Political reform: one of five myths about China

china cpThe Chinese Communist Party’s forthcoming 18th Party Congress offers an opportunity to reassess China, to see whether top leaders Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang are interested in pursuing reform or will hew to the course of their predecessors, according to Dean Cheng and Derek M. Scissors.

Myth #4 is that China will inevitably engage in political reform, they write for The National Interest:

Reality: Not only is the link between economic and political reform weak, but the CCP has little interest in political reform.

It has long been an article of faith that economic growth would inevitably lead to greater political liberty. The assumption was that, as a society became richer, there would be created a middle class that would eventually demand greater ability to chart its own political future, rather than defer authority to an autocratic government. Given China’s massive economic development since the rise of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, there has been the assumption that the natural next step would be a transition, however, halting, towards political liberalization, to complement it.

What is clear, however, is that neither political nor economic reform is easily effected. There are inevitable winners and losers in any reform attempt; as important, reform is as likely to create the conditions for instability, as lines of authority are blurred and additional costs are imposed. In the case of the PRC, political reform is even more dangerous, because it would also raise questions about the ability of the CCP to retain power.

Worse, the various economic relationships which link the senior Party leaders and their families serve as an additional disincentive to both economic and political reform. Reform in either sphere could jeopardize delicate political relationships, not to mention lucrative linkages between families. Consequently, if economic reform, which generates tangible benefits for both the nation and the top leadership, is now moribund, political reform is even less likely, given the associated risks of domestic upheaval.


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China’s Xi seeks ‘red restoration’ to consolidate power

chinamodel“The question that Chinese and outside economists now are debating is whether China’s leadership has the guts to allow the kinds of reforms that are needed to sustain growth and foster innovation,” says Adi Ignatius on the Harvard Business Review blog:

China’s development to date depended in large part on “late mover” advantages that are no longer available. …The only road forward, many argue, is to loosen the state’s persistent control over nearly every aspect of society. This need not involve a democratic transformation, but it would require that China’s leaders find ways to make officials at all levels accountable to the people. The rise of social media could help nudge China in that direction, but it is not clear its leaders will have the courage to loosen their grip on the levers of information.

As Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt told a reporter in Hong Kong yesterday: If China wants to avoid the middle-income trap, it needs to develop “openness [and] free speech” because progress requires “debates about everything.”

Western multinationals are likely to feel the sting of President Xi Jinping’s neo-Maoist regression, say analysts.

“When he was installed at the top of the party, many within the Chinese system were hopeful Mr Xi would push bold economic and political reforms, including strengthening the legal system and reducing the role of the state in the economy,” writes the FT’s Jamil Anderlini:

But Mr Xi has instead fallen back on the tools and symbols of the past in an attempt to halt the erosion of party legitimacy. This “restoration” of Communist imagery and tradition has been fuelled by a heavy dose of nationalism and has been accompanied by a wave of government attacks on foreign businesses in selected industries….

As the Communist party prepares to hold the third plenary session of the 18th CPC Central Committee, those signs lay out the central themes of President Xi Jinping’s term so far – conservatism, traditionalism and shoring up authoritarian one-party rule.

“The government is very aware of the enormous value of the Chinese market for multinationals and it is becoming more ruthless in ensuring that the money is kept in the family rather than letting outsiders grab the fat profits that are available now,” says Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese politics at Sydney University. “Politically it is also a very easy populist move to beat up on foreign companies; much easier than taking on big Chinese companies and their powerful domestic backers.”

CHINANATINTSTBut “increasingly multinational companies will in all sorts of subtle and not subtle ways be made to adapt their behaviour to meet the political and economic needs of the party”, Mr Brown says. “It is quite a rational response for the government in Beijing to leverage this great prize which is their domestic market.”

“One popular interpretation of Mr Xi’s conservative lurch is that he is consolidating power by adopting what is described in China as a traditionalist “leftist” approach in preparation for an eventual move to the more liberal reformist “right”. But so far there has been nothing to suggest he will eventually shift direction,” says Anderlini.

“I don’t see any evidence from his background or persona or from the way that the current system is structured to suggest that Xi is moving to the left because he wants to move to the right,” says François Godement, director for strategy of the Asia Centre in Paris. “We’ve really had all indications to the contrary and this seems more like wishful thinking.”

“Xi is drawing from the register of the 1950s and particularly the early 1960s when the party launched successive Leninist political movements,” says Godemont, a professor of political science at Sciences Po.

“He is trying to bring about a ‘red restoration’ and consolidate his grip on power.”

The result is a barrage of language not heard in China for decades as Mr Xi promotes the Maoist “mass line” governance method and orders cadres to carry out “criticism and self-criticism” sessions….A less savoury aspect of his campaign has been the arrest of hundreds of people considered to be political “troublemakers”.

“All the signs are that what Xi wants is to strengthen the system and his own position, rather than risk structural change that would reduce the power of the existing establishment,” says Jonathan Fenby, director of China research at Trusted Source.

“While there is occasional talk of political reform, the phrase seems to mean a drive against corruption and a promise to make government more accountable,” says Anderlini’s FT colleague, Gideon Rachman.

“There is no suggestion of movement towards a western-style democracy. On the contrary, Mr Xi is clearly determined to maintain the Communist party’s central role in running China,” he notes.

“It is hard to see how an anti-corruption drive can truly succeed without a free press, rival political parties or truly independent institutions to act as a check on party officials.”

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Radio Free Asia’s ‘gutter oil’ exposé on China’s black market goes viral

Radio Free Asia’s nauseating video exposé on China’s black market production of “gutter oil” has gone viral on social media and websites around the world. The video, part of  RFA’s investigative series on food safety in China, has reached more than 1.3 million views on YouTube, while news organizations, bloggers, and social media users have picked it up and shared it online.

“China’s ongoing struggle with food safety is obviously an issue of major concern for our audience in China, as well as people around the world,” said Libby Liu, President of Radio Free Asia. “The popularity of RFA’s video demonstrates the want and need for investigative reporting, especially in places that, like China, aggressively restrict press freedoms.”


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A Chinese dissident and the Freedom Project

xiayeilangChina’s Communist authorities recently dismissed politically outspoken Chinese economist, Xia Yeliang (right), from his position at Peking University, one of the country most prestigious schools.

“Like his friend Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace laureate who has spent much of the past 25 years in Chinese prisons, Xia had few illusions about what he was getting into when he signed Charter 08, a manifesto calling for human rights and an end to one-party rule,” The Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby wrote.

“I prepared myself for the worst long ago,” Xia told me when I reached him by Skype on Tuesday at his home in Beijing. “If I want to see constitutional democracy come to China, I must accept this. If it happens, I will bravely face it. I will not surrender; I will not back down.”

Wellesley College’s Thomas Cushman was one of Xia’s most consistent and vocal supporters, so it’s appropriate that he should alert us to the college’s newly designed Freedom Project website.

The Project is dedicated to the exploration of the idea of freedom in all of its manifestations, but especially in the tradition of Western classical liberalism:

This tradition, in its broadest sense, emphasizes the sanctity of individual rights, freedom of contract and economic rights, constitutional democracy, and the rule of law.  It includes, as well, an appreciation of the spirit of individualism and the struggle against arbitrary power, both in the form of political domination and the stultifying influence of ideological dogmas – cultural, political or religious – and social conformity.

“Freedom is a complex concept that defies precise definition. Yet, it always embodies the hope and possibility of self-realization, self-expression and human flourishing,” it states:

In this respect, the study of freedom is expansive and includes understanding this important idea in a variety of cultural contexts.  What does it mean to be free?  How do we define and achieve freedom? Are there any universal standards of freedom? Do we achieve freedom through culture or in opposition to it?   How is freedom won and lost?  These are the central questions that have defined the struggle for freedom throughout the ages.


HT: Thomas Cushman

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Nobel laureate Ebadi urges EU, US to ban Iran from TV satellites

Shirin_Ebadi_FIDHNobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi has called on the European Union and United States to ban Iran from using U.S. and European satellites to broadcast what she described as the Islamic Republic’s propaganda, Reuters reports.

Ebadi (right), exiled in Britain since 2009, expressed disappointment with Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani.

“The motto of Mr Rouhani was that he was going to change the conditions and this is why people voted for him. Unfortunately that’s not what happened,” she said:

Ebadi said the number of executions in Iran since Rouhani’s June election was twice what it was a year ago, when Ahmadinejad was still in power. Nearly all of the opposition activists in prison before he was elected are still in prison and religious and ethnic minorities continue to be persecuted, she added.

She cited figures from the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), which reported that over 200 people, including as many as four minors, were executed between June 14 and October 1. She said it was double the number of executions that took place in the same period in 2012.

“Unfortunately the world focuses on nuclear energy more than human rights and does not pay attention to the situation of violations of human rights in Iran,” she said. “And this is why the human rights conditions are worsening.”

“My question for European countries is – what if they agree with the government of Iran on nuclear issues,” said Ebadi, a former human rights lawyer and judge who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.

“Are you willing to shake hands with a government that stones women? Are you going to trust a government that executes its political opposition? Are you willing to compromise standards of human rights, that you believe in, for your own security?”

FIDH is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance NGO.


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