Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Next Task for China’s New Leaders

BEIJING – On a recent fact-finding trip to China, organized by the European Council on Foreign Relations, I began with the assumption that the country’s biggest challenge revolved around the need to promote domestic consumption in order to maintain rapid economic growth. By the end of the trip, what had emerged was a complex picture of Chinese assertiveness and uncertainty, poise and anxiety.

Although impending, the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is shrouded in mystery. While the congress is presumably set for October, the exact dates remain unknown, as does much about the internal process and preparatory discussions.

For much of this year, there seemed to be one certainty in the coming leadership transition: the CCP’s new general secretary would be Xi Jinping, a man whose political vision could be elaborated in well under 30 seconds. But Xi’s mysterious vanishing act, in which he dropped from public view for almost two weeks in September – after abruptly canceling meetings with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the prime minister of Singapore (rare occurrences for the protocol-fixated Chinese leadership) – has stirred more speculation. It has also fueled concerns about whether so secretive a leadership can effectively govern the world’s second-largest economy.

Despite its outward appearance of monolithic resolve, China is in a state of flux, flaunting its confidence while bulging with internal sources of insecurity. Its undeniable economic success – albeit closely tied to that of the global economy – stands in stark contrast to the heightened sense of crisis and insecurity that hovers in the background.

Two distinct quandaries confront China’s leaders: the first centers on the growing demands and dissatisfactions of Chinese society – from peasants and students to white-collar workers and pensioners; the second consists in the country’s conduct of foreign policy. Will the next CCP administration address these critical issues?

Internally, as China has moved from mass poverty to widening prosperity, economic growth – though a vital source of the CCP’s legitimacy – is no longer enough. Restlessness is pervasive: while statistics vary, depending on how government agencies define the term, it is estimated that there were roughly 180,000 “mass incidents” in China in 2011 alone. China’s rising urban middle class and its surprisingly well-organized rural communities are increasingly demanding less corrupt and more accountable government, cleaner air and water, safer food and drug supplies, and an independent, well-functioning judicial system.

Popular dissatisfaction partly reflects a phenomenon that invariably arose in numerous conversations with academics, intellectuals, and top officials: the murky frontier of legality currently reigning in China. The blurriness of the law creates a no-man’s land of ambiguity in which the authorities thrive: legal predictability is aspirational, while daily life for ordinary people requires navigating the shallow, shifting waters of what the powerful will tolerate.

At the same time, the rule of law plays a prominent role in Chinese political discourse. But, while nominally acknowledging its importance, officials creatively turn the concept on its head. Nowhere was this more apparent than in recent efforts to portray the purge of Chongqing’s former Party boss, Bo Xilai, as an example of the CCP “safeguarding the rule of law.”

And yet, formal pronouncements aside, if China’s leadership is to meet growing popular demands and quell rising discontent, it will have to commit itself to the rule of law in fact. Such a move would have far-reaching benefits for China’s global standing as well.

China’s recent emergence as a key international player (albeit a reluctant one) has exposed its leaders’ uncertainty about the country’s future global role, as well as raising questions about their readiness to bear the responsibilities that its stature implies. China still falters when it comes to building “soft power” or assuring interlocutors, near and far, that its “peaceful rise” will remain peaceful.

Indeed, China today is increasingly perceived to be undermining the international order, while promoting novel interpretations of concepts such as democracy, pluralism, and representation. For many, its behavior toward Syria – aligning itself with Russia to block international action – and in maritime territorial disputes with its neighbors exemplifies this tendency. 

It is, therefore, little surprise that China’s policies are widely regarded as a reflection of former Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping’s call for a strategy of “hiding our light and nurturing our strength.” But China’s ability to persuade others that its international behavior stems from its search for balance will depend on its leaders’ ability to embrace the rule of law – in substance rather than just in rhetoric – as a fundamental basis for the harmony that they publicly espouse.

So far, the survival of China’s political system has rested on the identification and deft handling of the most pressing issues of the day. Every Chinese leader since Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 has left an indelible mark. For Deng, it was the move toward a market economy, articulated through the “Four Modernizations.” His successor, Jiang Zemin, undertook internal reevaluation of the CCP and expansion of its base through the “Three Represents.” And the outgoing Hu Jintao’s objective was development, particularly in the country’s vast interior, unleashed through large-scale privatization.

Despite continuing uncertainty surrounding China’s coming political transition, it is expected that pragmatism – the common thread among its leaders after Mao – will carry over to the new ruling cohort. If so, it should impress upon them the notion that their best strategy, both internally and internationally, is to devote their considerable resources and energy to strengthening China’s rule-of-law institutions, even though such reforms will invariably curtail the CCP’s arbitrary power.

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    1. CommentedLeo Arouet

      Un gran artículo que muestra la inseguridad del PPCh y las crecientes demandas de libertades y participación de los ciudadanos chinos.

    2. CommentedE. de Mas

      Fascinating analysis on China. Unfortunately it's a shame partisanship cannot be put aside for a similar analysis on Spain. How about the legal ambiguities in your country?
      How about corruption? Which city hall on the Costa del Sol (right and left) hasn't been embroiled in scandals and multi million euro 'misappropriations' or illeal planning deals? Is there a reason? An explanation?
      Is it true that Spain is too young a democracy for there to be honesty? Are we condemned to another 70 years of this?
      Can anything be done? Can you propose solutions? What would you propose?

    3. Commentedlt lee

      I have a good laugh concerning the cited 180,000 "mass incidents" figure and the page defining "mass incident" as "demonstration/riot/unauthorised public meeting involving more than 500 people." If the figure was correct, there would not be enough western journalists and commentators reporting and commenting on all these incidents involving at least 90 million angry Chinese.

      China does have a lot of problems and yet more problems looking forward. Nevertheless it is doing exceedingly well at present per its citizens' opinion. According to Pew newest survey, 82% of the Chinese respondents were satisfied with its direction. In comparison, German, British, Italian and Greek respondents who were satisfied with their countries directions were 53%, 30%, 11%, and 2%.

    4. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

      A superbly written article and thought provoking.
      The country’s transition from a market economy that is still entrenched with the challenges of migration and urbanization to institution building that allows rule of law to be built around fairness principles is indeed a very apt summary of what it entails.

      A country where the only suffrage is limited to village level universal voting to transition itself into an institutional framework where we have the legislative and executive actions be predicated by an oversight of the judiciary is still some way to progress. But the question is one of priority, when it comes to the Next Task.

      The new leadership cannot undermine the importance of the global connectedness that China needs while it would be steeped in its rising strife of local and regional problems that have to deal with the rising expectations of people who are increasingly being left behind in the mobility towards higher quality of life. But odd but true, China has always created its own solutions, contrary to the prescriptions, and has progressed to take more people out of poverty, low consumption factors and health issues as no other nation could.

      The next task is indeed too many to choose from, while all of them are important issues not only for the country but also for the world.

      Procyon Mukherjee

        Portrait of Ana Palacio

        CommentedAna Palacio

        Dear Procyon,

        Thank you for your generous comments and insightful remarks.

        I particularly agree with your focus on global connectedness and the clash between rising expectations and diminishing mobility – both are important issues that, unfortunately, I couldn’t properly tackle due to space constraints.

        It is also true that China’s pragmatism has led it pursuing solutions in a different way, but perhaps it will be more accurate to label them as “old solutions, with Chinese characteristics,” the latter term being omnipresent in the formal Chinese socio-economic and political lexicon.

        It is this very pragmatism that should prompt China to voluntarily strengthen the Rule of Law and move it up on the priority list among, as you mention, the many tasks facing the country.


    5. CommentedErik de Ruijter

      i need to share one such interpretation here: "we are in favor of democracy since the majority is with us"