Scaling China's great wall of vested interests

Xi Jinping is aware that the Politburo is plagued by a credibility problem. But by ignoring calls for political and economic reform, China's leaders risk digging their own political graves.

The Xi Jinping/Li Keqiang leadership is still relatively new, but enough time has passed since last year’s 18th Party Congress and this year’s National People’s Congress to give us some sense of where things might be going.

There are big changes in the nature of the new Politburo Standing Committee. The overall numbers are reduced from nine to seven, and of those seven, five are new. It’s also worth noting that five of these are due to be replaced at the time of the next party congress—late 2017, if things go to plan.

Not only the numbers, but the characteristics of the membership have also changed. The age of the engineers and technocrats is over — their replacements include a lawyer, an historian, two economists, a former schoolteacher and a ballistic missile engineer. They have a broader range of experiences, prior jobs and workplaces. They also represent a new factional balance.

In addition to the PBSC, changes in the broader leading groups have also been sweeping: over half of the politburo, seven out of 10 of the Central Military Commission, and similar infusions of new blood in the NPC, the state-owned enterprises, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and at the provincial level. Arguably, this has been the largest transition over the past 30 years.

Whatever differences there may be within the leadership, one thing on which they are all agreed is that in the party state (党国) — that is, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) — it’s the party that comes first. Whether a leader is a ‘princeling’, a China Youth League man, a protégé of Jiang Zemin or of Hu Jintao, there is the same sense of entitlement and ownership — China is us. This is very much the case with Xi Jinping, already showing signs of being more than primus inter pares (unlike Hu Jintao). He presents as strong, confident and clear, although not too clear. He can articulate his ‘China dream’ in general terms, but leaves it to others to fill in the detail; if they get it wrong, then they have misunderstood the leader’s intentions.

While confident, thorough, and capable of speaking and acting in ways that appeal to ordinary Chinese, Xi clearly senses serious problems in the credibility of the party vis-à-vis society. This includes the party’s moral credibility, crucially tied to legitimacy in the Chinese political context. Similarly, he sees this as an issue within the party itself. Hence the renewed attacks on corruption, which have had an immediate impact on banqueting habits and other more egregious manifestations of party members behaving badly.

But restricting menus to four dishes and one soup has been tried and abandoned repeatedly since first mandated during the Ming dynasty. Such is the degree to which far worse forms of corruption have now become systemic, most are sceptical — if not cynical — as to how successful the current campaign will be. In recent months, dire warnings of the dangers of corruption have also focused on the PLA. The mechanisms for dealing with these now endemic problems are still designed by the party itself, and the dilemma of self-policing within a closed system has been widely recognised.

At the same time, we are seeing a significant ideological hardening coupled with a crackdown on lawyers, journalists, bloggers and human rights advocates. Party members are being told they have to strengthen people’s confidence in the vision of socialism with Chinese characteristics, a sure sign that at least in some circles the vision is fading. So we have Xi’s recent pilgrimage to Xibaipo, Mao’s last stopping point before the surrender of Beiping (Beijing) in 1949, and his reminder of the continuing importance of Mao’s ‘two musts’ (a modest demeanour, commitment to arduous struggle)—repeating similar exhortations from the revolutionary site by Jiang Zemin in 1991 and Hu Jintao in 2002.

Attempts to stymie a vigorous discussion of constitutional governance as the way forward for China need to be seen in this context, as do recent much-discussed guidelines regarding the ‘seven things not for discussion’ in educational institutions, the media and so on, and the two ‘cannot negates’. The former are: universal values, media freedom, civil society, citizens’ rights, the CCP’s historical aberrations, the privileged capitalist class and independence of the judiciary. The latter refers to not using the first 30 years of the PRC to negate the latter (that is, Mao and post-Mao, pre- and post-reform and opening), or vice-versa. It now appears that both of these are based on Document No. 9, issued by the Central Party Office in April 2013, and can thus be taken as an authoritative reflection of Xi’s thinking.

These  are interesting indications of just what people are indeed talking about, and it’s little wonder that the leadership may find this worrying. Equally of interest is that despite a recent spate of arrests, there has been pushback. A well-connected figure specifically attacked the ‘two negates’, and also strongly criticised another statement known to have been made by Xi concerning the collapse of the Soviet Union. Similarly, when the overseas edition of People’s Daily published an editorial attacking calls for constitutionalism as part of a Western conspiracy in August 2013, almost simultaneously the Central Party School’s Study Times argued that it was imperative for China to push on with political reform. This is significant. 

It seems quite clear that Xi genuinely believes the party needs to be called to order, and few would question that. And while political reform does not appear to be on Xi’s agenda, economic reform is another matter. The evidence points towards a genuine commitment to this, shared with Li Keqiang. Precisely because Xi knows this is not going to be easy, that powerful vested interests stand in the way, he wants consensus. He wants to ensure the whole leadership is on the team—including the by no means insignificant number of people who are still sympathetic to Bo Xilai, or at least to his way of doing things—and he wants no distractions from the job in hand.

Li is known as a good economist, and will not be as easily rattled by a downturn in growth as was Wen Jiabao. Precisely what is in store will be made clearer at the forthcoming Third Plenum, but we can expect Xi to provide Li with the necessary backing and measures needed to push on with restructuring, because they all know this is essential if the party is to have any hope of maintaining control of the nation.

At the same time, one does not have to be a Marxist to know that changes in the economic base need to be reflected appropriately in the superstructure. Or, put another way: apart from land, capital, labour and technology, institutions are an equally vital economic input. Sooner or later the calls for judicial independence, greater media freedom and all the other issues covered by demands for constitutional government are going to have to be heeded. Otherwise history will prove — to adopt the language of the party — that not only the bourgeoisie have the capacity to be their own gravediggers.

Professor Richard Rigby is head of the China Institute at the Australian National University and was formerly an Australian diplomat and analyst specialising on Chinese and Asian affairs.

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