(To put an end to the irony of me promising a post for two years that never materialize, I’ve finally put together the last post on the “what and when” on Chinese political reform, basically, what it will entail at this stage and when it will happen. I have on numerous occasions said that substantial reform will have to happen during Xi Jinping’s tenure, and he was appointed as the new president about two months ago. Very little has changed in my basic assessment for the last years)
Only a few months after being appointed the new general secretary, Xi Jinping has presented a very different image than his predecessors and taken a decisive ownership of the national discourse. Of course the current anti-corruption measures shouldn’t be taken as indicating a new path, but it is striking how much more in control Xi seems to be after such a short time in his new role. Discussions in China and foreign media outlets have focused on both the more high-profile statements on reform (which was previously mostly done by premier Wen Jiabao) and the recent proposed tightening of internet rules, both seemingly indicating and counter-indicating that there is a new atmosphere within the higher leadership. Personally, I believe this isn’t indicative of a major change but rather more intense jockeying among various interests to produce more radical legislation. The battle between the conservatives and the reformers/liberals didn’t stop when the new leadership was chosen.
Before we continue with this discussion, it might be worth looking at what kinds of thinking there is on political reform in general. Basically, there seems to be four different camps in China and abroad, and they advocate the following:
- Multi-party democracy and dismantling the CCP’s monopoly on power (common in Western countries)
- Constitutionalism and rule of law (Lang Xianping, part of the reformers within the party)
- Curbing subsidies to state-owned companies, liberalizing the economy, removing bureaucratic red tape, increasing transparency (part of the reformers within the party)
- No reform is needed (conservatives) – since reform is a very positive word in China, this is most often phrased as “there has been a lot of political reform in China, and while more reform is needed, we should keep to the correct political path.”
The first alternative is hardly realistic but it is sometimes used as an example in Western media outlets on why China is not heading for political reform. For example, the fact that Wen Jiabao and Xi Jinping have made statements that they want to strengthen party rule seems to them to indicate that no reform will materialize, since any true reformer would dismantle the current one-party state. However, looking at political reform in other countries, it rarely started with somebody who wanted to lose power; rather, it is often seen as a way to strengthen the ruling party and adopting to new circumstances.
The second alternative has recently raised its profile within China. More and more intellectuals and even some vocal party members have made assertions to this effect. The problem here is why high-ranking leaders would want to make changes that most assuredly would limit their own power. This line of thought, however, is certain to continue to make itself known and I see it on the horizon, but more than baby steps in this direction is hardly going to happen during the first five years of Xi’s tenure.
The third alternative, which might look more like a patchwork than a coherent program, is the most probably outcome of the next few years, and the indications that this has sanction from Xi are many. The fact that a program to deregulate and remove the need of official approval for a large amount of “points” that previously needed them is already underway in Guangdong is the strongest indicator, given that reform has often started in individual provinces before they were moved over to a national level. Other indicators are Xi Jinping’s first major visit as a new leader in Shenzhen to give a thumbs up to reform (Hu Jintao, on contrast, praised Mao Zedong) as well as the major focus on reform and the current image makeover of the party that he has orchestrated – for example, limiting all outer forms of corruption like lavish banquets and even long reports in the news media.
This can hardly be called substantial reform, but does qualify as “pre-reform” and is the most workable at this stage. To argue for constitutionalism directly now would attract too strong resistance from people advocating the fourth alternative here, the conservatives. Conservatives have strong support from the “vested interests” in the SOE (state-owned enterprises) sector, and this is the major political battle that the reformers will have to fight in order to gain momentum. While limiting of the party’s power is easily opposed, it’s harder even for conservatives to oppose measures to streamline the economy and remove factors that limit future growth, of which the SOE’s are going to be a major bottleneck.
Xi Jinping’s political capital will to a large extent be dependent on how well he carries out this “pre-reform” and creates a more liberal economy. This is still an unknown factor, but if too few changes have been made to this effect by 2022, social forces will have grown to such a strength that they will be disruptive. It is up to the current leadership to see to it that sufficient changes are made to accommodate them. If this happens, then reforms of the second alternative will have a much larger change of being carried out.
Another thing to factor in in these discussions are what the lacklustre performance of the EU and the US in the last few years, and the negative political capital they are accumulating, is having on China. I’m going to touch on these issues in a coming post.