Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

China in transition 4 – putting a change of leadership in context – 2

Posted in macroeconomics by Timothy Platt on April 19, 2012

This is my fourth installment in a series on the transition in power and governance that China is facing, starting late this year and effectively continuing into 2013 (see Part 1: balancing hope and expectations, Part 2: confronting the challenges, and the challenge of confrontation and Part 3: putting a change of leadership in context – 1.)

I have been writing in this series about this upcoming transition, with a focus on the transfer of power that will take place at the top, and both in the leadership of China’s Communist Party, and of its national government through its Politburo Standing Committee. The senior-most leader of the People’s Republic of China carries many titles besides these, some of which carry great importance. But the most salient point here is that their current holder, Hu Jintao will be stepping down from having reached mandatory retirement age, and he is most likely to be replaced in all of his leadership roles by Xi Jinping. This series has been and continues to be about the challenges and opportunities faced as China undergoes this transition, and about its need to address these realities with effective, meaningful change if China is to retain its stability and strength long-term, moving forward.

• For the first time ever in China’s history, their leadership is undergoing massively significant change under the spotlight of the internet and of the interactive internet in which members of their public in general can connect across their country and even globally.
• This means that China’s leadership, outgoing and incoming have to go through this transition process as a process of accountability and in ways they have never faced or had to prepare for before.
• Problems and issues and disaffections stemming from abuse and seeming abuse of power, and from corruption and its consequences … every piece of potential news and in stark detail can potentially be shared from anywhere to everywhere and on very short timeframes – even what is essentially real-time. And the worst and the most politically embarrassing of that can and does travel far and fast.
• The recent and still unfolding scandals and controversies surrounding Bo Xilai, a member of China’s Polituro with aspirations of joining its Standing Committee and China’s senior-most national leadership, and Wang Lijun, Vice Mayor and head of the Public Security Bureau of the metropolis of Chongqing come immediately to mind here. Pre-internet, no real scandal would or even could have arisen here regarding these two men, and their political futures would have simply remained secure and regardless of what they did or failed to do. None of the details of this news story would have ever become publically known.
• But even China’s most senior leadership and for both Party and governmental offices have found themselves having to publically address these issues – and Bo Xilai has been forced by these disclosures to resign as Party Secretary. At least for now his political aspirations are over and he will not be ascending to a more senior leadership role in the upcoming 2012 and 2013 power change – as he was expected to do.
• China’s official response has, since the emergence of an internet presence for its people, been to try to control and limit the conversation. That is where China’s massive online censorship program, its Golden Shield Project (often referred to as the Great Firewall of China) comes from.
• But when a Tibetan monk sets himself on fire, or a school collapses because it was built with substandard materials and as a result of corrupt practices … when material for a scandal does happen, much of this does reach the light of day and public awareness.

And if not all of this does, enough does to have raised grave concern for China’s leadership and certainly as it prepares for this power transer. And that brings me to a public press conference that Wen Jiabao, China’s Prime Minister and third in position in their Politburo Standing Committee, gave in Beijing on March 14, 2012 at the annual session of their national legislature: their National People’s Congress.

What he said is telling as to the approach and understanding that China’s outgoing leadership holds towards their country’s challenges (note that Wen himself is going to step down during this transition too.) His words are also insightful as to China’s outgoing, current leaders’ views regarding change. And they shed light as to what Xi Jinping and others who are gaining new positions of authority will face.

Wen Jiabao flatly stated that China is facing challenges that could thrust it back into the turmoil and chaos of the Cultural Revolution. He stated emphatically that change is necessary but he spoke of slow and even evolutionarily-paced change and with such change only possible within the current system. He at least explicitly offered no details as to what specific changes would be necessary or how they would be prioritized or enacted, but he made it very clear as to who would carry this out – the Party and its leadership. But that is simply a summary of one aspect of his statements and of his responses to questions asked. I would argue that his invoking the Cultural Revolution in fact addressed some of the questions that could have been raised as to what change should be pursued and how.

The Cultural Revolution is held up as a watershed failure and as validation of the need for change that Deng Xiaoping initiated. But the Cultural Revolution was also a decade-long purging of political, intellectual and cultural enemies that Mao Zedong saw as challenges and threats to his rule and to the Party in the aftermath of the disasters and famines caused by his Great Leap Forward. This was, among other things, a systematic attack on those who spoke out during his brief Hundred Flowers Campaign and an attack on those who came to hope for fundamental change then, when the people of China were promised an opportunity to speak out and to share their thoughts – and with opportunity to play a role in shaping China’s future.

• When a Wen Jiabao invokes the Cultural Revolution in this way is he warning of future repression if people speak out, demanding more fundamental change, and change at a faster pace than current leadership could allow?
• Is this a warning against any attempt to in any way challenge or threaten the Party’s absolute hegemony over China with any attempt to bring alternative, non-Party voices or visions into power?

Change is needed – but much more fundamental and far-reaching change than Wen and his generation of leadership envision, or could see as safe if tried. And the monolithic nature of their one Party system is more a part of the underlying problem than it could ever be as part of any viable and long term solution. And this is position as to where China is now, as stated by those currently in authority. And it marks where Xi Jinping and his cohort of new leadership will stand as they assume the titles and prerogatives of power – and with all of the straitjacket limitations that in a practical sense, those titles and prerogatives carry.

I am going to look more specifically into the challenges that Xi will face in my next installment, having at least briefly outlined some of the forces of resistance that he will have to maneuver through to even acknowledge need for true change. Meanwhile, you can find this posting and series, and related postings at Macroeconomics and Business and also see Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time.

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