Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

China and its transition imperatives 9: moving from rule by man to rule by law 2

Posted in macroeconomics by Timothy Platt on May 21, 2014

This is my ninth installment to a new series on China and its recent Party and government leadership transition, looking back over the past year since that formally and officially took place and to now and China’s current situation, and forward (see Macroeconomics and Business, postings 154 and loosely following for Parts 1-8.)

I have been writing about a need for genuine change in China throughout this series, and in fact through much of what I have been writing about the People’s Republic in this blog. I have more recently noted in that context, in Part 6 and again in Part 7, howDeng Xiaoping is revered in today’s China for the change that he was able to bring about. So a need for change per se has been long recognized and by wide segments of mainland Chinese society. But I have also noted how as much as he is revered for his accomplishments in effecting change, Deng was limited to only making very superficial changes – mostly just cosmetic adjustments but without being able to meaningfully address underlying systemic challenges.

I continued this discussion of China’s need for change, and for more fundamental change in Part 8, where I wrote of how Xi Jinping faces a compelling need to go beyond simply instituting cosmetic reforms as he has pursued up to now, if he and the China that he leads are to address those core, structural underlying challenges. And I pick up that discussion here, at this point.

And I begin this posting’s discussion by reconsidering a change that Xi has formally and legally brought into effect since assuming his current positions of power and authority: his officially, legally enacted ending of the one child policy.

• In one sense this marks a significant departure from existing and long-held Party and government policy, with a specific and significant diminution of local Party control over the lives of China’s citizens. This is perhaps particularly true as this family planning and population control policy has unraveled under the weight of its own inefficiencies and from the long-term problems that it has directly caused from how it has skewed China’s overall population demographics. More and more grounds for exemption from having to adhere to this policy were introduced until at the end there were more than thirty officially recognized grounds for legally having that second child. But determination as to which families were eligible for exemption under these rulings was still up to local Party officials and leaders – simply reframing and expanding their local power and authority. So ending this policy as a whole took a powerful tool out of their hands for enforcing ideological and behavioral compliance and obedience to their personal will.
• But this only takes one of many such tools out of their hands leaving them fundamentally unchallenged and unlimited in what they can do and to who – as long as they are not targeting others in Party favor and power, and with more of that than they themselves hold.
• Still, this change holds potential for serving as a role model for how to effect more fundamental change. And the key to that comes from how the one child policy unraveled, proving itself to be more of a problem than a solution and to both citizens in general and to Party officials and leadership at all levels in that system. Exceptions were made and the list of permitted exceptions kept growing because this program for limiting overall population growth and scale was creating such disastrous population demographics skews that it risked creating general, large scale unrest as China faced – and still faces a significant period where way too few of working age will have to support way too many who no longer are. The one child policy fell apart under its own weight, and the weight of its unintended consequences, and ultimately all that Xi has done is to acknowledge that it was long since dead as an effective tool of societal management.

If Xi Jinping wants to effect more significant change and reform, one way to do so might be to find other seemingly smaller and less threatening changes to formally focus on and bring about – but changes that if enacted would more clearly put a spotlight on more underlying policy that needs change, highlighting its more problematical nature. He and his supporters would then use this new spotlight on inefficiency to build a consensus of support for specific, more fundamental change, and with an ultimate goal of undermining support for what is currently unquestionable.

What I am writing about here is developing and pursuing a policy of making small changes that could be used to create and leverage support for specific more fundamental changes, by removing key supports that have propped up those parts of the existing system. The goal here would be to make other, more fundamental policy and its specific ideological bases visibly just as problematical or more, as the now failed and defunct one child policy proved to be.

Rooting out corruption and bringing select corrupt Party and governmental officials to justice can open windows and shed the light of change. But this approach can at least as easily devolve into yet another power entrenching exercise, with show trials and public circuses. Formally ending the one child policy in and of itself faces the exact same potential challenges. Smaller changes can only meaningfully work if they are selected as points of action, and if they are organized and marketed and carried through upon with a goal of promoting and effecting real, more fundamental change.

And this brings me to the one most fundamental point in all where change is most needed, if any change attempted or enacted is to offer any long-term meaning or value: the one Party system. I freely admit here that I do not have anything like a simple, certain answer to that one, but I will share some thoughts on that challenge and on how it might be addressed in a next series installment. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Macroeconomics and Business.

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