Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (left) has spoken before about the need for political reform and greater democracy in China, but usually to select audiences and not given the coverage in state media accorded to his plenary speech and comments in a Q&A at the World Economic Forum meeting in Dalian. (Video here).
Much of what he has said before on the subject has fallen on deaf ears among his peers in the country’s top leadership. There is an acceptance that, if China is to move to the next stage of its economic development and not get stuck as a middle-income developing nation, it has to transform its economic model from the one Deng Xiaoping laid out and that has provided the three decades of rising prosperity that underpin the Party’s legitimacy to monopoly rule. However, there is an equal recognition that doing so carries hazards that could jeopardize the Party’s very supremacy. Creating new economic institutions means rethinking the connections between China’s bodies politic and economic.
Wen’s calls for greater democracy take that thought a stage further–and into far scarier terra incognita for the Party. It would decouple what the late legal scholar, Cai Dingjian, called the combination of money and power that is at the heart of the Party’s rule.
The existing leadership has been adept at walking a fine line between gradual economic reform — sufficient to generate the growth needed to ensure political stability — and negating change that threatens the status quo of the political system or vested interests in business, the military and government. The underlying goal has been to ensure the survival of the Party’s supremacy.
China’s next top leaders may be even more dedicated to that cause. The incoming so-called fifth generation, will, for the first time, be men born after the Party seized power in 1949. With their ascendancy from next year, modern China will cross a political and demographic Rubicon.
Their generation is the great, great grandchild of Mao’s first generation of leaders. Their youth was shaped by the tumult of the Cultural Revolution and the near implosion of the Party in the late 1960s. Many of their families were purged. Their survivalist reaction was to be “redder than red” as a means to advance through the Party’s ranks. Distrustful of anything that might cause instability, it is innately conservative.
Yet at the same time, its members’ political lives have been formed when China has only seemed increasingly powerful, wealthy and expansive. They have ridden high on China’s economic growth. They are more worldly than their predecessors, mostly educated at top Chinese universities, more likely than their predecessors to have social science rather than engineering degrees, and be more likely to send their own children to top U.S. and European universities.
That is also the crucible of the world view of the generation of younger officials coming along behind, an identifiably post-Deng generation to whom Long Marches, Great Leaps Forward and Cultural Revolutions are history not experience. They are on track to take power as the sixth generation of leaders in 2022. This unusual mix of conservatism and economic pragmatism at the top with more self-confidence and Party orientation immediately beneath is likely to net out as caution, stability and an appetite for only incremental change,
All are as pragmatically committed as their predecessors to the Party’s monopoly on power, if divided over whether the basis for that should be ideological or economic. The core of the new leadership are “princelings”–descendants of Mao’s revolutionary leaders, a dynasty of some 400 elite families who hold extensive sway over the Party, army and the economy, especially the state-owned sector which accounts for half the economy and where those three power centers intertwine. One of their own, Xi Jiping, is emerging as Hu Jintao’s successor as paramount leader, successively taking over the top Party, state and military jobs between 2012 and 2014.
Their dilemma is that if the Party’s legitimacy to monopolistic rule depends on continuing to deliver the economic growth that keeps its citizens getting richer and the country stronger and if China’s rapid economic growth cannot continue beyond a certain point without institutional reform, then managing the role of government in the economy and overcoming state-owned vested interests–in other words reforming itself–becomes the new leadership’s most important concern.
Though unlikely, and increasingly difficult to do in a globalized world, China could turn inward and neo-isolationist, relying on its growing internal market and a demographic bias to becoming a deficit country over the next decade, to drive the next stage in its economic development. There is every indication for now that China will continue on its present course. Indeed, there is a plan for that. The new leadership will inherit the country’s current five-year plan at its midway point.
That plan is long on goals but short on a timetable for implementation. That lets a new leadership kick the can down the road for a few more years. A key question is, have the old elites secured control of the new economy: or is their power only temporarily persisting in it, to wane as market institutions eclipse the administrative power of the cadres; or are the old elites just being replaced those made newly wealthy by business? In the answer lies an indication of how much scope there is for political reform.
So far at least, the Party has found a way of absorbing the rise of private power that elsewhere in industrializing economies has led to the rise of new centers of political power. Wen seems to sees those as inevitable in China, and thus to be embraced early; his immediate successors, we suspect, will see them to be smothered.