my opinion piece in the Guardian on the Party’s 18th Congress

To Reform or Not Reform

By Zhang Lijia

Beijing is festooned with slogans, glowing in the bright early winter sun. “Joyfully Celebrating the Opening of Party’s 18th Congress”, they sing in auspicious red and gold. The public mood, however, isn’t as joyful or excited as the slogans suggest.
I’ve conducted my own mini survey among my neighbours, friends, family and taxi drivers about shibada – the 18th Congress, the common reply was: “Don’t care. It has nothing to do with us. We have no say in selecting the leaders or making the policies.” Of course, people do care. Such comments just reflect frustration, especially among the young and educated, at the lack of democratic participation in China. Their frustration was heightened by the spectacle of US presidential election 24 hours before the opening of the congress which will see the once-in-a-decade leadership transition in this country.
In the report delivered on Wednesday by the outgoing president Hu Jintao, he says that the Communist Party will deepen reforms and opening up. We heard similar promise back in 2003 when president Hu first took over the reign from his predecessor Jiang Zemin. At 61, with his smooth face under the regulation jet-black dyed-job, he was the youngest ruler the Party had ever produced. I remember how I excitedly talked with my friends about our new leader and hoped he would turn out to be a real reformist like the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, who had, against all odds, introduced the reforms and opening up in the first place.
Under Hu’s leadership, China has made remarkable economic progress. With double digital annual growth, it has overtaken Japan to become the world’s second largest economy. His government swiftly and efficiently reacted to the global economic crises. It initiated the rural health insurance and paid more attention to social issues and talked unceasingly about ‘building a harmonious society’, part of the effort to address the growing inequality.
Yet, president Hu has proved to be a cautious leader who failed to deliver the genuine reforms we had anticipated.
Ten years on, China’s social and economic conflicts have reached almost a tipping point.
The Bo Xilai scandal has demonstrated the cracks in the current political system: its lack of openness, transparency and supervision has served as the rich breeding ground for corruption.
Economically, China is trying to shift from an investment-driven to innovation-driven economy, from an export-driven to a
domestic-consumption-driven economy. But such economic re-structuring needs political relaxation. Currently, the long arm of the government is everywhere, controlling all the important industries, mining, oil and telecom. You don’t need an economics degree to know that monopoly is the enemy of the market. I believe that one of the many reasons for the economic slowdowns is the political bottleneck.
Socially, there’s wide spread discontentment. Recently, protests have erupted like mushrooms after spring rain: farmers protesting over the land seizure, workers demanding higher pay or citizens trying to stop the construction of some poisonous plant.
It’s a pipe dream to hope China would introduce the American style direct election. But some kind of political participation, other than the expansion of intro-Party democracy, and more channels for people to air their grievances would help to ease the social tensions. Our new leader Xi Jinping, 59, will face a mountain of challenges. Despite being a so-called princeling – a son of a high ranking leader, he tumbled in the soil with peasants during the Cultural Revolution, an experience which should help him to relate to the needs and hardship of the ordinary people.
Although the need for change is more urgent compared to ten years ago, I am somehow more cautious about the outcome. Genuine reforms, not tweaks here and there, always demand courage. Will he be able to press ahead, overcoming possible resistance from more
conservative-minded colleagues? Also, Xi and other top leaders are selected because they’ve proven not only their leadership ability but also their loyalty to the Party. Will they be willing to give away some of the power the Party holds now and conduct reforms that may hurt the interests of their friends and relatives?
One thing is for sure: without true reforms, China won’t be able to sustain its fast economic development and become a real super power in the world. Without the reforms, the political winter will set in, soon.

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