China’s modern economy belies secretive and opaque politics

March 16, 2012

The dramatic events this week in China underscored one of this country’s most baffling dichotomies: between an increasingly sophisticated and globally connected economy, now the world’s second-largest, and the opaque, Leninist-style Communist Party that still runs it, with almost no transparency or public accountability and seemingly resistant to calls for political reform.

China is set for a leadership transition this fall, with the top job — Party general secretary and national president — expected to go to the current vice president, Xi Jinping. There will also be seven new faces on the all-powerful nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, the body that effectively runs the country.

Only a tiny handful of China’s 1.3 billion people have any say in who these new leaders will be, however, and few have any clue what they believe or where they plan to take the country.

Ostensibly, the new leadership team will be elected by 2,000-plus delegates to the National Congress, which meets every five years, including this year. In reality, all decisions are made beforehand by a small clique believed to include the current Politburo Standing Committee members and some retired Party grandees, such as former president Jiang Zemin and former premier Li Peng, who represent sometimes competing factions.

Even Prime Minister Wen Jiabao seemed to acknowledge the paradox that is modern China on Wednesday, when he said at what is likely to be his last major news conference, “We must press ahead with both economic structural reform and political structural reform — in particular, reform in the leadership system of our party and country.”

But Wen has often called for political reform in the past — typically using the same words — to no apparent effect. And within hours of his latest remarks, the Communist hierarchy demonstrated once again just how secretively it operates.

Until this week, it was assumed that Bo Xilai, the populist, charismatic Politburo member and Party chief in Chongqing, was a top candidate for one of the nine coveted Standing Committee seats. While Bo was in charge in Chongqing, world leaders, foreign dignitaries and businessmen regularly trooped to the southwestern mega-city to extol its economic success, promise more investment and get face time with a future Standing Committee member.

But on Thursday, Bo, the son of a Party veteran, was effectively purged, removed not just from the Chongqing Party chief post but also from the city’s Central Committee. Many analysts say Bo’s career is now over, although some have speculated he might eventually be given a face-saving ceremonial post.

Wherever he ends up, Bo’s sudden departure from the top ranks illustrates the precariousness of power in a country where politics is practiced behind the scenes, with the public playing a purely spectator role.

“Even though China is more and more open and has frequent communications and exchanges with other countries, there are still a lot of problems with the system” of choosing the heirs to power, said Bo Zhiyue, a research fellow at the National University of Singapore who is studying Chinese elite politics. “Ordinary people and ordinary [Party] members have no chance of participating.”

Calls for political reform, from various sectors, have escalated recently. Last month, the World Bank released a 468-page report, prepared jointly with the think tank of China’s State Council, or cabinet, on proposals for ensuring the country’s growth between now and 2030. Although the report focused mainly on possible economic reforms, it also mentioned the importance of increasing community involvement and strengthening institutions such as the legal system.

Those are some of the same reforms that Wen has been talking about for years. In his most detailed remarks on the subject, at a Davos Forum event in Dalian City in September, Wen set out five goals for political reform, including changing the current system of “absolute power and over-centralization,” requiring the Communist Party to adhere to written laws and the constitution and expanding democracy, first within the Party and later beyond it.

Yet despite Wen’s many declarations that such changes are “urgent,” the system still operates in much the same way as it did when the Communists took power in 1949. Decisions are made behind closed doors, the top jobs are allotted after jockeying among factions, and most key lower-level posts, from mayors to governors to the heads of huge state-owned conglomerates, are decided by the Party’s intensely secretive Organization Department.

Some observers have questioned whether Wen is merely playing for public support with his reform calls — the dissident writer Yu Jie dubbed the premier “China’s Best Actor” in the title for a book. But many others, including some in China, think Wen is sincerely interested in political reform but has been boxed in by his position — he actually ranks only third in the official Communist hierarchy — and by obstacles thrown up by the Party’s vested interests and entrenched forces.

“He talked about political reform repeatedly, not as a Chinese leader, but as a Chinese citizen,” said Wu Jiaxiang, who worked under Wen in the 1980s as deputy head of a political reform research group Wen set up when he led the General Office of the Central Committee.

Wu said Wen was in the first group of Party officials to entertain thoughts of structural political reform. But, he added: “If we compare him to a woman, he has been pregnant and carrying this baby called political reform for over 20 years. Doesn’t he feel awful, since until now he still cannot give birth?”

Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

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