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