China Briefing

Justice steps in where stability once ruled

Stability served an important historic purpose, but in the current reform era, fairness and justice are of overriding importance

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 June, 2014, 6:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 February, 2016, 12:19pm

An uncanny pattern of the mainland's once-in-a-decade leadership transition has been that they invariably begin with the new leaders immediately confronting a set of daunting challenges, as if to test their political wisdom and capability.

Immediately after Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao came to power in 2002, the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome and the initial government cover-up and its subsequent impact on the mainland economy put them to a severe test.

After a promising start, the current leadership of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang are now faced with even bigger and more complex tests little more 18 months into their 10-year terms.

At home, a slowdown in the economy has made investors jittery about uncertainties ahead, while an ambitious economic reform drive is moving towards a stalemate as vested interests put up strong resistance at this early stage. A series of deadly and wanton acts of terror on civilians in major mainland cities by Uygur separatists in Xinjiang has presented another clear and present danger to national security.

Social unrest is also on the rise as ordinary mainlanders grow increasingly vocal and militant about protecting their rights, pushing back against bad government policy and decrying the abuse of power by corrupt officials.

Abroad, Japan, Vietnam and Philippines - emboldened by Washington's "Asia pivot" - have locked horns with Beijing over territorial disputes, raising the possibility of accidental military conflicts and heightening international concerns over China's assertive stance.

Under such circumstances, pressure invariably builds on the leadership to turn on the monetary tap and revisit Deng Xiaoping's old adage that stability is of "overriding importance" in politics.

To their credit, Xi and Li have not yielded to the pressure, but they are exhibiting a degree of frustration with the lack of progress on the reform front.

In order for reforms to advance, they must resolutely pull away from Deng's stability, acknowledging that it served its historic purpose but is now constraining economic and political liberalisation as well as the rule of law.

Deng first invoked the importance of stability in 1989, before the June 4 pro-democracy demonstrations and the subsequent bloody crackdown.

He argued that it was impossible to carry out reforms without a stable political environment and warned that the country could descend into chaos comparable to the tumult of the Cultural Revolution.

The principle of stability was written into the Communist Party's constitution and has become one of its guiding precepts - an anchor that has allowed the leadership to focus on economic development since 1989 and propelled the economy to become the world's second largest.

The times now demand new priorities. Local officials and entrenched interest groups have interpreted stability to suit their ignoble ends, using it as an excuse to resist reform, plunder public coffers and pillage national resources for their own personal gain.

In the name of maintaining stability, officials and vested interests have allocated hundreds of billions of yuan each year to stifle dissent and crack down on ordinary mainlanders who assert their legitimate rights and want their grievances against social injustices to be heard.

These same officials and vested interests have colluded with unscrupulous businessmen to forcibly remove farmers from their land and conspired to delay the payment of wages owed to tens of millions of migrant labourers.

As a result, the economy has lost dynamism, progress on rule of law is stalled, social discontent is worsening, and environmental disasters are spreading.

These are the some of the daunting and severe tests the new leadership faces. Their response has been to launch an unprecedented anti-corruption campaign to take on the powerful interest groups and lay the groundwork for reforms.

Striving to create a level playing field by breaking up state monopolies is a much more important component of economic reform than instituting preferential measures to help the private sector or incentivising foreign investment.

Politically, the pursuit of fairness and justice would enable the government to introduce the checks and balances required to "put the power in a cage" as advocated by Xi - and keep it there.

In this way, rule of law would be greatly strengthened.