x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Calls for reform in China are a once-in-a-decade event

Like Zhu Rongji before him, the outgoing Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, has offered much for China's next generation of leaders to ponder, but little to go on.

Any political leader who had overseen the stunning economic growth of China over the past decade could be excused some boasting and perhaps a karaoke session singing I Did it My Way. Nothing like that for the outgoing Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, who in a valedictory press conference this week confessed to being "incompetent" and admitted that his record left much room for improvement.

Amid the sackcloth and ashes of his three-hour session with journalists Mr Wen let slip a grim prediction. China must reform its political and economic system, he said, and if it does not, it could lose all the gains it has made and risk a "historic tragedy" on the scale of the Cultural Revolution.

The Cultural Revolution was a decade of bloody turmoil unleashed by Mao Zedong in 1966 to purge his enemies and to ensure his absolute grip on power after his failed "Great Leap Forward" resulted in famine.

Summoning the ghost of this terrible period is not something to be done lightly and raises a number of questions about the Chinese Communist Party as it goes through a generational leadership change: Is Mr Wen speaking for a powerful faction of closet liberals in the party who want economic liberalisation to be accompanied by more democracy? Or is it simply that he sees a crisis ahead and is trying to insulate himself from the fallout?

Mr Wen has been talking of political reform for several years and has appeared to be something of lone voice at the top of the leadership. It is fair to say there is widespread agreement that there has to be some kind of political reform in China as people get wealthier and the economy is liberalised. But crucially the boxes marked when, what and how are always left blank.

The outgoing premier is no exception to this rule: he offered no details of what he intended, or any timetable. He made clear that such reform could take place only in small steps, and suggested the proper starting place was elected village councils. There has been no suggestion of the Communist Party ending its monopoly on power, and the conclusion must be that he is looking for more accountability in public life and greater respect for the rule of law, all within the framework of one-party rule.

To put Mr Wen's comments in context it is worth looking at what his predecessor, Zhu Rongji, said as he handed over the baton in March 2003. His final address to the National People's Congress had its fair share of blood-curdling warnings. The government had to "nip grassroots conflict in the bud and do something about the nation's huge wealth gap before it causes large-scale unrest". The entire national economy was threatened, he said, by workers' protests.

Mr Zhu had little to say on political reform, except to say that democracy had "improved steadily" during his tenure, whatever that meant. Outside the Great Hall of the People, the prospect of the old guard departing nurtured some hopes of a new start in governance. There were calls for more press freedom. A former private secretary of Chairman Mao, Li Rui, was making waves by demanding democratisation. Dictatorship, he wrote at the time, was the origin of turmoil. His message was not heard. In 2004 the Communist Party's propaganda department banned the media from mentioning Mr Li.

China's once-in-a-decade change in leadership will always prompt speculation about democratising the political system. Ultimately, however, the Communist Party's leaders are judged by a different measure: their ability to raise living standards while keeping the lid on tensions between China's ethnic groups, between rich and poor and between city and countryside. They also have to give the impression of seamless unity at the top.

It is not surprising that departing premiers should talk passionately about what they failed to achieve. The big question is whether the men at the top are genuinely worried that their technocratic system, which has avoided financial crises and class warfare at a time of unprecedented economic and social dislocation, is about to hit the buffers.

Clearly there are such worries: the next generation of leaders has to deal with a population that is wealthier and is beginning to feel empowered by social media. In this atmosphere, issues of corruption and official malfeasance are no longer local incidents: they can instantly become national talking points online. Again, there are no easy solutions to the problem of how to ensure the longevity of a technocratic dictatorship in a wired society.

The outgoing premier's reference to the Cultural Revolution may have a more immediate cause than any dire prediction of the future. Nostalgia for the Mao years has been cultivated by the brashest and most openly ambitious of candidates for the leadership, Bo Xilai, who was party boss of the fast-rising city of Chongqing until he was dismissed on Thursday. Mr Bo had become a national figure thanks to an anti-corruption drive, associated with a revival of Maoist songs and culture, which netted and executed local businessmen after only the most threadbare of trials.

Mr Bo's career was hit by scandal in February when his police chief, the man in charge of the anti-corruption drive, allegedly sought political asylum in the US consulate in Chengdu. The circumstances of this incident are murky, but Mr Bo was tainted by association.

For the outgoing premier, Mr Bo's revival of Cultural Revolution symbols was apparently not just harmless nostalgia, but an omen of a dangerous trend, particularly when mixed with his populism and high media profile. Mr Bo may have been the star that the foreign media loved to watch, but at home his critics saw him as a dangerous adventurer.

Perhaps the answer to the question of what Mr Wen means by political reform is simple: while the country lives in the shadow of Chairman Mao, democracy means keeping the likes of Mr Bo down and leaving the top jobs to people who are, at least in public, quite modest about their achievements.



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