What happened to political reform in the second term of China’s Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao administration?

3. Oct 2012

In a recent blog-article by Deng Yuwen the outgoing leadership of Hu-Wen was given its score-card, titled “Ten grave problems”. Number ten was the problem of lack of political reform, after the original promising start. While we are waiting for the change of leadership to come in the 18.Party Congress in November, let us look at this aspect.

It is true that political reform efforts have stalled since 2008. As late as 2007, Wen had said: “Political reform, with the development of democratic politics as its goal, is one of the great reforms China is carrying out, the other one is economic reform.” Yet this year he is still only talking about it.

If we accept that there has been a lull in progress towards political reform, how can we explain it? I think many factors may play a part, whether historical, cultural, political, societal or international.

First of all, a lot has happened over the last 30 years, and the system may be in the process of digesting not only the five elections carried out in 660.000 villages since 1988, but also the reforms of elite politics introduced by Deng (rotation, age limits, etc), the increasing pluralism of institutions, the increased channels for political participation, the demise of the danwei, and the rise of associations and societies. Add to this the many local experiments with further reform, whether in transparency, more consultative elements, anti-corruption or intra-party democracy. Even the legal system has been strengthened by many different measures, and in spite of the persistence of party interference, there were 11 million ordinary and unremarkable court cases in 2010 in which people settled their differences, with the state too. The result is a changed political atmosphere, in which a wide range of opinions and lobbying compete, and the spectrum of debating positions rivals that of the US: from the strongly neo-liberal to the orthodox maoist. With the change to collective decision-making, away from one- man rule, an element of checks and balances has also been introduced. In the view of some researchers the result is a kind of “shadow pluralism”.

Secondly, the huge economic success China has had since 2003, with GDP increasing five-fold, and real income per capita 3-4 times, may also have delayed democratic reform. The increased self-confidence may have stimulated the view that China should find its own institutions, in the political sphere too. It takes more time, if you want innovation that is adapted to tradition, history and culture, rather than to copy somewhere else, like some East Asian states have done. Economic success is also a success for ‘incrementalism’, gradual reform, and so this is likely to be the preferred method. China is generally less hurried than is the case for western politicians plagued by short-term goals and impatient for immediate results. It is also likely to look for its own variant of democracy, probably a non-liberal, elitist democracy, a la Singapore, particularly after the disappointing recent performances of existing Western systems. Additionally, both its big philosophies, Confucianism and Daoism, stress stability and balance in the development of society. My point being that there are cultural factors affecting our perception and evaluation of China’s progress in the area of political reform.

Thirdly, a number of political factors may be affecting the progress of political reform. The ‘shadow pluralism’ and the existence of at least two different main factions may have had the effect of ‘representing’ interests and channelling important demands into the political system, in spite of its non-democratic character. The wide use of surveys, hearings, consultations, even deliberative democracy, has enabled the regime to be responsive. In David Shambaugh’s view, it has moved towards being an “eclectic state”, pragmatically drawing on a wide range of experiences, in an almost Darwinist “adaptive authoritarianism”. The fairly competent leadership and the ‘performance legitimacy’ maintained over the last decades: showing in economy, infrastructure, urbanisation, poverty reduction, global profile, etc. has increased regime legitimacy from other sources than democratic credentials.

Fourthly, more socio-politically grounded explanations of the delay in major political reform would look at its constituencies, the forces that would carry democratisation. The first problem is that there is low public interest: both winners and losers of reform and globalisation look to the Communist Party to protect their interests, whether in protection of private property, or in provision of some welfare. Their no. 1 priority is the legal system, equality before the law. The many justified local protests do not challenge the party or the system as such. The progressive parts of the middle class, which could be expected to champion political reform, ask what it would do for them. They are willing to demonstrate for their own interests, but not to riskily empower the 1000 mio people below them. In this way they are reminiscent of the elites in 19.th century Europe: “Democracy is a good thing, but let’s wait”. Class-alliances among Chinese workers, or across the urban-rural divide are also notoriously difficult. Actual opponents of democracy are perhaps mostly found among ministerial level functionaries and in government in the provinces. They are not pressured by the grass-roots, and would prefer to remain unaccountable technocrats. The leadership at the top can have a variety of interests in democratic reform: soft power, fighting corruption, surviving in power by adapting to the democratization of information, easing unification with Taiwan, stability in succession,etc.

Fifthly, international factors can also help understand the stasis in political reform efforts. A regime that feels safe and unthreatened is more likely to reform. Authoritarian regimes democratize when they do not feel threatened, like Taiwan and South Korea did. In the post Cold War period ‘liberal internationalism’ with its financial and other support of ‘colour revolutions’ and its military interventions, has delayed reform and strengthened hardliners. It seemed clear to the leadership that China was on the US list for ‘regime change’ too, and the result was extreme vigilance towards NGO’s and civil society phenomena. As late as April 2008, a White paper on political democracy was published, but then came the Tibet crisis, the Olympic circus, and finally the US financial crisis, which in itself was an argument for delaying reforms. There may also be an aspect of learning, namely from the experience of the “East Asian Model” prescribing economic modernisation first (under authoritarian or 1-party rule) and avoiding premature democratisation which has meant collapse in a number of countries, but waiting till it has a prospect of holding (Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore?)

Summing up, democracy in China’s context is not an ideology, but a tool. It is likely that incrementalism will continue and that perhaps the most likely scenario for successful political reform is via the direct parliamentary elections in the 2600 counties becoming ‘real’ free from party meddling, then gradually moving upwards to national level. As for a multiparty system, one seasoned observer sees the appearance of powerful groups, each lobbying for the interests of their own group or region, these groups coalescing into permanent and open lobbies, and the lobbies one day converting themselves into full-blown parties. In any case, it will happen because an adaptive regime sees that it will advantage its own (elite) survival.

There could also be much less optimistic predictions of course. The reform-drive being bogged down by vested interests of the remaining big SOE (State Owned Enterprises), of leading families or of the middle class. The driving forces for reform –intellectuals, the private sector, the ‘new men’ of the presumed ‘Communist Youth League faction’ – weak because lacking a strong policy-entrepreneur and faced with a generally content urban population. In this case the most likely scenario is not collapse, but rather ‘muddling through’ – unless faced with a severe crisis which could affect legitimacy and make a platform for a renewed reform-drive.

Clemens Stubbe Østergaard
Aarhus University and NIAS Associate, Senior Research Fellow