Jiang Zemin

The next lap

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 August, 2011, 12:00am


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One side effect of the Dengist economic reforms that started to penetrate deeply in the 1980s was the transition from a ruling Communist Party that focused on class struggle and revolutionary aspiration under Mao Zedong , to one in which a new technocratic elite were in control.

In the words of Wang Hui, one of contemporary China's foremost public intellectuals, that shift meant that the party started fulfilling a more 'evaluative' function and became the sort of 'bureaucratic machine' that Mao had tried to prevent. While the economy grew and prospered, the party looked at its own internal governance. In short, it tried to professionalise itself.

Central to this task was the need to have a mechanism (mostly peer pressure) by which the top elite controlled themselves. There was no question of some entity, like the legal system or civil society, standing above the party and placing obligations and regulations upon it. But there was a sense that the party needed to tidy up its act, and that another messy leadership transition of the kind that had occurred between Mao and Deng Xiaoping (which took almost two years to achieve) was a luxury the party could no longer afford.

Party congresses, which had occurred sporadically before 1982, started to happen every five years. Time limits were set on those holding high office. By stealth rather than by stated aim, retirement ages were brought in. By 2002, when there was a transition from the third to the fourth generation of leadership - from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao - nervousness that this process would lead to infighting among factions in the party remained evident until some years into Hu's era.

The party congress set for next year is arousing all the speculation that the congress of 2002 did. The party has had a decade more to build its own internal governance and modernise its own structures. In the last few years it has practised what has been called 'intra-party democracy', attempting to make its processes more predictable and a little more transparent.

In a strategy of careful management, the likeliest successor to Hu next year, Vice-President Xi Jinping, looks to be following exactly the same path to the crucial position of party general secretary - elevation to the Standing Committee of the Politburo as vice-president (like Hu), and vice-chairmanship of the Central Military Commission, in charge of army affairs (like Hu).

A range of leaders around him are also being carefully groomed to slip into major leadership positions when the incumbents on the all-important Standing Committee of nine see seven of their members retire. So far, so good.

While the party has managed its affairs with great care and attention, there is still a nagging sense that while this fourth-generation leadership may well have got the internal issue of succession well sorted, it has done so by pushing aside the larger, and much more contentious and challenging issues of broader political reform that are now staring it in the face.

Since its entry into the World Trade Organisation in 2001, China's economy has rocketed ahead.

This has been a double-edged sword. While it has bought massive increases in gross domestic product and prosperity, it has also created a society where there remain sharp divisions between the haves and the have-nots, and where social classes, from entrepreneurs, to the urban middle class, to the farmers - who, after all, still make up more than half the population - are increasingly in conflict with each other over issues from property rights, the state of the environment, access to pensions, and demands to have more of the wealth that the country has created.

The increasing repression since June 2009, in which rights lawyers and activists have been victimised and frequently imprisoned, is symptomatic of a leadership that has been bold in its economic thinking but profoundly cautious in its political views. In the new leadership there are no signs, as yet, that anyone has a particularly strong idea about how, for instance, to deepen the rule of law in the country by allowing genuinely independent courts, or giving a proper legal status to civil society groups. Today, the fundamental contradiction of contemporary China is that it runs on a largely centralised system inherited from the Soviet Union in the mid-20th century while its economy is one of the most modern in the world.

As it becomes clearer who the fifth-generation leaders will be, and how jobs will be allocated among them, scrutiny will be focused on what clues they give about how they might approach this hugely challenging and sensitive issue of political reform.

The 12th five-year plan gave some recognition to this in talking a little about the need to build social infrastructure and a more stable, equal society. For the next decade, therefore, the issue will not be about the first battle - to build GDP - but about the conflicts that have come after that, to deal with the issues China will face as it progresses towards a middle- income country.

These are proving to be far trickier and more demanding than simply pumping out good growth rates.

So far there is little sign that China's future leaders have the vision, or the capacity, to do this. But over the coming decade, this more than anything else will be their key task.

Kerry Brown is head of the Asia Programme at Chatham house, London. He is author of Ballot Box China and an upcoming biography of Hu Jintao. This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly