China - Bund Pudong ViewIf there is one striking characteristic of the period of late Hu-Wen rule (broadly, from the 17th Party Congress in 2007 when Hu was able to have most of his key allies in the Politburo and was thus more dominant), it is that it has been a period of control. The ‘stability’ mantra (in Chinese, wei-wen) has been invoked time after time, with increasing intensity, since the Tibet uprisings in early 2008. Further unrest in Xinjiang in 2009 and Inner Mongolia in 2011 only reinforced for the current leadership the fact that social order is non-negotiable. This underlines the staggering fact that in the National People’s Congress this year, the Chinese government admitted that it spent USD 5 billion more on internal security than on national defense. The enemy within, it seems, looms larger in their minds than the threat from outside.

The leaders around Hu Jintao – being so focused on control – must be somewhat dismayed, therefore, that the leadership transition that is now due to take place at the end of this year (most likely mid October) has proved so scrappy and stressful. Contender Bo Xilai and his family scuppered the initial smooth plans. First, through his own energetic lobbying for a post in the key standing committee, and then through the involvement of his wife in the murder of a British businessman, and the flight of his chief deputy to the US Consulate in Chengdu in February. Bo himself is now under investigation, relieved of his formal positions but still a member of the Communist Party.

The one saving grace has been that the uppermost levels of the political elite in the Party have maintained unity, despite the unexpected series of events. Not one has given any overt sign of having misgivings about the treatment of Bo, nor of how the transition process is playing out. The only distinctive voice is that of Premier Wen Jiabao, who has talked in more detail about the need for deeper reform in the area of rule of law – but this is something he has been saying for some time. Everyone else has kept to the same strict tune – everything is fine, the Party is concentrating on economic development, and the strategy to become a middle-income country by 2020 is well on track.

The only problem, of course, is that change of leadership or not, China is in the midst of a very profound transition. This transition began over three decades ago with a turn away from autarkic Maoism, and is steering the country towards a strange hybrid of public adherence by elites to rhetorical Communism, but private allowance of a more and more diverse, private-sector driven economy. The political results are being worked out now, and manifest themselves in the sharp clashes between different social groups visible in protest figures (which have risen each year since the late 1990s), and in the increasing voices from within the Party itself dissenting from the main line of policy and advocating for change beyond the realm of economics.

These are not just middle to low ranking figures. Xi Jinping himself – heir apparent to Hu – reportedly met an academic before his mysterious disappearance in late August, and spoke of the need for faster, deeper and wider reaching reform. The problem is that saying reform is necessary is a position almost everyone would sign up to in China. The question is what kinds of reforms, where, and in what timescale? Once one moves from aspiration to implementation then issues grow very tricky. There is no consensus on which areas are best to look at first, how quickly, and in what way. Take Wen’s lead and do something about creating independent, better funded courts? Free up restrictions on rights to property, or undertake deep pension reform by creating a proper national self-funded system? Do something about China’s strange current system where most people pay little to no private tax, but save for the sorts of health and educational public goods that other systems fund through taxation? Give a stronger political role and voice to civil society or non-state business groups?

The list could go on. The brute fact is that, so far, none of these enjoy political consensus amongst the elite. Choice in any one area would mean sacrificing some of the vested interests of powerful groups. A common vested interest is what has held the class together so far. Having a leader who is willing to pick fights with any one of these groups – be it social, regional or institutional – in order to push the policy agenda in a particular direction, would be important. But there is no evidence to date that the likely new leaders are going to have the imagination or courage to do so, at least not in the short term.

In the medium term, two simple possibilities exist. Either to assert some sort of prioritization so that the incoming leadership can attack some areas of the menu of issues listed above that need reformist attention, or otherwise have their hand forced by a crisis that allows no choice but to act. In his period in power, Hu has had the luxury of being a control freak. It is hard to see this being extended to his successors. For them, it will be about the usual business of politics anywhere – making choices, trying to spell out the basis for decision making, and convincing key people around them to work with this approach.

Opinions voiced by Global Minds do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Global Journal.

(Photo © Tim Franco)