China must seize rare chance for reform

By Zhang Weiying

The new leadership is more talented and entrepreneurial, says Zhang Weiying

China’s leadership is at a rare moment of transition. During the National People’s Congress, or parliament, now in its annual session, Communist party leader Xi Jinping is expected to be confirmed as successor to President Hu Jintao; and Li Keqiang is to replace Premier Wen Jiabao. However, despite promises from Mr Xi and Mr Li, the prospects of reform are uncertain in the minds of not only Chinese citizens but also observers around the world.

The challenge of reform is a tough one for the new leaders. After a “lost decade” under Mr Hu, the country is much less harmonious. Curbing corruption, improving income distribution and maintaining economic growth are all urgent. But it is widely argued by academics and, privately, by many officials that the priority is starting the long-delayed shift to a constitutional and democratic system. Otherwise, China will lose its economic momentum and its social stability.

Pessimists say there can be no reform of the political system so long as vested interests hold the reins of power. Yet history is full of examples of successful reforms that resulted from the actions of vested interests. We should not underestimate the power of ideas. The Communist party created the revolution in the name of the working class. However, its early leaders were primarily the children of “vested interests”. They chose to pursue revolution because they came to believe in Marxist and Leninist ideas. Deng Xiaoping launched market-oriented reforms in 1978 not in pursuit of his own interest, maintaining the status quo, but in pursuit of his new ideas about the nature of socialism.

It is also important to remember that reform is often the best way for vested interests to avoid revolution, even if the steps they are forced to take are not entirely what they would like. The UK consistently expanded the voting franchise following its first reform act of 1832 because the ruling class recognised the system might otherwise collapse. Wang Qishan, one of China’s senior leaders, has taken to recommending to party members Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution, which investigates the causes and forces that led to the downfall of the monarchy. This might signal an awareness that, without reform, the possibility of revolution exists.

When we speak of vested interests, we often make the mistake of assuming they are united as one body with a clear goal. But often conflicts of interests among ruling elites are greater than between rulers and the ruled. The tumult surrounding the ejection of Bo Xilai, the ambitious member of the politburo and the party secretary of the south-western municipality of Chongqing, illustrates this.

Intra-party fighting means even the privileged are not protected by human rights. The most senior officials can be imprisoned without legal proceedings at any time. So, for their own security, elites may eventually have an incentive to create the rule of law, as in England’s pre-19th century transformation.

But this is the optimist’s case. From a more pessimistic viewpoint, China still faces many barriers to reform. The greatest is the quality of leadership.

The country has reached the point where its leaders are drawn exclusively from the bureaucracy, whereas functionally the two should be distinct. The bureaucracy follows carefully proscribed rules designed to avoid risks. Great leaders, by contrast, act with a view to the nation’s destiny and future. They must be entrepreneurial with a sense of mission, vision and courage. They are unlikely to emerge from the bureaucratic training process.

To reach the position of party secretary, the head of all levels of government, the promotion ladder is strictly hierarchical. You can become a senior national leader only after at least four decades in the bureaucratic system, going through more than 20 grades. Those with courage and principles will be knocked out, leaving a nation of bureaucratised leaders. This is why the regime of the past decade was so weak.

At precisely the point when China needs great leaders for a transition to a constitutional and democratic system, the structures that now exist are incapable of producing them. The first generation of revolutionaries had the authority to create such a transformation but failed to do so. Even Deng missed his opportunity.

Of course, history is about contingency. Because of special historical circumstances and their elite family backgrounds, the new leadership is different from Mr Hu’s regime. They are not completely the products of the bureaucratic training system. They appear to be more talented, more missionary and more entrepreneurial than their predecessors.

We must therefore hold on to hope. I believe the next 10 years under Mr Xi present a unique window of opportunity. Future generations of leaders are unlikely to be as capable as today’s if the political system is not changed. China must not miss its moment.

The writer is professor of economics at Peking University



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