Not for the first time, China’s number-three leader Wu Bangguo declares ‘Western’ political reforms incompatible with, in essence, national survival. That means no representative multi-party democracy, no separation of powers between legislative and executive branches, and no independent judiciary. In other words, the continuation of one-party rule at all costs. Does repeating the mantra make the idea any more convincing?
Since Deng Xiaoping introduced shreds of economic common sense in the late 1970s, China has risen from the depths of poverty up to the same level as El Salvador (around US$7,000 per-capita GDP at PPP; we don’t hear much about El Salvador because it doesn’t have 1.3 billion people). At the same time, Chinese leaders have become steadily less at ease and confident about reform. Deng was happy to let flies in the open window when he allowed foreign capitalists to invest in China, but his heirs today leap out of their skins with fright at a simple online mention of the word ‘jasmine’.
Each generation of Chinese leaders is getting more bland, boring and risk-averse. Premier Wen Jiabao does a slick ‘kindly uncle’ act, but how insipid he is compared with his magnificently undiplomatic predecessor Zhu Rongji. Meanwhile, ‘contradictions’ pile up, almost too numerous and tediously familiar to list: corruption, an expanding wealth gap, corruption, injustice, corruption, environmental damage, corruption… Actually it’s all corruption. You have to wonder how much (or how little) of the state, beneath the shiny exterior of the big cities, is not rotting. Ramping up headline GDP growth by splurging on railway expansion projects headed by a crook who pockets the billions – for lack of any other policy ideas – is putrefaction. Yet the willingness to acknowledge, let alone tackle, the contradictions is waning. Coming next year is President Xi Jinping, son of a revolutionary veteran and husband of a much-loved singer. If he announced a key policy platform, it would be to take an even larger broom and sweep even more under an even bigger carpet.
Another contradiction is that it is OK in some quarters and circumstances to admit that political reform of some sort is unavoidable. Some voices at the recent National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference snooze-a-thons called for a more systematic petitioning system to make it easier and safer for ripped-off and assaulted provincial residents to snitch on the bullies and thugs running their towns. The search for reform-free reform continues: we must find a way to stamp out abuses of power without allowing the free press and judiciary that are most likely to stamp out abuses of power.
A year or two ago, Shenzhen announced an experiment in separation of powers. In practice it meant replacing municipal administrative silos, in which each department formulated its own policy, implemented it, and checked itself to see it had done it properly, with horizontal cross-departmental policymaking and supervision functions. The idea was to stop the trading of graft-yielding posts in the city government, which presumably was why little came of it.
How can a corrupt system uncorrupt itself? We’re working on it, just as soon as we can (to quote today’s South China Morning Post) find ways to guard against different opinions. Ils ne passeront pas!