Wednesday, April 23, 2014
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Xi’s Recipe

WASHINGTON, DC – China’s government is cracking down hard on Western journalists, threatening not to renew visas for reporters from the New York Times and Bloomberg in retaliation for their reporting on the corruption of senior Chinese officials. Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently penned an open letter to the Chinese government telling them that, because the top “cause of death of Chinese regimes in history is greed and corruption,” a free press is more likely to help than hurt.

Anyone who holds freedom of the press and freedom of expression to be universal human rights will agree with Friedman’s position. But, in China, politics – including the politics of rights – is always intertwined with economics.

Last month, President Xi Jinping announced a set of sweeping economic reforms at the Central Committee’s Third Plenum, setting forth his vision of “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” His 60-point plan included reforms of fiscal policy and the financial sector that would set market interest rates on loans and deposits, permit some private-investor participation in state-owned enterprises, increase the role of small and medium-size enterprises, loosen labor restrictions, and introduce property taxes to boost revenue for local authorities.

This renewed embrace of the market, reminiscent of Deng Xiaoping’s original turn to capitalism in 1979, will be hard medicine for China’s entrenched business and government elites to swallow. If Xi’s administration is successful – a big if – its reforms may enable China to negotiate the necessary transition from an economy driven by exports and government investment to a more sustainable growth model based on domestic consumption.

The stakes are high. A country that has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty over the last two decades must now find a way to safeguard and gradually increase those gains while engineering the same miracle for the hundreds of millions still left behind. The world has a significant economic, political, and moral interest in the success of China’s reform agenda.

In this context, it is important to understand that Xi’s economic reforms are only one ingredient of a carefully crafted cocktail. The rest of the recipe includes two parts popular social reforms – an end to the one-child policy for many Chinese parents and the abolition of “reeducation through labor” – and one part political crackdown. Increased censorship and intimidation of foreign journalists, together with the imprisonment of dissidents and tighter restrictions on dissent, are an effort to ensure that economic disruption does not give rise to political rebellion.

To implement his ambitious reform agenda, Xi has taken several steps to consolidate his personal and bureaucratic power. He has reduced the membership of the Politburo from nine to seven, making it easier to obtain agreement in a system designed to institutionalize collective leadership. He has increased the power of the Central Committee, which he chairs. And he has created a new State Security Council.

To understand how the State Security Council could serve Xi’s interest in centralizing power, consider the United States. Without the National Security Council and the Domestic Policy Council, the US president would have no routine way to control and coordinate different bureaucracies. White House staff working for the National Security Council call meetings at which officials from the State Department, Defense Department, Treasury, Justice Department, and other key agencies hash out their views on a given policy. But it is the president’s staff who guide the outcome and determines the next steps.

Xi’s moves to strengthen his hand have helped to convince observers that he means business with the reform agenda. Since the Third Plenum ended and the scope of Xi’s reforms has become clear, many China watchers have hailed him as the most transformative leader since Deng. Time will tell, but a key difference between 2014 and 1979 is that today the Chinese cocktail is spiked with fear.

Evan Osnos, writing in The New Yorker, reports that two years ago, in the midst of the Arab uprisings, a senior official told a meeting in Beijing that if the Chinese government “waver[ed]” in the midst of social-media-fueled global dissidence, “the state could sink into the abyss.” Recently, Osnos writes, a high-level Chinese diplomat explained the threatened expulsion of New York Times and Bloomberg journalists on the grounds that “the Times and Bloomberg were seeking nothing short of removing the Communist Party from power, and that they must not be allowed to continue.”

That fear is one of the principal forces driving Xi’s reform agenda. The Communist Party must keep the Chinese economy growing (even if more slowly), while fighting rampant corruption and responding to citizens’ demands. Chinese citizens cannot vote, but they can – and do – make their displeasure known, which places a premium on what Chinese bureaucrats call “stability maintenance.”

Will Dobson, author of The Dictator’s Learning Curve, describes the Chinese government as a technocracy whose legitimacy is founded on efficient problem-solving. “When a regime’s legitimacy is derived from its performance,” he argues, “any crisis – and how the party responds to it – can raise existential questions about the regime’s right to rule.”

China’s leaders apparently worry that Western-style investigative journalism inside China could trigger just such a crisis. In any case, they are taking no chances. They are placing their faith in their ability to wash their own dirty laundry and drive economic, social, and political change from the top down. And they are less and less willing to play by Western rules.

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  1. Commentedcaptainjohann Samuhanand

    The Chinese must learn the know-how of the CNN and other American media are used to serve the view point of US government.The Human rights as practised in GITMO or Abugraib is never exposed by investigative journalists unless they get OK from the US authorities. The recent Khobargade arrest and strip search of the Indian diplomat in CNN is a case in point. The Chinese may be learning slowly how to manage the socalled free press from Americans.

  2. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Ms Slaughter wrote that "today the Chinese cocktail is spiked with fear". Fear might be a hyperbole. Yet Xi Jinping and his leading team have warned that a Soviet-style glasnost and perestroika could lead to great confusion and weakening of China, whose stability they consider essential for leading the country down the thorny path of reform.
    Xi's reform policies run parallel to "Deng Xiaoping’s original turn to capitalism", yet he makes adroit use of Maoist dialectic logic to analyse China's problems and their putative solutions, and and he argues for acknowledging the positive achievements of Mao's leadership. So the co-existence of economic reforms alongside lagging political change will continue to be a source of tension, particularly for the millions who have joined the new middle class and experienced the freedoms of the outside world.
    Expectations are high for wide-ranging reforms and the trouble is that when they disappoint, the repercussions could be hard to predict. Nevertheless it doesn't necessarily mean that "China’s leaders apparently worry that Western-style investigative journalism inside China could trigger just such a crisis".
    China may be waving a big stick to warn foreign journalists, but quietly preparing to issue visas to the New York Times and Bloomberg. Or it may be preparing to deny them the right to base their reporters in China.
    In the end China wants to be seen as a modern economic and politic power. It would damage its credibility in a globalised world of finance and information, if it does not allow foreign media to work freely in the country.

  3. Commentedyancey simon

    "China threatens to crack down on journalists while western democracies look on with envy," might well be the title of this article given the response of the US and England in light of their recent treatment of investigative journalists and whistle blowers. While it has become a regular feature of both academic and journalistic review in the west to criticize China's political and economic processes and then conclude that the culmination of these policies will end up badly for China, the reader should be aware that this type of projected doom has not come true. Western scholars and pundits have wrongly predicted the unraveling of China and its economy since the 2008 crisis. Don't bet against China just yet.

  4. CommentedDavid Morgan

    China spends more on internal security than on defence, not bad when you consider China is number three in defence spending in the world. I lived in China for six years, and the police and other security services are ever present. Xi understands that his government has no legitimacy, and it has to have a good economic performance to remain in power. Corruption is rife, money an buy you anything, even life. If you hit someone who is poor with a car and kill them you can just give the family money and it goes away. The saddest thing I saw in China was old people walking on to dual carriageways to get killed to give money to their families. This is the reality of China.

  5. Commentedhari naidu

    I've difficulty to understand how Project Syndicate can intellectually allow a propagandist of American Exceptionalism - like her - to express knowledgeable commentary on goings-on inside CCP.

    Is this Syndicate becoming a popular journalism site?

    1. CommentedKeshav Prasad Bhattarai

      Mr. Hairi Naidu may have some reservations on some of the articles published in Project Syndicate, but I think it is a great site and in no other site we can find articles written by so many distinguished people from around the world. It is really GREAT.
      Any day if I fail to visit this site I feel something I am missing much.