The defining moment in China’s political reform — Karl C.L. Lee
APRIL 27 — Recently, I attended an international conference which hosted scholars from both Malaysia and China to exchange opinions and perceptions about the current state of socio-economic developments in both countries’ minorities.
To my surprise, I was struck by an expert’s comment that Beijing’s impending task now lies on its ability to implement new rounds of economic and political reforms simultaneously while pursuing either one of them will put China at great risk of systemic failure in the foreseeable future.
Any vivid China observer, I believe, can see where this comment comes from. Dubbed the “Beijing Consensus” by some experts, the country’s remarkable two-digit growth for the past decade or so has been spurred by the high-handed and polished state-driven capitalist reforms which started in 1978. Such a state-led system, while has been successful in turning China into the second economic powerhouse, has recently come into question after latest drops in exports due to global economic uncertainties, rising inflation, possible real estate bubble, and the fear of hard landing of the Chinese economy. In terms of political consequences, such visible and influential state power and governance have sowed the seeds for public discontent towards the ruling establishment in a number of fronts.
First, Beijing’s priority of economic over political restructuring has led to growth-maniac phenomenon whereby provincial and local governments enacted policies to achieve high GDP growth without considering the negative impacts to the country and the locals (not to mention rampant corruption among these officials); second, both central and local authorities had diverted a lot of resources from capital to humans, to developing the coastal provinces as opposed to inland regions and thus, causing socio-economic and income disparities in favour of the former’s population; third, the export-led growth sustained by the central government’s undervalued exchanged rate and low labour and environmental costs policies which in turn, constrained China’s flexibility to upgrade itself into domestic consumption, high value-added and clean economy; and finally, Beijing also directed most capital and support to groom state-owned enterprises (SOEs) into multinationals and, in the process, contribute to unequal wealth distribution among high-, middle- and low-income classes, the birth of powerful interest groups of the SOEs and stumpy growth of the private businesses.
Surprisingly, despite having an efficient and effective economic management system, Beijing has yet to provide the right political channel for the Chinese public to express their frustrations, grievances, anger and views on these various problems, let alone come out with gradual and concrete steps towards democratisation in the years ahead. Any attempt by the Chinese government so far has been sporadic, experimental, centrally-approved and lacks a comprehensive plan for structural reform.
Take the case of Wukan. The election which solved the large mass protest in the village, a result of local officials’ illegal land sales, was instrumented by Wang Yang, the top party chief in Guangdong (a coastal province), with the support of the central government. While it was touted as a successful political experiment by many, Chinese policymakers have been faltering on whether it should introduce such a form of transparent and fair local election in the rural areas to replace the current ones — that are bound for the party’s interference, an argument put forward by Josh Chin in the Wall Street Journal.
So is the case of the interior provinces such as Tibet and Xinjiang where minorities form the largest bulk of the populations. Without giving the same amount of political representation in concurrent with the economic measures within the Great Western Development Strategy, the problems of poverty, fairer access to opportunities and prevailing ethnic mistrust of the Han population as well as the authorities at large will likely exacerbate the already serious racial tensions and separatist fervour both within and outside of China.
Meanwhile, in China’s urban and suburban areas, the irresistible wave of technological revolution in the form of micro blogging (or weibo in China) via computers, iPhones and iPads has produced a large group of citizens who made their views and dissatisfactions heard in digital space. Despite lagging behind their Asian counterparts in terms of asserting political pressure, the emergence of such a class will seek to transform the whole political landscape of China at least in the middle term. Therefore, it is now the question of whether the Chinese government can cope with this change without limiting the freedom netizens currently enjoy as it has done in the past.
For Beijing’s part, the road ahead without political reforms will certainly be unthinkable. I agree with the scholar’s conclusion that old regimes operating in conventional approaches are incompatible with this high-tech, market-driven, knowledge economy. Just look at what happened in the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore. Citizens are demanding more than what the governments are previously ignorant about. No doubt, it is only through synchronising both political and economic forces that states are better equipped to weather or even survive the challenging external and internal crises in this century.
In line with the leadership transition later this year, the responsibility falls on the fifth generation of younger leaders led by Xi Jinping to replicate the Wukan election model in all villages and municipalities throughout China. This will prove to be the first crucial step for great political reform in the country. The earlier it starts, the better for Beijing. The more it delays, the more precarious it will be for China.
* Karl C.L. Lee is a Malaysian graduate reader in international relations who is a keen observer of China’s politics, diplomacy and its implications on the East Asia region.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.