China's many con­tra­dic­tions and frus­tra­tions

The Pak Banker - - Front Page - Ju­lian Baum

WHAT would an or­derly po­lit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion of China look like, one that matches the re­mark­able eco­nomic achieve­ments of the past three decades? In search­ing for clues, there is no need to spend much time por­ing over the pro­ceed­ings of the 18th congress of the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party, which con­cluded in Bei­jing last week. The cer­e­mo­nial con­clave of sev­eral thou­sand del­e­gates, con­vened once ev­ery five years, is a well-set stage for the un­veil­ing of a new gen­er­a­tion of lead­ers who are expected to rule China in sim­i­lar fash­ion for the next decade.

True, in a lengthy and heav­ily staffed re­port to the as­sem­bled faith­ful in the Great Hall of the Peo­ple, out­go­ing party sec­re­tary Hu Jin­tao last week made a de­tailed and frank ap­praisal of the many chal­lenges faced by the party lead­er­ship.

How­ever, he was firm in rul­ing out any evo­lu­tion to­wards a more open and pub­licly ac­count­able po­lit­i­cal sys­tem. Western-style democ­racy was nowhere in sight and those who see China learn­ing po­lit­i­cal lessons from South Korea, Tai­wan or even Sin­ga­pore had bet­ter re­con­sider this view.

In­stead, Hu dou­bled down on the ide­o­log­i­cal un­der­pin­nings of the party-state with its supremacy of a sin­gle, un­chal­lenge­able party and mys­te­ri­ous pro­ce­dures for po­lit­i­cal suc­ces­sion. His ref­er­ences to the party's ba­sic prin­ci­ples, in­clud­ing "Marx­ism-Lenin­ism, Mao Ze­dong Thought" and "so­cial­ism with Chi­nese char­ac­ter­is­tics," were in­tended to leave lit­tle room for his suc­ces­sor, Xi Jin­ping, to tin­ker with the fun­da­men­tals of the sys­tem. The party has evolved over the decades, but has not changed its stripes.

Barely a gen­er­a­tion ago, it had few univer­sity grad­u­ates on its Cen­tral Com­mit­tee or the elite Polit­buro. Loy­alty to a sin­gle para­mount leader and rev­o­lu­tion­ary cre­den­tials were es­sen­tial qual­i­fi­ca­tions for se­nior of­fi­cials. Ac­cord­ing to its de­fend­ers, the party has now be­come a model of tech­no­cratic ef­fi­ciency where lead­ers are cho­sen on merit. How­ever, the rules and cri­te­ria of se­lec­tion are vague; claims of a mer­i­toc­racy are un­con­vinc­ing as the track record is too brief; ex­per­tise is still cloaked in po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness and fierce in­fight­ing among com­pet­ing per­sonal fac­tions is not the same as checks and balances found in western gov­ern­ments.

For those hop­ing for a sta­ble and pros­per­ous China, the pic­ture of a Lenin­ist au­toc­racy pre­sid­ing over the world's sec­ond largest econ­omy and a bur­geon­ing so­ci­ety presents a bun­dle of con­tra­dic­tions and frus­tra­tions. Many of those con­tra­dic­tions sur­face in China's vi­brant so­cial me­dia, where criticism of gov­ern­ment abounds, along with bit­ing irony and sar­casm.

The co­in­ci­dence of the Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in the same week that China's 18th party congress opened was a unique op­por­tu­nity for dis­plays of pop­u­lar Chi­nese wit and wis­dom. For in­stance, a re­port in China's state-run news me­dia about the "shame" of Amer­i­cans wait­ing in line for many hours to vote drew typ­i­cally bit­ing re­sponses from read­ers. "We've been wait­ing for 4,000 years" one per­son re­sponded, mock­ing the nega­tiv­ity. "I've been wait­ing for 63 years," wrote an­other in ref­er­ence to the found­ing of the Peo­ple's Repub­lic of China in 1949. "At least catch up with Viet­nam," an­other one com­mented to the Fi­nan­cial Times, re­fer­ring to Viet­nam's in­ter­nal elec­tions for top po­si­tions in the rul­ing party.

The les­son for China's lead­ers is ob­vi­ous to such Chi­nese ne­ti­zens: That im­pres­sive achieve­ments on the eco­nomic front are the party's only jus­ti­fi­able claim to le­git­i­macy since the end of the Great Pro­le­tar­ian Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion while ac­count­abil­ity is still lack­ing.

The record of the first 30 years of the Peo­ple's Repub­lic of China was one ap­palling hu­man, eco­nomic or eco­log­i­cal catas­tro­phe af­ter an­other, how­ever uni­fied the coun­try had be­come un­der Mao's lead­er­ship. There is lit­tle rea­son the party should still be rul­ing China to­day were it not for Mao's suc­ces­sor, Deng Xiaop­ing, and his prag­matic eco­nomic re­forms that un­leashed pent-up en­er­gies now sus­tained for nearly two gen­er­a­tions. Signs that this eco­nomic growth is fal­ter­ing, along with dis­turb­ing re­ports of crim­i­nal­ity and cor­rup­tion at high lev­els and of ex­treme wealth amassed by fam­i­lies of party lead­ers pose ex­is­ten­tial threats to the regime. The party's great­est strength is be­com­ing its great weak­ness an econ­omy that has pro­duced un­even, un­reg­u­lated, and un­sus­tain­able growth. The vaunted tech­no­cratic skills of a new gen­er­a­tion of lead­ers are be­ing put to the test, too of­ten in dis­ci­plin­ing their own.

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