It has become something of a cyclical pattern among those who study and observe China closely to be captivated by certain moments of potential political change in China, only to be disappointed later when little to nothing happens (I'm guilty of it myself). Hopes are dashed, cynicism grows...until the next moment. And so we have arrived at another one of those moments, when opinions sharply diverge on where China is headed politically.
- April--Wen's gushing eulogy of former Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, known as the reformer whose ouster from the party and eventual death sparked the 1989 protests.
- August--Wen's symbolic visit to the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, the birthplace of Chinese economic reforms. He spoke openly about much-delayed political reforms being necessary.
- September--Wen's candid interview with Fareed Zakaria in which the Chinese premier pledged "I will not fall in spite of the strong wind and harsh rain, and I will not yield [on political reforms] until the last day of my life."
...It is necessary as well as urgent and feasible to carry out political reform now, lest we lose the chance.
Just as China's leaders have repeatedly and for years talked about the importance of seizing a strategically important stage in history to promote economic development, they must now seize today's critical period for political reform.
China's political, economic and social conditions have now sufficiently matured and have set the stage for steady, peaceful reform.
...Robust economic development over the past 30 years has laid the necessary material foundation. China is also enjoying a "demographic dividend," and thus can afford to nurture a relatively relaxed social and economic environment conducive to political reform. In addition, a basic legal framework is in place, while civil society continues to evolve. So the momentum for political reform is building. Many people from low-level officials familiar with grassroots hardship to senior officials with broad vision have clear ideas about reform steps. Business leaders, academics and the public are awaiting changes with anticipation.
Reading closely, this editorial makes a compelling argument I haven't really heard before, and it works on several levels. It essentially argues that the "grand bargain" the Chinese government struck with its people--delivering economic growth to lift the entire nation to prevent social instability--has largely been achieved. Therefore, the notion that the "country will fall apart" because the economics are not ripe no longer has as much resonance. In fact, the argument implies that the enormous "cost" of economic development is what risks tearing apart the social fabric now. And political reform is the necessary remedy to mitigate those costs and repair the vast cleavages. It then pivots to an even more interesting point: That from grassroots to the top echelons of political power, an alignment of interests exists. Even the Chinese elites are on board with this agenda. Why is this important? Because the Communist Party has evolved into a party of the elites by co-opting them into its ranks. Your constituency is in agreement, what are you afraid of then?
Of course, Caixin's reputation as a progressive rag means few on the other side of the spectrum will be won over. If anything, they may harden their positions and hunker down for a pitched battle. But whatever lies behind Wen's rhetoric, it has spurred a spirited offensive by those who sense the moment may be upon them.
The outcome of this unfolding drama may again prove the pessimists' case and up the dose of cynicism. But anyone proffering claims of certainty on what will become of this moment is an exercise in futility. The diagnosis is overwhelmingly inconclusive at this point; more evidence is needed and likely forthcoming.
An interesting moment indeed...