China’s Political Paralysis

SINGAPORE – After decades of dormancy, calls for political reform have reemerged among Chinese intellectuals. Although President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have had more political room to maneuver in their second term, following the Chinese Communist Party’s 17th Congress in 2007, a combination of unexpected events and strong vested interests has precluded implementation of significant reform.

The global financial crisis has not only undermined pro-market and small-government neoliberalism in China, but it has also consolidated the leadership’s paluan (fear of instability) mentality. As a result, China’s leaders have failed to move toward democratization.

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Some observers expect bold political initiatives later this year, at the 18th Party Congress, when a fifth generation of leaders takes control of the People’s Republic. But, given China’s existing political economy, reforms that allow citizens a greater say in choosing their leaders and reduce the Party’s omnipotence are unlikely.

Significant top-down political reform must meet two conditions: a strong, determined leader with an innovative new vision, and sufficient consensus among top officials on the goals of reform and how to achieve them. Neither of these prerequisites is emerging on China’s domestic political horizon.

In fact, China’s leaders have moved away from strongman politics, toward more collective leadership. Although power remains highly concentrated at the top, a single leader cannot significantly change the political system. The political game has been transformed from the conventional winner-take-all model to a new power-balancing model, in which multiple winners may emerge.

When the next generation takes over, all of the Politburo Standing Committee members will be vested with almost equal political authority, resulting in more power-sharing and high-level checks and balances. While this arrangement may sound more pluralistic, in reality it blocks the implementation of decisive reforms that might threaten vested interests within the Politburo.

Indeed, China’s paramount leader must rely on teamwork, compromise, and support from his colleagues for decision-making and policy implementation. But there are deep rifts between Party reformists and hardliners, exposed by the fall of Bo Xilai, the one-time Politburo contender who had been commended by leftists for fighting corruption and organized crime, launching egalitarian welfare programs, and initiating a campaign to sing “red” (revolutionary) songs in Chongqing.

Although Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang have already been selected as the next president and premier, respectively, Party factions remain preoccupied with behind-the-scenes horse-trading as the composition of the Politburo Standing Committee is determined. To avoid exacerbating political infighting, China’s next paramount leader will probably choose to maintain the status quo.

Moreover, China’s intellectual circles are being pluralized, owing to the emergence of ideologies such as the New Left, democratic socialism, nationalism, neo-Confucianism, and new liberalism, while political discourse is permeating society more widely through foreign reporting and social media like Weibo, a Chinese microblogging Web site that resembles Twitter. As a result, no consensus is emerging on the direction and content of needed political reform.

Many on the left believe that the current political system’s fundamentals are sound, and that any reform should aim to consolidate rather than undermine it. Some extremists believe that the current absence of reform will weaken the Communist Party of China, and even call for a return to Maoism. Meanwhile, those on the right are dubious about the current system’s effectiveness, and believe that Western-style reforms, with elements of democratic constitutionalism, should be pursued.

By continuing to disregard pressure for political reform, the regime risks increasing the disparities between the party-state, intellectuals, and ordinary citizens; between official policy and socioeconomic and political reality; and between the hidden crises that China faces and the state’s capacity to cope with them. Nevertheless, China’s leaders do not dare to pursue bold measures of any kind, for fear that deviating from the status quo will provoke rival camps and vested interests, with serious consequences.

Indeed, even economic reform is losing steam in China, with no significant changes aimed at economic liberalization introduced recently.

In order to align political and economic reform, the Party tried to replace the opaque appointment process for selecting high-ranking cadres with contested internal ballots. But, ultimately, the Party has barely deviated from its traditional selection methods, which remain largely based on political loyalty rather than on professional qualifications. In China, competitive elections simply help the Party to single out loyal officials for important positions, and exclusive elections are part of the Party’s complicated selection system based on political reliability.

Given the ongoing economic slowdown, which is leading many to forecast an imminent hard landing, China’s leaders will be closely monitoring disgruntled social groups and the increasingly vocal, politically conscious intelligentsia. But, even after the 18th Congress, the new Chinese leadership’s attempts at bolstering the Party’s popularity will go only as far as promoting new political slogans. Genuine political reform will be off the agenda.