The Winds of Chinese Political Reform

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.

Several incidents have conspired in recent months to produce this seemingly profound moment. And most of them have to do with Premier Wen Jiabao.
  • 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." 
All of this has occurred in a politically-charged atmosphere in China, which makes these successive events curious, if not highly intriguing. For one, Beijing is drafting the next five-year plan, China's twelfth, that is aimed at laying the foundation for China's economic growth for the next decade and beyond. A plan of this magnitude, that seeks to transform China's growth model, is inevitably political and will likely step on the toes of entrenched interests who will stake their defense of the status quo. Second, China just concluded a crucial CCP plenum in early October that finally promoted Vice President Xi Jinping to a top military post. Now that Xi has a foothold in all three bases of power--the party, the state, and the military--the presidency in 2012 is his to lose. Xi and a new generation of younger Chinese leaders will oversee the execution of the new five-year plan, which will only have started in 2011. Finally, the Nobel award to Liu Xiaobo can be deployed smartly by both Chinese progressives advocating openness and the hawks suspicious of western intentions. It's just that the hawks and conspiracy theorists scream louder in China [think Glenn Beck and Tea Partyers in the US].  

Within this context, what exactly is Wen's intention behind his rhetoric? I can't recall the last time a senior Chinese leader sat down with a western journalist to speak so candidly about the ailments of his country. Informed opinion generally resides in two opposing camps (yes, I'm generalizing). One camp consists of "This is the same tune we've heard before...all talk, no walk. Wen is preoccupied with cultivating his legacy as reformer rather than actually being one". Another is "Wen is sincere about inheriting the reformist mantle from his mentor Hu Yaobang. The premier just sent a clarion battle cry to all reformers within the party to take up the cause. Victory or not, this is Wen's Last Stand." 

Regarding the first view, Wen has arrived at the twilight of his career, does he really intend to spend the remaining two years in office championing political reforms? And his comment above about "strong wind and harsh rain" is a political forecast of the domestic resistance that will surely rail against any drastic reforms. Indeed, official editorials in party press and journals have already answered with their own stark warnings about never moving toward "Western-style democracy". 

Yet there is also evidence to support the second view. Reformers may indeed be taking the premier's cue and cranking up the decibel too. As the venerable reform-minded Caixin magazine weighs in (see Evan Osnos' excellent profile of Caixin editor and gadfly Hu Shuli):  

...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...