Observers who hope the appointment of Xi Jinping as China’s president will enhance prospects for political liberalization are likely to be disappointed.
“Some people define reform as reforming in the direction of Western universal values and a Western political system, otherwise it’s not reform,” Xi said in comments that circulated among officials. “This is stealthily switching one idea for another, and it distorts what reform is for us.”
Xi may be eager to stamp out the rampant corruption that is undermining the ruling Communist Party’s fragile legitimacy, but any reforms will be designed to maintain the party’s monopoly on power, say analysts.
“I think that he’s attracted to the idea of a kind of enlightened dictatorship, or neo-authoritarianism,” said Li Weidong, a former magazine editor in Beijing. “He rejects fundamental political reform, but he wants a cleaner, more efficient government that is closer to the public.”
“I think in the end it will be difficult for them to avoid issues of political reform because otherwise it will be impossible to eradicate corruption,” Li said. “Relying on personal authority and party indoctrination and traditions won’t solve the problems they face.”
The elitists and secretive nature of Xi’s selection attracted comparisons with another poll held this week.
“Over a period of just 12 hours two of the world’s most powerful institutions, the Roman Catholic Church and the Chinese government, have installed supreme leaders chosen in total secrecy. But while the choice of Pope Francis came as a surprise to most, the appointment of Xi Jinping as China’s president for the next decade was decided more than five years ago and merely consecrated by the country’s ceremonial legislature,” the FT’s Jamil Anderlini writes from Beijing:
“Who will be president? I am so full of anticipation. The race will certainly be a dead heat and my heart is beating out of my chest,” wrote one Weibo user under the name “cup of fresh bean brother”.
Other internet users set up an online election with multiple candidates for president and asked the public to cast their vote. The election was blocked by China’s restrictive internet censorship filters and only about 5,000 people had cast their ballot by Thursday afternoon but by then Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou was the frontrunner with about 20 per cent of the vote. Dissident artist Ai Weiwei was running second, with imprisoned writer, political activist and Nobel peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo a close third.
“I would guess maybe 30-40 people were directly involved in the decision to select Xi Jinping as the next leader of China,” said David Zweig, chair professor of social science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “When the party talks about democracy they don’t mean it in the sense of one person one vote; they mean there was an open discussion amongst the leadership.”
The Economist asks whether the arrival on a Shanghai river of the “putrescent carcasses of thousands of dead pigs (above)…..is a potent (and disgusting) symbol of the view,…that there is something rotten in the state of China, and that change will have to come”:
Many think it will. According to Andrew Nathan, an American scholar, “the consensus is stronger than at any time since the 1989 Tiananmen crisis that the resilience of the authoritarian regime in…China is approaching its limits.” Mr Nathan, who a decade ago coined the term “authoritarian resilience” to describe the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to adapt and survive, was contributing, in the Journal of Democracy, an American academic quarterly, to a collection of essays with the titillating title: “China at the tipping point?”
The ruling elite are determined to maintain the Market-Leninist model of economic liberalization and political authoritarianism, says a former insider.
“They are all the sons of the party,” said Yao Jianfu, a retired party official and a researcher in Beijing.
“For them, there’s no conflict between defending their own power and developing a capitalist economy in China,” he said, adding that Mr. Xi “will have to lean more to the left in politics than he can lean to right in economic policy, otherwise he won’t be able to stabilize his place on the emperor’s throne.”
Nevertheless, “the evolution of Chinese society is eroding some of the bases of party rule,” The Economist notes:
Fear may be diminishing. Nearly 500m Chinese are under 25 and have no direct memory of the bloody suppression of the Tiananmen protests: the government has done its best to keep them in the dark about it. A few public dissidents still write open letters and court harassment and jail sentences. But millions join in subversive chatter online, mocking the party when not ignoring it.
“Mass incidents”—protests and demonstrations—proliferate. Farmers resent land-grabs by greedy local officials. The second generation of workers ..[is] more ambitious and less docile than their parents. And the urban middle class is growing fast.
This latent volatility and underlying fragility of the system explains why some party apparatchiks believe that the status quo is unsustainable.
“The talk of reform is genuine,” said Jennifer Richmond, who analyzes China for Stratfor. “There is absolutely an understanding by the new leadership that they cannot carry on in the way that they have.
“But so many of those that got rich off the old system are a part of the system, and the changes they make will affect them,” she said. “The ultimate fear is loss of party power, and that’s just unacceptable whether you’re a conservative or a reformer.”
Parliament offered signs of the obstacles that any ambitious change will face. A reorganization of government ministries and agencies approved by delegates turned out to be much less thorough than what political insiders and analysts said was proposed several months ago. The powers of the National Development and Reform Commission, which many pro-market economists see as a hurdle to real reform, remained untouched.
“When they start to diminish the power of the N.D.R.C., that’s when I think that this is genuine,” Ms. Richmond said.
Rather, as Fu Ying, spokeswoman for the NPC, put it: political reform is “the self-improvement and development of the socialist system with Chinese characteristics”. Put another way, it is about strengthening party rule, not diluting it. Mr Xi seems to agree. A New York-based website, Beijing Spring, has published extracts of a speech he made on a tour of southern China late last year. He affirmed his belief in “the realization of Communism”.