Will Xi be China's Gorbachev?

Corruption in China is rife from top to bottom, and while recent CPC leaders have acknowledged its continuation will spell the nation's doom, to tackle it would destroy the party.

FT.com

The Little Red Book is no more. With the abandonment in effect of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought during the churning capitalism of the reform era, China no longer has an ideology encompassing state and society, and legitimising the party’s right to lead the people.

As he took over as president this year, Xi Jinping instead appealed to patriotism as a motivating force and the promise of the “Chinese dream”. But more than it needs a national renaissance, the country needs to fight corruption.

In a valedictory address, President Hu Jintao said that a failure to do so “could prove fatal to the party and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state”. And incoming Premier Li Keqiang said: “Since we have chosen public office we should give up all thought of making money.”

So far Xi and Li have pursued easier objectives, ordering officials to abandon high-style living. But already there are reports that some official departments are turning their canteens into luxury restaurants so that they can enjoy banquets without public scrutiny.

As Chinese citizens often point out, in practice the regime goes after the small fry but is leery of targeting corruption in the higher ranks. An example has been made of a few minor officials. From now on, a corrupt cadre will no longer flash his luxury watch.

But the downfall of Bo Xilai last year revealed how a politburo member could parlay a modest official salary into an extravagant lifestyle and an expensive foreign education for his son.

Investigations by Bloomberg and The New York Times have revealed the vast wealth accumulated by Xi’s relatives, by former Premier Wen Jiabao’s wife and son, and by the descendants of the “eight immortals”, Deng Xiaoping and those old revolutionary colleagues who survived the Maoist era. This is no longer a problem of a few robber barons. The upper ranks of Chinese society now constitute a robber baronage.

Corruption above enables corruption below, where it has an immediate impact on ordinary citizens. Some doctors and teachers demand that they receive payment before performing their duties. Officials bundle peasants off the land in order to sell to and receive kickbacks from businesspeople, whose factories then pollute the air and rivers. Such cases are often the cause of the 500 or so protests, demonstrations or riots that take place every day in China.

For Xi to transform so corrupt a system from top to bottom would make cleansing the Augean stables simplicity itself. The political implications would be dire. As some Chinese people have interpreted Hu’s words: if we don’t tackle corruption, China will be doomed – but if we do tackle corruption the party will be doomed.

Some Chinese intellectuals have hopes for political reform. Three possibilities have been mentioned: first, ending the hukou system, which confines people to their place of origin and prevents peasants from enjoying rights in urban areas; second, ending re-education through labour, which enables the police arbitrarily to impose three-year sentences for petty crimes; and, third, ending the one-child policy, which has already ensured that there will be a significant diminution in the labour force in the years ahead.

Any one of these would diminish the power of local officials, who are already likely to be under fire for their bloated budgets. Despite the enormous national bank balances that China has accumulated, local spending sprees, which were encouraged so that the impact of the world recession could be softened, are now seen as a threat to the national economy.

Xi does not know which reform would constitute removing the disturbance that starts an avalanche and endangers party rule, so perhaps better not to attempt meaningful measures. He does not want to go down in history as China’s Mikhail Gorbachev. He intends to bind party and army tightly together, so that in an emergency the People’s Liberation Army would defend the party as it did in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The Xi regime has to hope that the Mao mystique, economic progress, a robust foreign policy and sheer inertia will maintain the tattered legitimacy of the party-state. The sad fact is that over the past two centuries, massive change in China has taken place only as a result of national trauma. The reform process that led to the overthrow of the last imperial dynasty in 1912 was triggered by the shock of defeat by little Japan in the war of 1894-95.

The abandonment of Soviet economics and Maoist politics by Deng from 1979 came in the wake of the trauma of the cultural revolution. The next great political reform to come to China could be the end of Leninist one-party rule – but for that to be accomplished without trauma, China would need at the very least a leader who put the needs of the nation above the perpetuation of the party.

The writer is a professor of history and political science at Harvard University.

Copyright The Financial Times 2013.