Hope fades for reform and power sharing at the top

Five-year wait a political stalemate as vested interests too significant and too deeply intertwined for change to come from the top down

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 November, 2012, 4:13am

As a journalist, I am happy to see my prediction of a conservative-dominated Beijing leadership come true. As a Chinese, I am not.

Yes, I have seen suggestions that the next five years will allow time for Xi Jinping to consolidate his power and reformers will be able to join the Politburo Standing Committee when the five members retire in 2018.

Yet, I cannot agree this as a mere five-year delay in reform. It is not the dawn of hope that things will get better as Jiang Zemin comes to the end of his life and his power reduces. Rather, it's the beginning of hope fading.

This leadership change is not just another reshuffle. This is one that happens against the worst scandal in the Chinese Communist Party's history.

Less than eight months before the reshuffle, the public saw the fall of a Politburo member and potential leadership heir Bo Xilai.

They were told Bo has accumulated more than US$6 billion in graft; plotted a coup against the incoming leader Xi Jinping; protected his wife from a money-related murder; and was promiscuous. All these were divulged to the Americans by one of Bo's subordinates. They were told Bo was protected from any arrest by his allies at the top until the interference of four retired state leaders.

There cannot be an uglier expose of the party's illness. This is a political nuclear bomb that should have released sufficient energy for a shake-up in the party and further power sharing among rival camps at the top.

Yet, it did not.

Jiang has managed to elbow out most of his rivals from the Politburo Standing Committee. The corruption problem and political reform received only feeble reference in the report of outgoing leader Hu Jintao.

The truth is the underlying vested interest (or should I say the money at stake) is simply too significant and too deeply intertwined at different strata for any power sharing to happen.

Why would five years or the ultimate death of Jiang bring a fundamental change to these interests? The bigger the economy, the greater the interests at stake.

Calling this stalemate a "delay in reform or power transfer" is offering false hope. It is nothing more than a pacifier to the educated who have been calling for a "top-down political reform" for the country.

This top-down approach according to some would throw China into chaos and gradual reform initiated by the liberals at the top suits the country best.

It is best elaborated by mainland economist and former senior vice-president of the World Bank Justin Lin Yifu. His three-hour weekly lecture at the Peking University used to draw a 500-turnout. I was among it.

I have heard this belief about top-down reform again in Britain from various mainlanders doing postgraduate studies there. They saw Bo's case as a possible trigger point for the change.

How disheartened they are now? I don't know. Most of them are now home and it is difficult to talk to them. What I will bet on is the rise of social unrest and demonstrations.

China is entering an era of lower growth. Yet, under the new leadership, what the public will continue to see is lots of policy initiatives and promises from the premier and little, or nothing, in terms of action from the ministries.

Remember the income redistribution policy initiated by outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao to reduce the difference between the state and private sectors?

Wen proposed this in 2004, a year after he became premier. The policy is in its eighth year. There has been lots of table banging and little progress. His successor Li Keqiang has shown little track record of being a more powerful "doer".

You can't blame the bureaucrats. Money and power is at stake. What's more important is that there will be another reshuffle in five years. Why put your head out when you are not sure who the boss will be?

To a parent struggling with rising bills reading about the 100,000 yuan pay of a meter reader at a state-owned power company and seeing little hope of change on the horizon, how much will it take to get him or her to join a protest? Not much.

The optimists will say the rise in unrest and demonstrations would force the leaders to seriously address the problem.

Unfortunately, this is not what we have seen in the history of the Communist Party and the country. In fact, at least two of the new leaders have notorious records of cracking down on public unrest and gagging the press.

I have painted you a picture of slow growth, little reform and increasing social unrest for China under the new leadership. Once again, as a Chinese, I hope I am wrong.