China's leaders need to ease political controls to gain greater global respect

Orville Schell says the challenge for China's leaders is to protect the country's economic successes while becoming more comfortable with the openness required of a modern nation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 September, 2013, 11:00am

For those who look at China from afar, or see it on a visit through the lens of the towering new buildings, stunning airport terminals, state-of-the-art high-speed rail systems and dazzling architecture of monuments, museums, concert and municipal halls that dot cityscapes, it may seem counterintuitive that the leaders who guided this economic counter-revolution should be so sensitive on so many issues.

A continuous sense of anxiety radiates throughout endless remedial political campaigns despite an economic miracle of incomparable dimensions, one unequalled by any society at any other time in history. Do Chinese leaders not find themselves, at last, on the verge of attaining a long-sought holy grail, restoration of China to a state of relative prosperity and strength, if not greatness? After such an accomplishment, are these leaders and their citizens not deserving of a moment of victorious respite?

Yet the stunning levels of economic success are not accompanied by a greater sense of self-confidence. Instead, China's new leaders seem compelled to keep elevating levels of political control, even when doing so is such an impediment to China attaining that other goal; much yearned for, but elusive, global respect.

These attributes rarely derive from state control, manipulations or official propaganda campaigns. Instead, like soft power, they arise almost alchemically from societies and cultures left free to innovate and incubate new ideas. But, these attributes also derive from how a government interacts with its own people, depending on whether it has enough confidence in its legitimacy to afford the level of freedom necessary to generate a culture that is truly self-inspired and thus winsome to the rest of the world.

The right balance between necessary societal controls and freedoms is always extremely difficult to attain, and thus one must have certain sympathy for China's leaders who now find themselves riding a particularly challenging and insubordinate tiger, one that metaphorically might be said to have had a long and complicated history of abuse by its various serial keepers. Indeed, contemplating all the perfidies and savageries that the 20th century inflicted on this particular tiger is enough to make one marvel that it is alive and well at all, much less so successful.

Having accomplished one epic stage in a grand drama of development, what President Xi Jinping has taken to referring to as the "China Dream", Chinese leaders find themselves confronting a new and as yet unwritten next act, but one on which the curtain has already risen. The new script must be written not only with the actors already on the stage, but it will almost certainly require a different compact with "the people", one that does not depend so heavily on control.

In this regard, Document 9, released several months ago from the General Office of the Central Committee, which calls on Communist Party members to heighten vigilance against such trends as constitutionalism, civil society, demo-cracy, human rights, press freedom and more, is unsettling. The document may not be an expression of the president himself and could simply be the party's conservative side expressing itself. The truth is, we do not know. But whatever its provenance, the challenge for the party and current leaders is to figure out how to protect the country's past successes by sketching out a plan that plots a more enlightened political path.

Here, leaders are in uncharted territory in which old standby practices of applying more controls whenever the going gets tough will probably not suffice. This was something that Deng Xiaoping came to understand as he regained power in the late 1970s. By acting boldly during the early 1980s, he dramatically shifted the nation's gears and - at least until 1987 - generated a new fount of popular support.

Consider the spontaneous " Nihao, Xiaoping" sign held aloft by fans in Tiananmen Square in 1984 during the 35th anniversary of the People's Republic.

The country is once again at such an inflection point, and Chinese leaders seem to sense it. Unfortunately, they also seem to be responding in the way most familiar to them, but with less and less prospect for success; namely, cracking down. China's next great challenge is for the party to become comfortable with the kind of new openness, especially in information technology, in which the world is now steeped. These days, to be truly modern - much less truly respected - a country requires such openness, and this inescapable reality is clearly causing uneasiness in some quarters of the party.

Finding a way to rejuvenate itself with a legitimacy that transcends pure economic growth requires bold leadership and even some risk taking. And, what is needed is the kind of legitimacy that springs from some new source of popular support, although perhaps not exactly the kind of new political dynamic with which the now-fallen Bo Xilai , a Politburo member and former secretary of Chongqing , was experimenting. The unwelcome recognition that this challenge now lays ahead and that the remedy lies in coming to terms with greater openness, is generating so much of the growing uneasiness emanating from China.

China's leaders are, of course, worried about stability, especially what political scientists refer to as a "revolutionary cascade," the kind of self-perpetuating unravelling that was behind the undoing of the USSR. A word of caution for anyone secretly hoping for a similar downfall in China: one can hardly look with anything but disappointment at the way the once hopeful Arab springs have so quickly turned to winters of despair.

Before anyone allows themselves to wish for such a breakdown in China's political order, think twice. A far better path would be for the party to regalvanise itself to further reforms and move forward in an evolutionary way to find a new compact with its people.

In our globalised world, we are economically and environmentally dependent on one another. What happens in China matters to the US and others. So, the most critical question is whether China's new leaders are now up to the challenge of the next stage of their self-reinvention.

Orville Schell is Arthur Ross director of the Asia Society's Centre on US-China Relations and founder of Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online: