China: a new leaf?

Revelations about wealth amassed by the family of Wen Jiabao will find their way past the state’s information filters

Editorial/The Guardian, Friday 26 October 2012 20.12 BST

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Of the two big political transitions ahead of us next month, it is clear which will receive most attention and be the easiest to read. The US presidential election, in spite of some uncertainties about Mr Romney’s real position on many issues, is a straightforward and dramatic electoral contest. It will be comprehensively covered everywhere, and its outcome exhaustively analysed. The replacement of China‘s leadership at the 18th party congress, a couple of days after the American vote, is, by contrast, already foreordained. It looks like Chinese business as usual, and will be an almost entirely opaque process, as unclear in its implications after it is over as it is before it has begun. Yet it is arguably the more important of the two.

This is not because China is a bigger power than America, which it is not, and which it may never become. It is because China’s accumulated problems are so numerous and its need for reform and renewal so evident that the course its leaders set in the next five years could be more critical for the world than the choices a single American president will make in the four years at his disposal. Ever since it became possible to talk about Chinese politics in something like western terms, outsiders have hoped for reforms that will take the country in the direction of the rule of law and democracy, and reduce its dependence on a combination of nationalism and consumerism as a source of legitimacy. So have many, although it is unclear how many, Chinese. These expectations have usually been disappointed, because both the party and the people in China are frightened of too much change – the party because it worries that it will lose its grip, and ordinary people because of the memory of the chaos and cruelty of earlier times. However angry they are about official corruption and mismanagement, they fear any lurch into the unknown.

Corruption is a key to many aspects of the Chinese situation. As the distinguished British sinologist Roderick MacFarquhar recently argued, high-level Chinese corruption is not just theft. Together with the export of assets abroad, and the despatch of sons and daughters to foreign schools and universities, it suggests that the party brass lacks confidence in the future. Mao and the other earlier leaders had won the war against the nationalists, created a pervasive and effective party apparatus, and spread an ideology which was widely accepted. All of this is now in the distant past, to the point that, as MacFarquhar writes: “Globalising one’s assets… makes sense as a hedge against risk.” The revelations in the New York Times this week about the wealth amassed by the family of Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, will undoubtedly find their way past the state’s information filters, and their impact will be the more severe because he has been a relatively popular leader. The expulsion of the disgraced Bo Xilai from the party and, yesterday, from parliament, for, among other offences, corruption, is hardly likely to convince a sceptical populace that China’s leaders are ready to clean up their act.

But that is what a new leadership must do, if it is to transform a society “unstable at the grass roots, dejected in the middle strata, and out of control at the top”, which is how some Chinese scholars apparently described their country at a recent conference near Shanghai. Similarly, Deng Yuwen, a senior editor at one of the party’s journals, has argued that the achievements of the last decade of growth may be outweighed by its failures, especially the “failure to nurture and grow a middle class”. The most serious failure of all, as the Chinese writer Yu Hua has said, is the erosion of political belief and meaning to the point where, as he suggests, the phrase “the people” has become “nothing more than a shell company, utilised by different eras to position different products in the marketplace”. Put that way, there is indeed a long way to go in China.

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