Category Archives: political reform

“The man who must change China”

The Economist board has an editorial describing Xi Jinping as the man who “must” change China:

As ruler of the world’s new economic powerhouse, Mr Xi will follow his recent predecessors in trying to combine economic growth with political stability. Yet this task is proving increasingly difficult. A slowing economy, corruption and myriad social problems are causing growing frustration among China’s people and worry among its officials.

In coping with these tensions, Mr Xi can continue to clamp down on discontent, or he can start to loosen the party’s control. China’s future will be determined by the answer to this question: does Mr Xi have the courage and vision to see that assuring his country’s prosperity and stability in the future requires him to break with the past?

Until recently, the Chinese were getting richer so fast that most of them had better things to worry about than how they were governed. But today China faces a set of threats that an official journal describes as “interlocked like dog’s teeth”. The poor chafe at inequality, corruption, environmental ruin and land-grabs by officials. The middle class fret about contaminated food and many protect their savings by sending money abroad and signing up for foreign passports. The rich and powerful fight over the economy’s vast wealth. Scholars at a recent government conference summed it up well: China is “unstable at the grass roots, dejected at the middle strata and out of control at the top”.

Once, the party could bottle up dissent. But ordinary people today protest in public. They write books on previously taboo subjects and comment on everything in real time through China’s vibrant new social media. Complaints that would once have remained local are now debated nationwide. If China’s leaders mishandle the discontent, one senior economist warned in a secret report, it could cause “a chain reaction that results in social turmoil or violent revolution”.

But, you don’t need to think that China is on the brink of revolution to believe that it must use the next decade to change. The departing prime minister, Wen Jiabao, has more than once called China’s development “unbalanced, unco-ordinated and unsustainable”. Last week Qiushi , the party’s main theoretical journal, called on the government to “press ahead with restructuring of the political system”.

Ultimately, this newspaper hopes, political reform would make the party answerable to the courts and, as the purest expression of this, free political prisoners. It would scrap party-membership requirements for official positions and abolish party committees in ministries. It would curb the power of the propaganda department to impose censorship and scrap the central military commission, which commits the People’s Liberation Army to defend the party, not just the country.

No doubt Mr Xi would balk at that. Even so, a great man would be bold. Independent candidates should be encouraged to stand for people’s congresses, the local parliaments that operate at all levels of government, and they should have the freedom to let voters know what they think. A timetable should also be set for directly electing government leaders, starting with townships in the countryside and districts in the cities, perhaps allowing five years for those experiments to settle in, before taking direct elections up to the county level in rural areas, then prefectures and later provinces, leading all the way to competitive elections for national leaders.

Mr Xi comes at a crucial moment for China, when hardliners still deny the need for political change and insist that the state can put down dissent with force. For everyone else, too, Mr Xi’s choice will weigh heavily. The world has much more to fear from a weak, unstable China than from a strong one.

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“Amid Calls For Reform, China Waits For New Leaders”

From Louisa Lim at NPR, a good one to read while we wait for the new guys to take over:

Even the state-run media is on the offensive. Two months ago, an editor at the Study Times newspaper wrote an article declaring that the problems caused by the past decade’s policies “are even more numerous than the achievements.”

This was followed by a call for reform in the party publication Seeking Truth, which pronounced that “stagnation and turning back is a dead end.”

Historian Zhang Lifan believes this essay is significant.

“That a conservative magazine is singing about reform shows a change in attitude at the top,” says Zhang. “I don’t think they’ve reached consensus on how reform will be carried out. They just realize they can’t continue as before.”

Zhang himself sees the party’s future in absolute terms, predicting either “reform within five years or death within 10 years.”

The new president isn’t all-powerful, however. He’ll be first among equals in a collective leadership. Currently that committee consists of nine people, but rumors are circulating that it will be reduced to seven posts.

Only two of the current members of the committee will remain: Xi and his premier, Li Keqiang. As for the rest of the positions, horse-trading could continue until the very last minute.

But the black box of Chinese politics means all this happens behind closed doors. Zhang, the historian, warns of the dangers of oversimplification.

“Westerners think black is black and white is white,” he says. “How could they know that for Chinese, black contains white, white contains red, red contains black, everything is mixed. It’s rather complicated.”

In less than three weeks, a new chapter in China’s political history will begin at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. However, no one knows how many men or women will rule China, or who they are. Change may be coming, but the question remains just how much.

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“China must reform or risk crisis, experts warn new leader”

Via Chris Buckley, another piece describing some of the advice Xi Jinping is receiving in the last days before he ascends to power:

“China’s economic and social contradictions seem to be nearing a threshold,” prominent Chinese economist Wu Jinglian said in a recent interview with Caijing business magazine.

Advocates of reform are pressing Xi to cut back the privileges of state-owned firms, make it easier for rural migrants to settle permanently in cities, fix a fiscal system that encourages local governments to live off land expropriations and, above all, tether the powers of a state that they say risks suffocating growth and fanning discontent.

Most party-linked proponents said in interviews with Reuters that political reform must start at the grassroots and be incremental; they called outright democracy a distant or unrealistic idea.

“You can’t solve all of these problems in a decade, but you can address the reforms urgently needed by ordinary people and show that you’re heading in the right direction,” said Deng Yuwen, an editor at the Study Times, a newspaper published by the Central Party School which trains rising officials.

The party’s recent unity behind a decision to punish disgraced politician Bo Xilai has kindled hopes among some that Xi can build similar accord for bolder reforms.

Xi is aware of the calls, said experts and party insiders. But heeding them will require him to take on economic and political blocs with a powerful hold over policy.

“Does the new leadership recognize that they’re reaching a key inflection point in their economic and political path? I think the answer is yes. But the other question is: Do they have the courage to act boldly on those problems,” said Christopher Johnson, a specialist on China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.

“Before each congress, there’s always a debate, but it feels sharper this time,” said Zhang Jianjing, editor of “China Reform” magazine, which has advocated pro-market policies and using the law to curb state power.

“There’s a deeper sense of anxiety now that goes beyond specific issues. There is a widespread sense of foreboding,” said Zhang, a journalist who has followed four party congresses.

But recently, Xi hinted that he understands the calls for him to take a bolder path, even if he wants to also put to rest any expectations he will seek a radical change.

In a talk with Hu Deping, son of the late reformist leader Hu Yaobang, Xi said he favored steady reform.

Signs the party leadership wants to trim the Politburo Standing Committee – the core of party power – from nine to seven members also appear to reflect a desire for more agile policy-setting.

Yet even if Xi wins a leadership lineup sympathetic to a bolder agenda, he faces the obstacle of pushing changes past powerful state sectors and state-owned conglomerates that have enjoyed privileged access to credit and opportunities.

He might also have to accommodate two retired leaders, Hu and his predecessor Jiang Zemin, who are likely to demand a say in big policy changes. That could make for unwieldy compromises bogging down change, said some advocates of reform.

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“Preserving Stability”

Qian Gang has a good post at the China Media Project, looking at how stability preservation has hijacked the Chinese political landscape, and wondering about whether or not it will preserved as a main principle of the next leadership group:

The two-character Chinese phrase weiwen is an abbreviated form of the full phrase, weihu wending, meaning to preserve or safeguard stability. The Chinese Communist Party has many such shortened phrases, compact verbalisms that pack a political punch, invoking whole histories of policy and practice. For those versed in China’s political vocabulary, these are important shibboleths.

In the phrase “stability preservation,” stability is a coded reference to social disorder — which is to say, social disorder must be avoided at all cost.

Meeting with U.S. President George H.W. Bush on February 26, 1989, Deng Xiaoping said: “Before everything else, China’s problems require stability.” In the aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown just over three months later, Deng again stressed this point in what quickly became a hardened phrase: “Stability is of overriding importance.”

The phrase “wending yadao yiqie” could also be translated as “stability above everything else.” This term’s coming of age, you might say, was heralded when it became a headline in the People’s Daily on the one-year anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown in 1990.

“Stability above everything else” is a slogan much beloved by Party leaders associated with the conservative faction, or baoshoupai, who oppose reforms in China. When Deng Xiaoping used this phrase, however, he used it in conjunction with his advocacy of reform and development.

When Jiang Zemin passed the baton on to Hu Jintao in 2002, a careful balance of these three ideas — stability, reform and development — was maintained. The full phrase, “Stability above everything else,” this hard-edged watchword, did not appear at all in either of Jiang Zemin’s political reports to the 14th and 15th national congresses in 1992 and 1997. The phrase did sneak into the political report to the 16th National Congress in 2002, the year when Hu Jintao took the presidency, but it was dropped again in the political report five years later.

As the phrase “stability preservation” has risen in prominence, so has the influence of officials associated with the Central Politics and Law Commission, the Party organization that takes charge of political and legal affairs in the country.

Some within China have referred to the 10 years of President Hu Jintao’s leadership as the “stability preservation decade.” During these years, political reform has stalled as an agenda item, and powerful interest groups have hijacked politics and the economy.

As China’s national strength has advanced, China’s population at large has paid a heavy toll. Social inequality in China has worsened substantially. Facing a growing tide of rights-defense movements by disenfranchised Chinese, the response by Party authorities has been to apply pressure on top of pressure. This has sometimes been called “maintaining a high-pressure environment.” Its net result has been a constant outbreak of violent incidents. When thousands of residents in the Sichuanese city of Shifang took to the streets in July 2012 to protest the building of a copper alloy plant close to residential areas, the local government responded by mobilizing armed police, who sought to clear the streets in tightly advancing formations, even firing stun grenades at protesters.

In terms of Party watchwords, this leaves us with two important questions:

1. Will the phrase “stability is of overriding importance” appear in the political report?
2. Will the phrase “stability preservation” appear in the political report?

If these terms do appear, this will signal that the Party intends to perpetuate the political line of “stability preservation,” and maintain an atmosphere of high pressure on all perceived forms of unrest, regardless of how legitimate the claims of those carrying out rights defense may be. If these terms do not appear in the political report, the question will be how the report deals with the agenda of social stability, and whether there are watchwords of change to read between the lines.

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“China president-in-waiting signals quicker reform”

Reuters has a piece about how Xi Jinping is supposedly chomping at the bit to speed up the pace of reform. It all sounds good, but after the Hu-Wen administration dashed our hopes so many times I think a good bit of skepticism is going to be key here:

Xi met the prominent reformer, Hu Deping, in the past six weeks, the sources said, in a gesture intended to show he was listening to voices calling for not only faster economic liberalization but also a relaxation of political controls.

“The problems that China has accumulated are unprecedented,” one of the sources said, paraphrasing what he said was a written summary of Xi’s remarks circulated among some retired officials.

“We must seek progress and change while remaining steady,” Xi was quoted as saying.

In recent days, Chinese websites have circulated a withering assessment of Hu’s decade in power by an editor at a weekly newspaper run by the Central Party School. Xi is president of the school, and some members of his brains trust work on the campus in northwest Beijing, which trains rising officials.

“Overall, in this decade China has achieved considerable success and progress. But behind success there are also problems,” said the commentary by Deng Yuwen, a deputy editor of the Study Times newspaper.

“If we speak candidly, this decade has seeded or created massive problems, and the problems are even more numerous than the achievements,” said the commentary, which first appeared on the Caijing business magazine until it was taken down.

Deng said problems include an over-reliance on investment to power the economy, failure to nurture a secure middle class, urban-rural disparities, pollution, “ideological bankruptcy” and, above all, failure to pursue political reforms.

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“As China Talks of Change, Fear Rises on the Risks”

Michael Wines has a solid look at the voices for change coming from inside the Party in the run-up to the Party Congress:

A heavyweight crowd gathered last October for a banquet in Beijing’s tallest skyscraper. The son of Mao Zedong’s immediate successor was there, as was the daughter of the country’s No. 2 military official for nearly three decades, along with the half sister of China’s president-in-waiting, and many more.

Most surprising, though, was the reason for the meeting. A small coterie of children of China’s founding elites who favor deeper political and economic change had come to debate the need for a new direction under the next generation of Communist Party leaders, who are set to take power in a once-a-decade changeover set to begin this year. Many had met the previous August, and would meet again in February.

“Compare now to 1989; in ’89, the reformers had the upper hand,” said Mr. Zhang, a historian formerly associated with the government’s Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, referring to the pro-democracy student protests that enjoyed the support of a number of important party leaders but were crushed in Tiananmen Square. “Twenty years later, the reformers have grown weaker. Now there are so many vested interests that they’ll be taken out if they touch anyone else’s interests.”

To Mr. Zhang and others, this is the conundrum of China’s rise: the autocracy that back-flipped on Marxist ideology to forge the world’s second-largest economy seems incapable of embracing political changes that actually could prolong its own survival.

Many who identify with the reform camp see change as inevitable anyway, but only, they say, because social upheaval will force it. In that view, discontent with growing inequality, corruption, pollution and other societal ills will inevitably lead to a more democratic society — or a sharp turn toward totalitarianism.

If peaceful change is to occur, Mr. Zhou and many others say, it must begin inside the Communist Party; the lesson of Tiananmen Square is that the leadership will not tolerate threats to its control. Many speak of a transformation along the lines of that in Taiwan, where authoritarian rulers peacefully gave way to direct elections in 1996, and helped spawn today’s robust democracy.

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“Signs of a New Tiananmen in China”

A sensationalist headline from Minxin Pei, who thinks the same factors that lead to Tiananmen are starting to resurface in Chinese society:

Despite disagreement among participants in this incipient post-1989 Chinese intellectual renaissance, the discussion is fast converging on three critical issues. First, there appears to be a widely shared consensus among China’s thinking class that the country’s economic reform is either dead or mired in stagnation. Second, those who believe that economic reform is dead or stuck argue that only political reform, specifically the kind that reduces the power of the state and makes the government accountable to its people, will resuscitate economic reform (some advocate for more radical, democratizing changes, although the consensus on this particular point has yet to emerge). Third, the status quo, which can be characterized as a sclerotic authoritarian crony-capitalist order, isn’t sustainable and, without a fundamental shift in direction, a crisis is inevitable.

Such signs of an intellectual awakening are worth noting for many reasons. Its timing is certainly significant. Many people would connect this development with China’s pending leadership transition. In China, as in most other countries, pending changes in leadership usually stimulate discussions among the intelligentsia about the future of the country and the accomplishments or failures of the departing leadership.

One may be tempted to dismiss such discussions as idle chatter among marginalized Chinese intellectuals. This would be a mistake. Some of the participants in these discussions are influential opinion makers or advisors to the Chinese government. Their views reflect the thinking of at least some insiders of the Communist Party. So the frustrated tone and anxiety conveyed by their views could suggest that more open-minded elements in the party, some of whom may be in line to assume senior or important positions as a result of the leadership transition, share the same sense of crisis and urgency.

The voices of China’s liberal intelligentsia are now resonating among a public increasingly disenchanted with the party’s policies. In particular, such voices should appeal to China’s better-educated youths, whose numbers have increased several times since Tiananmen. Two decades of rapid economic growth, consumerism, and state-sponsored nationalism may have lulled them into political apathy. But as they experience the injustice, corruption, and incompetence of the current system in their daily lives, they’ll most likely feel increasingly swayed by voices urging a fundamental change of course.

Maybe.

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