An Earthquake in Chinese Politics?

BEIJING – Now that the aftershocks from the great Sichuan earthquake appear to have dissipated, it is time to ask what shocks, if any, the earthquake delivered to China’s political system. Has the quake given birth to some new, positive political force that will accelerate reform?

It has happened before. After all, dramatic political changes – the fall of the “Gang of Four” and Deng Xiaoping’s consolidation as China’s supreme leader – did follow shortly after the devastating Tangshan earthquake in 1976.

Given the sharp contrast between Premier Wen Jiabao’s caring attitude during the earthquake and President Hu Jintao’s mediocre political performance, some people could not help but imagine that the earthquake may have tipped the balance at the Communist Party’s highest levels, pushing the liberal forces represented by Wen to the center of power. But this is naive.

Unlike 30 years ago, no strong force for political reform now exists in China’s vast bureaucratic system. Back then, Mao’s Cultural Revolution had forced large numbers of his revolutionary comrades onto a reformist path. In today’s China, the overwhelming majority of bureaucrats like the status quo and have enough resources to protect themselves.