrilla leader who was also an architect of China’s economic transformation.”
Expectations that Xi will prove to be a reformer are unrealistic, say analysts.
“It is no secret that he was chosen five years ago as the successor to power precisely because he is not a person to shake up the hierarchy or to take dangerous risks,” says Willy Lam, a scholar of Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “He has played it safe and sticks to party orthodoxy.”
“These people around Xi Jinping who advise him and with whom he’s close, they do want reform, but on the condition that they maintain the rule of the Communist Party,” said Zhang Lifan, a historian and son of a former minister. “They consider the Communist Party and its rule a heritage from their fathers. So they’re not willing to risk losing it. They have limitations on how far they want reform to go.”
It is not hard to find “signs of dynastic decay in the rigid rule of the party,” says a leading analyst:
Some western diplomats estimate that as much as 40 per cent of China’s military budget is siphoned off through corruption. As a phalanx of senior PLA officers ascended the steps of the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square this week, many of them sported generous pot bellies, leading one party member to comment wryly to the Financial Times that nothing displays structural weakness like overweight generals.
David Shambaugh is an expert on China’s political system at George Washington University and has written extensively about the Communist party’s uncanny ability to adapt to meet the needs of its citizens. But he now argues the party has begun to ossify and is starting to show classic signs of dynastic decline.
These signs include a hollow state ideology in which nobody believes, cronyism, public apathy towards politics, an assertive military not fully under the control of civilian leaders, rampant corruption, capital flight, a rise in social vice and factionalism at the top of the system.
“I think the leaders in Beijing are very aware that in the age of the internet and rapid flow of information, they need to think again how to fight corruption,” says Liu Xiaobo, a political-science professor at Columbia University. “The revelation of all sorts of cases through social media creates growing doubt in the Communist party regime’s legitimacy.”
“Figuring out how to transfer power at the top in the absence of an open and legitimate leadership selection process is the biggest political challenge China faces,” says Susan L. Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Program at the University of California-San Diego. “Most authoritarian governments are brought down by splits in the leadership, not by revolts of the masses.”
The Washington Post reports: Li Datong, a journalist and reform advocate who was fired from his editor’s job at China Youth Daily for pushing against official censorship, said he believes that Xi realizes the imperative for reform but may be hamstrung by a Communist Party fearful of losing its power.
“The CCP is facing an unprecedented crisis of credibility, which is fatal for them,” Li said. “The party has already lost its credibility because of the long time of one-party dictatorship. The regime will collapse like the last few years of [the] Qing Dynasty if the new leaders don’t catch this chance to reform.”
The bigger concern is that the system itself needs fixing – that a rigid Leninist party structure has failed to keep pace with an increasingly mobile, ambitious, opinionated and informed Chinese population.
Will Messrs Xi and Li be the men to lead this change? That is highly doubtful. After studying the lessons of the Soviet Union, the Communist party has worked to ensure that, above all, it has not promoted Chinese Gorbachevs.
“The good thing about these people is that if you don’t like them, in five or 10 years they will be gone,” said Bo Zhiyue, a scholar of Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore. “But the problem is that 10 years will be too long if this group of people is incapable of doing anything.”
“China’s authoritarian model is praised as more efficient and more nimble than sclerotic Western democracies,” notes the BBC’s Damian Grammaticus:
Many in China, though, are not so confident. There is a widespread sense that political reform has not kept pace with a changing China, and it needs to catch up. So the question facing the Communist Party is: can it continue to keep China’s 1.3 billion people effectively excluded from real power and continue to be successful?
“People want rule of law. People want democracy and freedom,” says Wu Qing, one of China’s most famous civil-rights advocates. “In the constitution it says people have freedom of speech, freedom of publication, and freedom of lots of things. And yet it is hard. But people are pushing for that.”
She served on the local congresses in Beijing for two decades, a rare independent voice, until she was forced out last year. She says in modern China there must be checks and balances on the party: most already exist in its constitution, but they aren’t enforced.
“We should have a constitutional court, the judiciary should be independent, and there should be a law to protect the freedom of information. That’s what we need. And there should really be free elections at grass roots,” she says.
Xi’s father, the revolutionary hero Xi Zhongxun, became a key economic reformer and set up China’s first special economic zone in Shenzhen, which became a thriving manufacturing hub open to foreign investment. “I hope he will be like his father,” says Sidney Rittenberg, a former member of the Chinese Communist party who knew Xi’s father in the 1940s. “His father was always getting in trouble because of his plebeian style and democratic way of thinking. We hope that a lot of that rubbed off on the son.”
Western liberal democracy would be wrong for China.
From the introduction:
People everywhere are better off living in liberal democracy: that has been the reigning assumption of the western world. But could it be we’ve got it wrong? If you were one of the world’s billions of poor peasants might you not be better off under a system dedicated to political stability and economic growth – one that has lifted 400 million out of poverty – rather than one preoccupied with human rights, the rule of law, and the chance to vote out unpopular rulers? Thanks to the Chinese model of government life expectancy in Shanghai is now higher than in New York.
So is China better off without democracy? Or is that just the age-old mantra of the tyrant?
The side arguing for the motion included Martin Jacques, author of “When China Rules the World,” and Zhang Weiwei, Senior Fellow at the Chunqiu Institute. Arguing against the motion was Anson Chan, Former Chief Secretary of Hong Kong, and historian and journalist Jonathan Mirsky. Watch the debate above.