Sunday, August 14, 2011

Reform, or hot air?

China Buzzes With Political Reform Talk -- or Is It Hot Air?

Aug 28, 2010

TAIPEI, Taiwan (Aug. 28) --
Is political reform afoot in China? Or did "Grandpa Wen" just forget to take his meds?

Popular Chinese Premier Wen Jia-bao, No. 2 in Beijing's political hierarchy, set the Chinese Internet abuzz this week with comments that China badly needs political reform.

The context was his visit to the southern boom town Shenzhen to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the city's founding as one of four "special economic zones" that have been on the vanguard in China's spectacular rise. But the folksy Wen dampened the festive mood when he said in unusually sharp and sweeping terms that China's political reforms had lagged too far behind economic reforms.

"Without political reform, China may lose what it has already achieved through economic restructuring, and the targets of its modernization drive might not be reached," said Wen, according to the Global Times, which is affiliated with China's state-run People's Daily.

China's communist autocrats remain firmly in the driver's seat, quickly quashing any organized challenge to their rule and often operating above the law. Several officials and commentators quoted by Global Times backed Wen's views, which followed similar eyebrow-raising remarks from a well-connected Peoples' Liberation Army general known for his maverick views.

"In the coming 10 years, a transformation from power politics to democracy will inevitably take place," wrote the PLA's Liu Yazhou in a Hong Kong magazine, according to a translation by the Australian newspaper The Age. "China will see great changes. Political reform is our mission, endowed by history. We have no leeway. So far, China has reformed all the easy parts, and everything that is left is the most difficult; there is a land mine at every step."

The comments made some Chinese wonder whether the winds of political change are blowing -- or whether it's all just hot air.

Some cynical Chinese bloggers leaned toward the latter. Taiwan's Want Daily described their reaction as "the east wind blows again" -- an idiom roughly meaning "same old song."

"It's two steps forward and three steps back," one wrote. "The key point in promoting political reform is whether normal people get any benefit," said another. "Inviting everyone to criticize would mean having to arrest and lock up the whole country," wrote another wit. "How can we really have criticism and monitoring [of the government]?"

Only Small-Bore Reforms Likely

Analysts also cautioned not to read too much into Wen's remarks. His personal views aside -- and he's generally seen as a sincere supporter of reform -- China is now ruled by committee, and a highly conservative and cautious one at that.

"I think he [Wen] is willing to experiment, but the problem is, he functions within a gigantic bureaucracy and a system of collective leadership -- and the party is concerned about stability," said Dali Yang, head of the University of Chicago Center in Beijing, in a phone interview.

"He speaks his heart, and that's what makes him endearing, but he's in his last two years as premier, and there's a limit to how much he can do," Yang said.

He said that China was already pursuing some political reforms that shouldn't be dismissed, such as experimental local elections at the village, township and even county level (though not yet for county chiefs); use of informal and formal polls to take the public's pulse on its leaders; and more competitive, open processes for civil service promotions in cities like Shenzhen to try to reduce bribery and nepotism.

But the reform process is likely to be incremental, slow and small-bore, and won't soon result in anything an American would recognize as democracy. Many reforms focus on how China's communist party functions internally, not on China's overall system.

It's not clear how much support Wen has in China's leadership, either. Party leader and President Hu Jintao has remained something of a cipher despite nearly eight years in power. His historical legacy is likely to be his key role in adopting a savvier, carrot-and-stick approach to Taiwan -- helping to make the Taiwan Strait more stable than it's been in decades -- rather than any meaningful reforms or his clunky slogans about creating a "harmonious society."

Xi's Gotta Have It?

Hu's most likely successor, Xi Jinping, doesn't promise anything sexier, either. Veteran China watcher Willy Lam, who is writing a book about Xi, said that Xi is a shadow of his father, who was a noted, high-ranking liberal in the communist party hierarchy.

"Xi Jinping is a conservative -- he has not been able to pick up the liberal genes from his father," said Lam at a talk in Taipei earlier this year. "Xi lacks charisma and a strong base in the party. ... He was picked as a compromise candidate accepted by all [party] factions. He's not seen as a person who has strong values."

Xi is expected to be appointed soon to a post on China's powerful Central Military Commission, according to the South China Morning Post, which China watchers say is a sign that he's on track to take over the reins from Hu in the fall of 2012.

If anything, the role of the People's Liberation Army within China's system may become more important than any reform drive by civilian leaders. "The PLA is a very dangerous institution," said Lam. "There are no checks and balances. The generals have too much power; they are not subject to scrutiny."

For that reason, PLA Air Force Gen. Liu's high-profile prediction of "great changes" were of particular interest, but analysts were left scratching their heads over what he meant. Lin Chong-Pin, a China watcher in Taipei, said he believed that Liu had been invited to Beijing around 2004 and "recruited" or co-opted by the leadership after similar, outspoken remarks early this decade. That makes his re-emergence in the Hong Kong press something of a mystery.

Varied Media Response

China's media have a typically schizophrenic response to all the talk of political reform. Southern Chinese outlets known for their more freewheeling ways ran enthusiastic commentaries, while central, state-run media buried Wen's remarks or didn't report them at all, according to The Economist.

China's state-run Xinhua news service quickly produced excerpts of a 2008 speech from Hu Jintao also calling for reforms, in an apparent effort to show that China's two top leaders were singing from the same songbook, according to Taiwan's Want Daily. And the Global Times even ran an English-language commentary warning foreigners not to get carried away. "Overseas analysts should not get over-excited about the prospect of major political reforms," it said.

"Chinese leaders have made it clear that China will never directly copy Western-style political systems. Under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, the country will explore its own socialist path that fits its own domestic situation," the commentary continued.

That's the kind of typical line that makes skepticism the default position for most longtime watchers of China's political scene. "The CCP will muddle through, but it is incapable of greatness, self-reflection or self-correction," said Lam.

"Imagine a party with this manifesto: We just want to hang on to power, period."

Original site

No comments: