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Different China, same risky political system

At China's Communist Party congress, outgoing President Hu Jintao made a frank appraisal of challenges faced by the party. But he ruled out any evolution toward a more open and accountable political system. China has yet to learn from South Korea and Taiwan.

By Julian Baum / November 14, 2012

Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, right, and outgoing President Hu Jintao attend the closing ceremony of the 18th Communist Party Congress held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing Nov. 14. Op-ed contributor Julian Baum writes: 'The party has evolved over the decades, but has not changed its stripes.' Faltering economic growth, and reports of corruption at high levels and of extreme wealth amassed by families of party leaders 'pose existential threats to the regime.'

Vincent Yu/AP


Richmond, VA.

What would an orderly political transformation of China look like, one that matches the remarkable economic achievements of the past three decades?

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In searching for clues, there’s no need to spend much time pouring over the proceedings of the 18th congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which concludes in Beijing this week. The ceremonial conclave of several thousand delegates, convened once every five years, is a well set stage for the unveiling of a new generation of leaders who are expected to rule China in similar fashion for the next decade.

True, in a lengthy and heavily staffed report to the assembled faithful in the Great Hall of the People, outgoing party secretary Hu Jintao last week made a detailed and frank appraisal of the many challenges faced by the party leadership.

But he was firm in ruling out any evolution toward a more open and publicly accountable political system. Western-style democracy was nowhere in sight, and those who see China learning political lessons from South Korea, Taiwan, or even Singapore had better reconsider this view.

Instead, Mr. Hu doubled down on the ideological underpinnings of the party-state with its supremacy of a single, unchallengeable party and mysterious procedures for political succession. His references to the party’s basic principles, including “Marxism-Leninism, Mao Tse-tung Thought” and “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” were intended to leave little room for his successor, Xi Jinping, to tinker with the fundamentals of the system.

The party has evolved over the decades, but has not changed its stripes.

Barely a generation ago, it had few university graduates on its Central Committee or the elite Politburo. Loyalty to a single paramount leader and revolutionary credentials were essential qualifications for senior officials. According to its defenders, the party has now become a model of technocratic efficiency where leaders are chosen on merit.

However, the rules and criteria of selection are vague; claims of a meritocracy are unconvincing as the track record is too brief; expertise is still cloaked in political correctness, and fierce in-fighting among competing personal factions is not the same as checks and balances found in Western governments.

For those hoping for a stable and prosperous China, the picture of a Leninist autocracy presiding over the world’s 2nd largest economy and a burgeoning society presents a bundle of contradictions and frustrations. Many of those contradictions surface in China’s vibrant social media, where criticism of government abounds, along with biting irony and sarcasm.

The coincidence of the American presidential election in the same week that China’s 18th party congress opened was a unique opportunity for displays of popular Chinese wit and wisdom. For instance, a report in China’s state-run news media about the “shame” of Americans waiting in line for many hours to vote drew typically biting responses from readers.

“We’ve been waiting for 4,000 years” one person  responded, mocking the negativity. “I’ve been waiting for 63 years,” wrote another in reference to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. “At least catch up with Vietnam,” another one commented to the Financial Times, referring to Vietnam’s internal elections for top positions in the ruling party.

The lesson for China’s leaders is obvious to such Chinese netizens: that impressive achievements on the economic front are the party’s only justifiable claim to legitimacy since the end of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution while accountability is still lacking.


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