Future of China economy will force political reform

The ouster of a prominent Communist Party member, Bo Xilai, hints at this year's power struggle to define political reforms needed to avoid big problems for the Chinese economy.

Andy Wong/AP Photo
Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai looks as he attends the National People's Congress this week. China's Communist Party sidelined Bo, a powerful, charismatic politician March 15.

The world’s two largest economies, the United States and China, will go through leadership changes in late 2012. One will be democratic while the other, well, barely so. In China, only elite Communists decide who can fill the top nine posts of the ruling party’s supreme authority.

Yet of the two contests, which one will end up being seen in 10 years as the most historic?

Probably China’s. By that time, its economy may surpass that of the US, but more than that, the party will likely be forced to take wrenching and overdue political reforms.

After 30 years of pell-mell and unequal growth, many Chinese leaders admit it is time for reform. But of what kind? This week, a party struggle erupted over that question in what amounted to the Chinese equivalent of an American-style campaign brawl.

A top contender for the Politburo’s standing committee, Bo Xilai, was fired as party chief in the city of Chongqing. Such a slap down of a prominent party man and the son of a hero of the 1949 revolution hasn’t been seen in more than a decade. The move shatters the myth that the party can achieve harmonious transitions.

In his actions as “mayor” of a megalopolis, Mr. Bo stood for taking China back to Mao-era state control of the economy and people’s lives. His removal now bodes well for reformers. They seek not only further opening up of the economy to market forces but also tolerance for some political competition to vent public frustrations over problems such as income equality, corruption, and environmental damage. Or to quote a Chinese proverb, “If we don’t change our direction, we’re likely to end up where we’re headed.”

The leading reformer, outgoing premier Wen Jiabao, said Wednesday in indirect reference to Bo’s firing that “without a successful political reform, it’s impossible for China to fully bring economic reform, and the gains we have made in these areas may be lost.”

He even warned of a possible return to the “historical tragedy” of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution – a stab at Bo’s political platform. He praised the Arab Spring, saying “this trend towards democracy cannot be held back by any force.”

Despite Mr. Wen’s words, the party pushed through a new law this week in the puppet legislature allowing a six-month detention of political dissidents without formal charges. The party is obviously conflicted.

The top-level struggle to define a new China was also reflected in a World Bank report on necessary economic reforms. The 468-page blueprint was co-written by a top government advisory body, perhaps a sign of the ideological warfare inside Beijing’s powerful compounds.

The report predicts a popular “demand for better governance and greater opportunities for participation in public policy debate and implementation” and calls for more rights to individuals and less state controls.

As the party battles in coming months to pick the final members of its standing committee, there won’t be American-style debates or dueling political ads. Yet the outcome of the struggle may determine the future of the world’s most populous nations for decades. Too bad the press and the rest of the world sees very little of that struggle.

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