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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.

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.