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18th Party Congress

The Chinese Communist Party's 18th Congress, held in Beijing November 8-14, 2012, marked a key power transition in China. A new generation of leaders, headed by Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, took over from the previous leadership headed by Hu Jintao. The Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee was reduced in number from nine to seven. Unlike his predecessor Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao handed over both the Party General Secretary and Chairman of the Central Military Commission positions to Xi.  

CommentInsight & Opinion

Old guard can still reform China

Andrew Leung says that a prevalence of the old guard in the next Politburo Standing Committee won't mean China is stalling reform efforts; rather, it will ensure stability at a crucial time

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2012, 4:28am

Are we obsessing about [China's] rise when we should be worried about its fall?", asked academic Minxin Pei in a recent Foreign Policy article. Professor Pei thinks that, rather than worrying about how to contain a stronger China, it would be at least equally sensible to think about China's possible collapse or self-inflicted regime change in the light of the country's recent economic slowdown, bursting property bubbles, power struggles and political scandals.

This seems to echo the perennial theme of China's doubters. Among them, a leading light is Gordon Chang who has been serially predicting China's "coming collapse" since 2001.

Chang's arguments are that China seems to be turning xenophobic, pushing foreign investments away by insisting on "indigenous innovation". China is heavily dependent on trade but there are now more exporting competitors among the emerging economies. China's economy is contracting as its population ages. Moreover, the leadership is failing to respond to a rising tide of social change.

The problems highlighted are by no means exaggerated. Indeed, at the opening session of the 18th party congress, President Hu Jintao announced that reform, particularly fighting corruption, is a matter of life or death for the party and the nation. But China's problems must be put in context. Consider the following.

  • The latest OECD report, "Looking to 2060: Long-Term Global Growth Prospects", suggests that, "China will overtake the euro zone in 2012 and the US within the next four years to become the largest economy in the world. By 2060 … the combined gross domestic product of China (27.8 per cent) and India (18.2 per cent) will be larger than that of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development - and the total output of China, India and the rest of the developing world (57.7 per cent) will be greater than that of OECD and non-OECD countries (42.3 per cent)."
  • According to a recent Economist article, "In the past 10 years … [China's] economy has quadrupled in size in dollar terms. A new (though rudimentary) social safety net provides 95 per cent of all Chinese with some kind of health coverage, up from just 15 per cent in 2000. Across the world, China is seen as second in status and influence only to America."
  • Pew public attitude surveys show that a vast majority of the population (exceeding 80 per cent) remains broadly supportive of where the country is heading.
  • Pei and Chang seem to disregard the fact that China's leadership has long realised that the country must undergo reform to stay relevant. Hence the dramatic change in direction in the current five-year plan towards slower, more balanced growth.
  • Notwithstanding competition and rivalry - common to all political systems - the different factions, power centres and vested interests of the party polity all embrace and continue to benefit from China's continuing reform and progress. The question is not whether to reform but where, how much, and how fast, and how to apportion power and influence.
  • A large body of relatively moderate but yet significant reform measures have already been proposed in a 468-page World Bank report, jointly undertaken with the Development Research Centre of the State Council (a rare occurrence). These include reforming state-owned enterprises, liberalising the financial sector, defining the powers and obligations of local authorities to minimise the chances of "land grabs", changing the hukou household registration system that discriminates against migrant workers, developing a green economy, and promoting civil society. Li Keqiang, who will succeed Premier Wen Jiabao, is said to be a staunch supporter of the report.
  • It must be remembered that democracy is not a dirty word in China's politics. The difference is that China remains unconvinced that copying the West's increasingly dysfunctional model is the best answer. China will therefore continue to find its own path towards effective, meritocratic, representative government of the people, for the people, though not directly by the people - at least not at this stage.
  • Yes, China's international environment is becoming more hostile and its neighbours are growing more restless. But most of their worries translate into hedging their bets. There is nothing to gain in forming a bloc against their largest trading partner.

So, looking at the near-final list of contenders for the Politburo Standing Committee, why does it seem to be populated largely by "old brooms" not known for their reformist credentials?

First, quite near the 11th hour, the Bo Xilai affair unexpectedly derailed the leadership transition process. The crisis required a rethink of the role and status of politically powerful portfolios in the Standing Committee, especially in regard to public security and propaganda. These were nearly hijacked by individuals like Bo and that must not be allowed to happen again. So a smaller Standing Committee of seven instead of nine was mooted, throwing open an even more fractious battle among factions and vested interests.

Second, a number of very senior, well-tried and well-connected Politburo members are near the age limit of 67 for entry into the Standing Committee. This is their last chance to make it. They include Yu Zhengsheng (67), Zhang Dejiang (66), Zhang Gaoli (66), Liu Yunshan (65), and Wang Qishan (64). Their claims to a seat perhaps for just one term are difficult to brush aside, particularly when some are backed by the likes of former president Jiang Zemin. The younger and perhaps more dynamic hopefuls, for example, Li Yuanchao (62) and Wang Yang (57) may have to bide their time.

Third, given the need to root out the last of the "Bo Xilai gang", stability remains paramount. The party may have reached a compromise to allow more old guards in the Standing Committee for just one term.

There is a consensus that not tackling problems like corruption could undermine the party's stability. This was borne out by Hu's strong words in his opening address at the congress. Regardless of the final choice, Hu emphasised that the party's objective is to achieve a middle- income society by 2020, doubling the 2010 per capita income in the process.

As the Standing Committee's task is to carry out China's collective decisions and ambitious goals, a new line-up of experienced veterans would not mean China is stalling reform. Indeed, they are well qualified for these tasks, which should concentrate their minds and keep their hands full.

Andrew K. P. Leung is an international and independent China specialist, based in Hong Kong

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This article is now closed to comments

ykbc
With corruption, China is doomed; but without corruption, the Communists are doomed. It is no-brainer which way the Communists will choose.
hkbulib2
And yet another panda hugging 'independent' commentator with the typical very close (business) links to the Chinese government... sure Pei and particularly Chang are obsessed with China's fall or more correctly the CCP's end, but I guess Leung is not able to make this distinction due to his pro-CCP bias. This bias renders his 'considerations' worthless as follows the usual lines of the CCP narrative: only the wise CCP and its selfless leadership can guarantee China's future and will create a new form of 'democracy' (no need to vote anymore, just get 'able' leaders or 'consult' the people)... reading the so-called evidence Leung is frustrating as it avoids giving us a balanced view and mentioning the limitations of the research (e.g. Pew acknowledges this its 'sample is disproportionally urban'. But I guess we could not expect Leung to really bother with these things as he is on a mission to defend the CCP which will for sure bring his consultancy more money from China and pro-Chinese universities in the UK (Nottingham/King's). It is quite depressing to see which 'experts' and commentators the SCMP parades now, but I guess the patriotic tone fits with a lot of its readership...
yck222
But we are still obsessed with China's fall! Hardly a new topic either, but it doesn't happen.
whymak
Both Minxin Pei and Gordon Chang have been prophesizing the collapse of China for decades. Their lifelong careers are dedicated to persuading the rest of the world to believe in their self delusional oracular gibberish. Their continuous apocalyptic prognostications, years of wishful thinking and proselytizing to the West have yet to show even a trace of promise in wiping China off the map.
Perhaps it's time someone should remind them we are now more than a decade into the 21st Century. Except for American right wing think tanks, evangelicals and some members of the US Congress, fewer and fewer white folks want to listen to this kind of 1st Century BCE fire-and-brimstone, good vs. evil fantasies perpetrated by silly self-hate yellow people.

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