Politics & Policy

China’s Challenge

A new leader takes over amid mounting and increasingly open unrest.

As China holds its 18th National Congress this week, with the Communist Party preparing for a once-in-a-decade transition of power, the nation looks superficially exultant. Ethnic-minority delegates clad in their cultural garb smile and wave to photographers; pretty girls throng paramilitary policemen in immaculate green suits; red and yellow plastic flowers abound. Meanwhile, in the provinces, chubby-cheeked kindergartners dress up in Red Army uniforms and sing old Communist songs, and university students line up to form the Communist hammer and sickle. All very good photo ops.

But China’s blogosphere tells a different story, describing a jittery, paranoid Chinese leadership. The Mandarin word for “18th Party Congress” — shrr-ba-da — sounds a lot like “Sparta,” some Chinese netizens have quipped, and that’s roughly the mood in Beijing this week.

There, cab drivers have been instructed to child-lock their rear doors and remove the window handles altogether to prevent passengers from throwing out subversive pamphlets. (In a city where impoverished drivers often work, sleep, and eat in their taxis, many passengers are now complaining about strong odors in cabs.) Meanwhile, balloons, pet pigeons, ping-pong balls, and remote-control airplanes have all been identified as possible security risks. Heavy censorship has frustratingly slowed the Internet, even for those with virtual private networks. And it’s even become hard for Beijingers to buy a kitchen knife or pencil sharpener from local shops.

These security precautions are extreme, even for National Congresses. But they’re also entirely understandable.

For starters, it’s been an eventful year. Chongqing Communist Party chief Bo Xilai’s highly publicized fall from grace has been China’s biggest political scandal in a generation. Earlier this year, coup rumors circulated online and were taken seriously by many, though they proved ill-founded. And rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng’s high-profile escape this summer also proved embarrassing to the government.

Less publicized has been the wave of Chinese public protest in the last year. The number of so-called “mass incidents” has steadily increased year by year, reaching the tens of thousands. And in its new report released last month, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China noted that “citizen protests against lack of basic freedoms and official abuse . . . in some cases were unprecedented. In late 2011 and early 2012, China’s beleaguered workers continued to strike and organize for higher wages and better working conditions in reportedly the most significant series of demonstrations since the summer of 2010.” That trend has prevailed despite the Congress. Last week, thousands of residents gathered in Ningbo, roughly 150 miles south of Shanghai, to protest against the expansion of a state-owned petrochemical plant.  And in Tibet, five people have self-immolated this week alone.

Beyond the broiling public discontent, China’s Communist leaders have an even bigger reason to be nervous. The 18th National Congress is facing a growing legitimacy problem that will plague Xi Jinping when he assumes the presidency this week. Unlike his predecessor, Hu Jintao, Xi can’t boast of being hand-picked by reformist leader Deng Xiaoping. Nor is Xi’s legitimacy derived from the will of the people. Instead, a Chinese president’s best claim to power has become effective policy. And that’s a tall order, given the mountainous problems Hu leaves behind.

Granted, China now ranks as the second-largest economy in the world, up from sixth when Hu assumed office in 2002. And the Chinese middle class continues to grow. Yet many say China was already on track for this growth beforehand, and that Hu’s policies have been unhelpful.

Hu has conducted economic development recklessly. Across China, pollution is pervasive and heavy — it really does often look like this. In some cities, the smog is reportedly so thick that businessmen have to polish their shoes every day to buff off the grime. White shirts become yellow-brown after a few days in urban China, and laundry hung to dry in the muggy air sometimes causes rashes. When the environment is that bad, citizens start noticing.

Also of concern to average Chinese, Hu has failed to curb China’s investment-consumption balance, a growing problem for the national economy. Inflation remains high, driving up prices of food and consumer goods; this is the top concern for six in ten citizens, Pew reported last month.

Furthermore, under Hu’s tenure, state-owned enterprises have been sheltered. That’s discouraged competition, to the detriment of Chinese consumers. It’s also led to corruption. China’s powerful are increasingly its wealthy, a class of conspicuous cadre-businessmen who cruise around in black Audis or tricked-out sports cars, drink copious amounts of baijiu, and generally do whatever they please. Pew found that 50 percent of the Chinese it surveyed considered these corrupt officials a “very big problem,” up from 39 percent four years ago. Even Hu realizes this; in his speech Thursday, he said that corruption “could prove fatal to the party and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state.”

Given these problems, “Hu Jintao should be seen as a failure,” said Derek Scissors, an Asia economist at the Heritage Foundation. “He’s adopted a state-led, inefficient, wasteful development model that has delivered high growth — but China was growing fast before [he assumed power]. He created imbalances in the Chinese economy that [his successor] is going to have to fix.”

Those economic dilemmas have translated into political ones, which Hu has also handled gauchely.

Jerome Cohen, a law professor at New York University and an eminent China expert, told National Review Online that Hu “has proved inadequate to meet the challenges created by the Communist Party’s very success in economic development. In his last five years, we have not seen a flexible response to new and difficult challenges, but instead, we have seen a preference for repression and almost insane paranoia over which he presides in this vain quest for harmony. . . . In the last few weeks, the atmosphere is almost unbelievable, it’s almost Orwellian.”

Liberal progress has all but stalled under Hu’s watch. The government has repressed legal reformers and rights lawyers who work within the system to advocate for their fellow citizens. New institutions and legal reforms have been slow in coming. Laws on the books are poorly enforced.

While there has been some progress in encouraging Chinese civil society, citizens still suffer at the hands of their repressive government — a fact of Chinese life that hasn’t changed under Hu’s time in office.

“During the Party Congress, China’s controlled media will spare no superlatives to describe Hu Jintao’s economic and political accomplishments,” said New Jersey representative Chris Smith, chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China and a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “An honest look at his ‘legacy’ must, however, include many harsh realities such as dissidents sentenced to prison and labor camps, the brutal persecution of religious believers and the Falun Gong, severe pollution and dangerous working conditions in China’s mines and factories. Hu’s policies have driven dozens of Tibetan men and women to set themselves afire in protest, brutalized women by forced abortion and involuntary sterilization, and aggressively enforced the one-child policy that has created tens of millions of ‘missing daughters’ and a historically unprecedented imbalance between newborn boys and girls.  China will pay a high cost for these ‘bequests’ of Hu Jintao.”

That’s the legacy Xi Jinping inherits this week. Whether he is capable of handling it is anyone’s guess.

Xi “is not a strong, independent, free agent,” Cohen explained. “He has to sit on top of this extraordinary, complex political [structure]. . . . We know he’s intelligent, experienced, a bureaucrat, cautious. What can we tell? It’s very hard to say.”

The all-important question is whether Xi Jinping will be a liberalizing reformer. Ultimately, his actions will speak for him, as Hu’s have for Hu. But there’s no question that Xi is a party man. And, in the words of Hu yesterday, the party will “resolutely not follow Western political systems.” In an era of growing problems and increasing political discontent — and with Xi’s legitimacy resting on his competence — the temptation will be to exert even more control.

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. She has traveled extensively throughout China as a Robert Novak Fellow with the Phillips Foundation. 

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