Toward a deliberative China

A consolidation of power under Xi Jinping puts a focus on a political faction that prefers humble listening of public grievances.

Hu Chunhua takes questions from an audience in a Beijing hotel in 2015 when he was party leader of Guangdong province.

The biggest bombshell coming out of a week-long gathering of China’s ruling Communist Party was not that long-time leader Xi Jinping further consolidated power for another five-year term. Rather it was the surprising ejection of a potential successor to Xi – Hu Chunhua – from the powerful 24-member Politburo.

The ejection was not only of a presumed rival but also of a style of leadership that many Chinese people now prefer as their personal grievances toward the party keep expanding.

As he climbed the party’s hierarchy over decades, Mr. Hu – the son of farmers – was often depicted by the official press as a humble listener, open-minded to criticism and reform. While still loyal to Mr. Xi and the party in imposing firm control over places such as Tibet, he also displayed a willingness to mediate disputes, such as in Guangdong province between local journalists and party censors.

In meetings with foreign officials, too, his willingness to deliberate was also noted. “He genuinely paid interest and attention to what I had to say, as well as to my colleagues from other chambers,” Joerg Wuttke, president of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, told Reuters. He was comfortable enough to make a light joke about the European chamber’s long list of complaints about China’s policy. “Other leaders would not have taken that quite (as) well,” said Mr. Wuttke.

China’s Communist Party has long had a tradition of channeling public grievances through private petitions to local officials. Mr. Xi has shifted that process more to the courts where the party has greater control. Now in seeming to rule for life, he has surrounded himself mainly with loyalists who may not challenge him. The world has seen how such a consolidation of power has played out in Russia under Vladimir Putin. His close allies may have avoided telling him of the potential problems in invading Ukraine.

In a 2021 global index by the University of Gothenburg, the level of deliberation in governance has gone down in 32 countries in the previous decade. The index describes deliberation as a “respectful dialogue among informed and competent participants who are open to persuasion.”

Within the secretive politics of China, Mr. Hu was representative of a “populist” faction that sought to listen to the people in order to correct the party’s policies. For dictators, however, listening can be dangerous if the people see their grievances not being met. The rise of China as a peaceful power may depend on whether enough leaders in the party can use their deliberative powers to change the country’s course.

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