For several years, bookshops have been inundated with tomes predicting China’s usurpation of the US as the world’s dominant power. In the late 1970s China’s great rival, Japan, was portrayed as a similarly unstoppable and disturbing rising force. Japan did become a major player, particularly economically. But it did not achieve global domination. Neither will China.
China will complete one of its constitutionally mandated and secretive once-in-a-decade leadership changes at the 18th Communist Party Congress in Beijing on 8th November. Rather than guiding China’s inevitable rise to world dominance, the new leaders will inherit a daunting array of problems that threaten the country’s continuing development.
The current leadership transition has been fraught with signs of tension. Unusually, the Congress has been delayed and the anticipated successor to Hu Jintao as the Party’s paramount leader, Xi Jinping, disappeared from public view for several weeks. Most dramatic of all was the fall of Bo Xilai, a Politburo member and Party leader in the major city of Chongqing.
Rather than guiding China’s inevitable rise to world dominance, China soon to be new leaders will inherit a daunting array of problems that threaten the country’s continuing development.
Bo Xilai was the most prominent of the “Red Princelings” faction in China’s Communist Party, a privileged group of sons of the first Communist leaders who have benefitted from nepotism. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was recently sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of a British business associate, Neil Heywood. Bo himself has been removed from his official posts, expelled from the Communist Party and is also facing criminal charges. His downfall is unlikely to have been the natural result of justice taking its course because the Chinese legal system is subordinate to the political leadership. The judiciary will have been directed by Bo’s rivals at the top level of Chinese politics, some of whom feared his untypically, for China, personalised and populist public profile.
This case highlights a significant flaw in China’s dictatorial system. China’s rise so far has been characterised by a large degree of unity of purpose amongst the key decision makers. The system has been credited with making long-term strategic planning easier to conduct than in a democracy. But it relies on a small, self-selected group of men to get all of the big decisions right, all of the time and to remain unified in implementing them. There is no reliable safety valve when decisions go wrong, or factionalism breaks out, and the country can lose direction badly.
The consistent historical pattern is that once a critical mass of a country’s population becomes confident that they have achieved economic security, their attention turns to demanding more say in how their lives are run.
As well as being a sure sign of infighting, Bo Xilai’s demise has shone an unforgiving light on the epic scale of corruption in China. Bo led a conspicuously opulent lifestyle, including sending his Ferrari-driving son to some of the most expensive public schools in the UK and private universities in the US. As well as being a drag on the economy, corruption risks sparking a backlash from the famously hard-working Chinese people. Their growing resentment at the gratuitous theft of the fruits of their labour is evident in numerous localised protests. Xi Jinping’s rumoured anti-corruption plan has been cited as one of the causes of the friction around the leadership transition. If such a plan exists, it is hard to see how it can succeed when, even after Bo’s departure, some of the worst culprits are in the Politburo, where they are accountable only to themselves and a handful of colleagues, at least some of whom are equally guilty.
The fractious leadership transition has come at a bad moment for China. The economy’s previously prodigious growth rates are slipping and its continued progress depends on switching from cheap manufacturing to more innovative, value-generating economic activities. The government has been trying to catalyse this transformation for some time. But its own political system contains intrinsic obstacles to it. Innovation does not flourish easily in societies with no impartial rule of law or freedom of expression. It also requires an education system that encourages inquiry, rather than instilling propaganda. The conundrum for the Party is that removing these obstacles would be to sign its own death warrant.
A country of 1.3 billion people with no experience of political freedom does not make a promising candidate for a smooth transition to democracy in anything other than the long-term.
Even if it does not voluntarily move towards democracy, the Party will eventually come under increasing pressure for more political freedom from its people. To some extent this is the result of China’s economic success so far. The consistent historical pattern around the world is that once a critical mass of a country’s population becomes confident that they have achieved economic security, their attention turns to demanding more say in how their lives are run. There are no convincing reasons to believe that China will be any different in this regard.
Sadly, instant democracy is no panacea for China either. A country of 1.3 billion people with no experience of political freedom does not make a promising candidate for a smooth transition to democracy in anything other than the long-term. The ease with which the current Chinese government has been able to stir up nationalist fervour against its neighbours whenever it needs to distract attention from its own failings, amply illustrates how populist demagogues could create chaos in a freer political environment.
The new Chinese leadership, then, has a lot to tackle when it takes power next month. The systemic problems they face will prevent China from attaining the global dominance that many commentators have predicted for it. But the significant political and, particularly, economic position China has already achieved means that the rest of the world still needs to hope that the new men are capable of getting a lot of decisions right.
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