China’s Impending Transition
by The Milton Measure on Friday, November 16th, 2012
Yesterday, curtains were lifted on China’s new leaders as the country concludes the week-long congress in Beijing. Many news outlets have pointed to possible social, political, and economic reforms after the decennial leadership transition. The Economist dubbed the expected new president Xi Jingping “the man that must change China;” BBC’s John Simpson even alluded to Soviet Russia’s dramatic political transformation in the early 1990s by calling the 18th Congress the one that will “change the course of history.”
Indeed, the country and the next generation of its leaders do look different on paper. Double-digit percentage growth in GDP for most of the past decade has steadily expanded the country’s middle class, causing more people to pursue higher education, buy luxury goods, and travel abroad. Looking at the country’s new leaders, one might speculate that now is the time to talk about thorough reform as the progressive faction of the party will most likely have more say than before in the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee after the downfall of Bo Xilai, a hugely influential neo-Maoist leader. For some, China’s future comes down to the most simplistic reasoning: wouldn’t the 59-year-old Xi who governed coastal Shanghai and Zhejiang and who sent his daughter to Harvard do something?
The short and unfortunate answer is no. Although those on the Standing Committee enjoy immense power over the millions of ordinary Chinese they “represent,” the factional politics of this country, described by Cheng Li at the Brookings Institution as “one country, two coalitions,” guarantee time and time again meticulous reform proposals that rarely go beyond rhetoric. On one hand, the two coalitions — “princelings” and the liberal “Youth League,” — create needed power checks in the secretive central government. On the other hand, the Standing Committee must please leaders of both factions to ensure stability. Former president, 86-year-old Jiang Zeming sent out a clear message last week that even after he dies, his allies and proteges will still fight for the princelings. Xi’s presumptive presidency did not come without a price. The five seats on the Standing Committee will very likely be a result of compromise between the two factions. As a result, these politicians who will spend the rest of their lives behind close doors in Beijing will not be able to exercise real power over controversial issues, or move China in the direction they want to. There are simply too many interest groups involved, and every political affair is delicate in China.
While most analysts focus on the legitimacy problem that the Communist Party has had after several quarters of slowed economic growth, the protests captured in western news programs in streets and on social media have never been front and center in China’s political or social sphere. Internet users barely make up 34% of the total population, and the majority of the people, farmers in rural areas, are more concerned about their next meal than an ideological fight with the current rulers. People would love to think, especially with the new leaders facing so many unprecedented international and domestic conflicts, that change is close at hand. Such sentiments do not, however, concern the Communist Party of China, a position made clear when Hu Jintao earlier this week gave a nearly identical state-of-the-nation address as his predecessor did ten years ago.
But those who long to see change need not worry, either. From a traditional western democracy’s standpoint, China failed a long time ago. But its political and economic system, and the culture of the people and of the land, have presented the country with a situation very different from that of Soviet Russia or Cuba. When Deng Xiaoping introduced in 1978 an economic reform guided by “state capitalism,” no one thought the new policy would work for a communist country, and it had clearly never been implementd previously. But this reform fundamentally changed the social and economic landscape of this country. State capitalism may not have been successful in another country, but this country embraced an idea that was unique to China and unique to the time. Drastic political reform is not likely for today’s China, whose administration stresses stability or “harmonious development.” But who knows? Perhaps the very dilemma that China is facing now will prompt a peaceful solution that is not direct election or anything else the world has seen before.
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