Xi Jinping has consolidated power, but China is still waiting for the promised waves of reform
David Zweig says Xi Jinping has secured his power base, but the expected market-oriented reform programme has not materialised and is not likely to in the near future
Many critics around the world have decried the recent lifting of term limits on the Chinese presidency, asserting that it reflects a hunger for more political power. Yet the pro-China camp, in Hong Kong and Beijing, argues that power begets change and that, without more centralised power, it would be impossible to get the bureaucracy to budge. Their explanation highlights President Xi Jinping’s selflessness as a leader for whom power is only a tool to reform China and reassert the country’s greatness by 2035.
Well, which is it: power for power’s sake, or power for social, economic and political reform?
Since 1978, major changes in leadership have predated major “waves of reform”, which were introduced at a national party congress (and the subsequent NPC) or at the third plenum of a new Central Committee, which usually follows the NPC meeting by about a year.
Thus, while Deng Xiaoping was rehabilitated in July 1977 at the 11th party congress, the new era of reform policies began with the third plenum in December 1978. Similar reform waves occurred in 1984-85 (the third plenum of the 12th Central Committee), 1987-88 (the 13th party congress), 1992-93 (the 14th party congress) and 1997-98 (15th party congress and subsequent NPC meeting). Each followed a major consolidation of power by one Communist Party faction, involving a set of policies cutting across economic sectors, a decimation of the bureaucratic administration, a strong demand for social and economic change from Chinese society and a global environment conducive to reform.
The last reform wave, in 1997-98, followed a consolidation of power by Jiang Zemin and his “Shanghai faction”. Bureaucrats who lost their jobs jumped into the “sea of business”. Unofficial privatisation shifted most small and medium-sized state-owned enterprises into private hands. A private housing market emerged, which has driven the economy ever since.
When Xi took the reins, China was in trouble. Massive corruption threatened the state’s legitimacy, overinvestment plagued the economy, people breathed putrefying air, drank appalling water and ate food from soil deeply permeated by chemicals. While perhaps well-meaning, the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao team had allowed these problems to fester. Many Chinese hoped for a new “wave”. Yet, by all previous standards, Xi, whose political team comprised leaders from different factions and earlier generations, lacked the heft to carry out a massive reform movement.
Surprisingly, Xi unveiled an unprecedented reform package at his first third plenum, the theme of which was the “decisive role” the market would now play in allocating resources. State-owned enterprises would be forced to function under real market conditions. The privatisation of rural land would allow peasants to use their land as collateral to open businesses in new towns to which they would be allowed to migrate. Legal reforms were predicated on ending party control over selecting and paying judges at the same territorial level, along with an intensified anti-corruption campaign. Improving the environment moved to the top of the agenda. Other market-oriented changes included hospital reform, greater opening to foreign investment, and retirement and unemployment programmes. All in all, the plan proposed 360 significant reforms to the Chinese economy and social policies.
Some of those policies have been introduced in a piecemeal format, but no “wave” has ensued. Observers must search hard to find the makings of a coordinated reform programme.
But since the 19th party congress, the political context has changed. Xi has the power to bring about massive changes. A harsh anti-corruption campaign has cowed all resistance, his team is in place, former factional leaders, such as presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, are gone from the scene. He controls all the levers of formal and informal power. He has heralded a third, new era, directed by his own “thought”, and he is free to stay on as leader as long as he chooses.
Yet we still see no major reform programme. The 19th party congress was all about power and vision, not the nitty-gritty or even the grand scales of reform. The just-concluded National People’s Congress would have been a perfect time for the premier or Xi’s economic reformer, the Western trained Liu He, to introduce the reform programme he has promised. Alas, even the third plenum of the 19th Central Committee has come and gone, and its theme was again the Community Party’s consolidation of power.
First term limits … now Xi Jinping to shake up the state to tighten Communist Party’s grip on government
It is getting difficult to sustain optimism and to persist in persuading other pundits of Chinese politics here in Hong Kong to show patience and maintain the view that a new reform era is just around the corner.
One story circulating in Hong Kong, which suggests that the recent past is likely to be the midterm future, is that Xi was disengaged from the drafting of the reform document that emerged from the third plenum of the 18th Central Committee. It was drafted by ardent reformers within the party and economic bureaucracy who understood the need for dramatic reform. Still, they needed Xi’s approval, and when he was requested to sign off, he asked only two questions. Neither had to do with promoting the market. The first: would the programme undermine the state sector? The second: would it weaken the power of the party? Only when Xi was told that neither would occur, did he sign off. Today, five years later, Xi appears to be maintaining his priorities, no matter how much power he has.
Dr David Zweig is chair professor in the Division of Social Science and director of the Centre on China’s Transnational Relations at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology