China’s leadership transition has prompted extensive commentary on prospects for political reform, but some analysts believe the new generation is less likely to democratize a sclerotic political system than cede authority to a newly assertive military and succumb to growing ‘hyper-nationalism.’
“We will never copy a Western political system,” Hu Jintao, the departing party head, told the opening session of the ruling Communist Party’s 18th Congress:
The party’s public agenda, which Mr. Hu described in detail in his 100-minute address, was laid out in a 64-page report that is in part intended to highlight priorities for the new leaders, who will be announced later this month. Much of the document had retrograde language that emphasized ideology stretching back to Mao and had little in the way of bold or creative thinking, said Qian Gang, the director of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong.
”If you read Hu’s speech last week, which is the consensus of the current leadership and the incoming one, it’s a reassertion of conservative core values – ‘the party must pull out all stops to preserve the monopoly of the party on power,”’ says Willy Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. ”It’s highly unlikely that Xi [the incoming president Xi Jinping] will be able to achieve any political reform, at least in his first five-year term.”
The leadership succession process devised by former leader Deng Xiaoping has served its purpose: “preventing the disruptive, sometimes bloody power struggles that have been the downfall of other authoritarian regimes,” writes Princeton University’s Aaron L. Friedberg:
This year’s succession, however, has been far from smooth. China’s political elite is clearly divided against itself, although the precise composition of the factions is much hazier. Some observers see a contest between a group of “princelings,” the descendants of China’s revolutionary founders, and those from more modest backgrounds, many of whom got their start in the Communist Party Youth League. (Xi belongs to the first group; Li [Keqiang] is a member of the second.)
While some observers expect Li will assume the mantle of outgoing premier Wen Jiabao as an advocate of democratic reform, others are skeptical.
“Li Keqiang will be more effective than Wen Jiabao,” said Bo Zhiyue, an expert on Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore. “Wen Jiabao tried to promote too many things – political reform, social reform as well as economic reform. Li Keqiang will be more focused.”
Any hopes that he may be a reform-minded leader are grounded in his student days. Not only did he support open and free elections, he also immersed himself in English and law, studying under a professor who taught constitutional democracy. Mr Li has not forgotten his language training. He speaks the best English – proficient but not fluent – among China’s top leaders. But he seems to have shed much of his idealism on the way to the summit of Chinese politics.
Wang Juntao, his former classmate who is now an exiled democracy campaigner, wrote about meeting Mr Li nearly a decade after graduation: “I felt he had less of his independent strength of character and was more world-weary.”
Nor is the probable incoming president likely to be a force for reform, writes Harvard University’s Roderick MacFarquhar:
Xi is a “princeling”, the son of a revolutionary who became a senior official of the Mao and Deng eras. Retired elders such as Mr Jiang apparently prefer princelings since they are assumed to have a stake in preserving the system. But because Mr Xi’s elevation has been a result of factional struggle and compromise, he has no personal mandate. Almost certainly that is one reason Mr Hu and his colleagues moved swiftly this year to unseat Bo Xilai, the charismatic princeling boss of Chongqing. Mr Bo could have constituted a real threat to Mr Xi had he entered the PSC.
Even if Xi is committed to political reform, “there is very little chance that he will be able to implement the kind of change that China needs,” says Princeton’s Friedberg, author of A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia:
At best, he will be first among equals and will have to bargain and compromise with others who give even less evidence of enthusiasm for real reform. Even among those who favor change there are no influential public advocates of a genuine, multi-party system or unrestricted freedom of political expression. On closer inspection, reform proposals usually turn out to involve mechanisms for creating the appearance of greater choice by expanding “democracy within the Party.”
The authorities stopped publishing statistics detailing the number of large-scale protests or “mass incidents” in 2005 when the figure exceeded 80,000, Friedberg notes. And the upsurge in social unrest helps explain why some members of the ruling elite have reportedly taken to reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the French Revolution.
China’s leaders are ”fascinated by the French thinker’s writings because of what his observations say about conditions in their times,” says Nailene Chou Wiest, a visiting professor at China’s Sun Yat-sen University.
Outgoing premier Wen Jiabo has described China’s economic growth model is as “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated, and ultimately unsustainable.” Many observers agree that economic restructuring cannot be achieved without challenging existing power structures.
“In order to build a real market economy, we have to have real political reform,” said Yang Jisheng, a veteran journalist and a leading historian of the Mao era. “In the next years, we should have a constitutional democracy plus a market economy.”
But the ruling Communist Party and other vested interests represent serious obstacles to reform:
The 400 or so incoming members of the party’s Central Committee, Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee, as well as their friends and families, have close ties to the most powerful of China’s 145,000 state-owned enterprises. The growing presence of princelings — the children of notable Communist officials — in the party, the government and corporations could mean an even more closely meshed web of nepotism. It is a system that Xi Jinping, anointed to be the next party chief and president and himself a member of the “red nobility,” would find hard to unravel, even if he wanted to.
“There are people who run state-owned enterprises who are Xi Jinping’s friends, relatives and old classmates,” said Zhang Lifan, a historian. “This group is part of his political energy and support base. If Xi Jinping is willing to reform, he must sacrifice the interests of these people for the long-term good.”
“To break one-party rule right now is probably not realistic, but we can have factions within the party made public and legalized, so they can campaign against each other,” said Mr. Yang, who added that there was no other way at the moment to ensure political accountability. “What happens in this kind of economy is that wealth concentrates where power is.”
The ruling elite managed to purge neo-Maoist Bo Xilai in the run-up to the current Congress, but “absent Bo, factionalism in the PSC could threaten Mr Xi’s policies and position,” writes Harvard’s MacFarquhar:
Solving China’s huge problems will provide ample room for disagreement: corrosive corruption from top to bottom; widespread resistance to the depredations of local officials; environmental degradation; vast income disparities; and capital flight. If Mr Xi is a closet reformer, his room for manoeuvre is small. The 83m party members did not sign up for radical changes that would threaten their power or piggy-banks.
Giving voice to the party orthodoxy of democracy with Chinese characteristics, one Congress delegate claims that reform towards a “socialist consultative democracy” is implicit in Hu’s report.
“The report makes clear that political consultation must be incorporated into decision-making,” Wang Huan tells the official Xinhua news agency. “This requirement will reinforce the effectiveness of democratic consultation and help take in more advice from different sectors of the society. All of this bears testimony to the vitality of socialist democracy.”
But while the party claims that it is promoting a system of grassroots, village-level democracy, “the problem of over-concentration of power is more serious than ever,” says Qian Gang, director of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong.
“How can meaningful reform of local people’s congresses occur without addressing the core issue of separating the Party and government?
That’s why there has been no real progress on reform of the people’s congress system over the past 20 years. Since 2002, it has been routine for top Party chiefs in every province to chair their local people’s congresses, recentralizing power.
Just like a quarter century ago, real political reform in China requires a change in the Party’s power structure. This entails tough questions, and even tougher answers, about the origin of power, the independent exercise of power, and safeguards to ensure power is effectively checked and monitored. Instead, Mr. Hu’s pronouncement that China “will resolutely not follow Western political models” revives a hardline phrase that has often presaged a stubborn unwillingness to carry out any sort of meaningful reform.
Another theory why democratic reform is likely to be stillborn “is that the Chinese military is becoming a louder voice in Beijing, at the expense of economic technocrats and diplomats,” says the FT’s Gideon Rachman:
Behind the new group of top leaders lies a younger generation of Chinese raised on the “wolf’s milk” of hyper-nationalism. In the post-Tiananmen era, the Chinese government has sought legitimacy in a new national narrative – rammed home in schools – that emphasizes patriotic revival and the avenging of the humiliations inflicted by foreign powers, above all Japan.
Princeton’s Friedberg shares such concerns.
“While acting with excessive caution at home, a weak collective leadership may actually be prone to pursue more assertive, even aggressive external policies,” he writes in The New Republic:
Faced with rising domestic discontent, this leading group will probably feel compelled to rely even more heavily than their predecessors on a militant strand of nationalism to rally popular support, and they may seek to deflect public anger outwards towards foreign bogeymen like Japan. Lacking the stature and experience to stand up to the military, the civilian leadership may be inclined to give in to its demands for yet more resources and tougher policies. And, in the event of a crisis or confrontation, none of the members of the inner circle will want to risk accusations of being “soft” or lacking patriotic zeal.
“Despite their seeming blandness, China’s new rulers could end up steering their country into very dangerous waters indeed,” he concludes.