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20/03/2012 | China - turbulent times

Editorial

Without successful political reform, the gains country has made in instituting economic reform might be lost.

 

Before last week's National People's Congress, Russian political analysts looked admiringly at the managed process of political change taking place in China. One generation of leaders hands over to another this autumn as Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao make way for their successors. It will be the first transition that has not been shaped by the founders of the People's Republic and it will decide who will run China for the next 10 years. A transition run apparently so smoothly, when so much is at stake, is the envy of the Russian political elite.

But that was before Bo Xilai, the party secretary of Chongqing province, crashed to Earth. Bo had intended to use a ruthless anti-crime crackdown in Chongqing as a vehicle to propel himself to one of nine coveted seats on the standing committee of the politburo, until his police chief, Wang Lijun, sought refuge in the American consulate in Chengdu, claiming that his life was under threat from Bo. Bo's coup de grace was delivered in person by the outgoing Premier Wen, as he warned that China risked another historical tragedy like the Cultural Revolution and that the Chongqing party had to "seriously reflect" on the incident. A rubber-stamp parliament this was not. But if the inner tensions of such a momentous transition had broken surface, what were they? And if this is the first public argument, will it be the last?

Wen did not just aim his parting salvo at Bo, but at the authoritarian way in which reform was being managed, or stifled. During a three-hour press conference, it was here that he displayed genuine passion. Stalling or retreating from change offered no way out, he said. Without successful political structural reform, the gains China had made in instituting structural economic reform might be lost. Wen was only talking about at best incremental democratic change – elections for township and county officials only. He can also be rightly accused of having failed to translate his liberal-sounding rhetoric into reality. But he was, if anything, understating his case.

The next generation of leaders headed by Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang will not only inherit a China which is vastly more wealthy than the country that Hu Jintao took over a decade ago. It is incomparably more unequal too. As Bloomberg reported, the National People's Congress's 70 richest members added more to their wealth last year than the combined net worth of the US Congress, the president, his cabinet and supreme court justices. The jostling for places on the standing committee will test Xi's powers to impose his will. China will not need technocrats but politicians who can communicate their vision beyond the party to the country as a whole. The closer one looks at it, the more familiar the process becomes.

The Guardian (Reino Unido)

 


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