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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.

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The record of the first 30 years of the People’s Republic of China was one appalling human, economic, or ecological catastrophe after another, however unified the country had become under Mao’s leadership. There’s little reason the party should still be ruling China today were it not for Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping and his pragmatic economic reforms that unleashed pent-up energies now sustained for nearly two generations.

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Signs that this economic growth is faltering, along with disturbing reports of criminality and corruption at high levels and of extreme wealth amassed by families of party leaders pose existential threats to the regime.

The party’s greatest strength is becoming its great weakness – an economy that has produced uneven, unregulated, and unsustainable growth. The vaunted technocratic skills of a new generation of leaders are being put to the test, too often in disciplining their own.

Other side-effects of the nation’s export-driven prosperity look increasingly unmanageable under the current governing system. These include the surge in wealth inequality that surpasses most western democracies, a state-dominated banking system that misallocates resources with massive amounts of hidden debt, a politicized judiciary, environmental degradation, and the shameful treatment of tens of millions of migrant workers.

The failed policies in Tibet and East Turkestan are disturbing blind spots for a government that stubbornly refuses to acknowledge its culpability in the deep discontent among its minorities.

Political scientists often describe China’s government as an example of “resilient authoritarianism,” a fancy way of saying that the single-party state has found a way to survive through innovative and flexible economic policies, at least since Deng’s reforms were adopted in 1978.

Yet the Chinese Communist Party is at risk of believing its own hype. It is like the political candidate who fails to understand his weaknesses and loses an election because he only listened to his own surrogates and partisan promoters. The party is facing a new stage of development in which its rule book has no answers, at least none that work for a nation of citizens who demand the same dignity, rights, and participatory privileges that they see and admire elsewhere in the advanced countries of the world.

“Abuses of power and the pervading lack of transparency and accountability simply will not be tolerated indefinitely,” Anson Chan, the former deputy administrator of Hong Kong, told an audience in London last week. “China’s leaders should now be actively planning for an orderly relaxation of its iron grip on political power and a move toward greater openness and participatory politics.”

Sadly, they are not. China’s neighbors and trade partners should take note, especially Taiwan, whose government has staked the island-republic’s future on cooperating with a kinder, gentler People’s Republic.

Lack of realism in Taipei about the single-minded autocrats in Beijing is the flip side of China’s inability to adapt. Instead of bringing stability, Taiwan’s eager rapprochement carries with it risks of instability to its own democracy as it fails to hedge against too close an association with the present regime in Beijing.

Both sides would do well to heed Deng Xiaoping’s advice of “seeking truth from facts” and heed the legitimate needs and expectations of their own citizens.

Julian Baum is a journalist formerly based in both Taipei and Beijing.


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