New Leadership in China: Quo Vadis Political Reform?

Xi Jinping has, as expected, taken over as the new General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) at its 18th National Congress.  The new Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) also includes Li Keqiang (like Xi, a member of the previous PBSC), Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan, and Zhang Gaoli.

Representing the fifth-generation of China’s communist leaders after Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Xi and his team have some onerous tasks to gear up to. While the rest of the world, including India, can often focus only on China’s increasing global economic imprint and its rapid military modernization, for China’s leaders themselves the most important concerns have always been domestic ones. And of these, none are as important as the ones about maintaining social stability and the necessity of political reform.

The new PBSC is widely perceived by Western and Chinese observers as being short of genuine political reformers. Further, quite a few on the new PBSC – including Xi himself – have depended on their identity as members of elite communist families to rise to their current posts. In this sense, there is much similarity with the Indian political scene. The cabinet reshuffle by the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last month for example, had several young representatives of India’s own elite political families climbing into more senior positions.

The importance of such family ties in the selection of China’s top leaders and the lingering influence of retired Party elders – most notably Jiang Zemin – however also highlight the difficulties of ensuring political reform and a fair and egalitarian political process in China.

And yet, Chinese political reforms do move forward, however incrementally. The institutionalization of an orderly transfer of power and Hu Jintao’s stepping down from the post of the Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) – which controls the armed forces – are important markers of progress.  Jiang Zemin, Hu’s predecessor, it must be remembered, had hung on to his post as CMC Chairman for two more years after quitting as General Secretary.

Most members of the new PBSC while broadly pro-market are also supporters of the big Chinese public sector enterprises. The PBSC thus reflects the Party elite’s immediate priorities – to steer through the aftermath of the Bo Xilai affair and to guide the country through some difficult socioeconomic challenges ahead without losing political control. More than the challenges of political reforms, it appears the Party fears a return to the populism and demagoguery of the Mao era and which Bo seemed inclined to imitate.

Thus, on challenges such as increasing income inequalities, the rural-urban divide and widening regional disparities, it looks likely that this PBSC instead of leaning hard left will hold the middle ground by continuing economic reforms, strengthening the public sector and improving social security. Meanwhile, the appointment of Wang Qishan, known as a tough and efficient administrator, as head of the CPC’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection suggests that the Party is taking aim at corruption by high-level officials and their families.  Whether such targeting will continue to be selective and follow factional interests – as has usually been the case – remains to be seen. But for now, the intent is evident.

Thus, ‘disappointment’ about China’s apparently conservative turn might be out of place. While Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought have not been removed from the Party Constitution as some speculated, Hu’s Report to the Congress called for the Party to “respond to the call of the times, follow the aspirations of the people.” It also contained an entire section devoted to “reform of the political structure.”

While Hu declares early on in the Report that “we will never copy a Western political system” what follows however, are calls to increase the ability of people’s congresses (or legislatures) at various levels to exercise the full gamut of their powers of legislation, policymaking, appointment and dismissal of government personnel and oversight of government functioning and budgets and accounts – Indians might want to consider how efficient their own elected bodies are in these tasks. Hu also stressed the importance of the rule of law specifically stating that no one in power would be allowed to remain above the law or abuse it.  In other words, the basic elements of democratic governance are all there – except that the CPC is in charge.

Whether, such controlled  ‘democracy’ will remain sufficient for the CPC to maintain its legitimacy over the long term remains to be seen.

a shorter version of this article was published as Jabin T. Jacob, Change is in the air, will reform follow?DNA, 23 November 2012, p. 9.

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