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China is again at a fork in the road

China is again at a fork in the road

The Hu-Wen decade has been marked by impressive economic and diplomatic initiatives, but the socio-political record is mixed. Which way will the new Xi-Li leadership go?

The media focus on the dismissed leader of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, and his convicted wife Gu Kailai has been so extensive that adequate attention has not been paid to the political transition due to take place shortly at the 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China.

Unfulfilled goal

During the decade since CPC General Secretary, President Hu Jintao, and Premier Wen Jiabao came to power in 2002, China achieved many high points. Yet some of the major initiatives for which the Hu-Wen leadership would be remembered did not achieve their desired results. China confidently coped with the global economic crisis in 2008, and in 2010 it became the second largest economy in the world. China’s per capita income rose from $1000 in 2002 to over 2500 now. Many events such as the Beijing Olympics and astronauts in space missions were major achievements. But the distinction of this leadership was its attempt to reorient the strategy of fast economic growth to address the problems of social inequality, regional disparity, environmental pollution and increasing corruption under a programme of balanced, multi-dimensional development which Hu Jintao called “scientific outlook on development”. This came after Jiang Zemin’s call for building a ‘well-off society’ by 2020. Unfortunately, the market forces released by the 30 years of economic reforms were so strong and the Party’s method of using an authoritarian state apparatus was so effective in getting both the support of people at home and rising status in the world that the goal of this leadership largely remained unfulfilled.

One of the most important achievements of the Hu-Wen leadership was the smooth process of transition it has ensured. Political succession had seen tumultuous times before. After the Tiananmen Demonstrations in 1989, when Deng Xiaoping appointed Jiang Zemin as the leader, several principles were put into action. One was to choose relatively younger leaders, limit their five-year terms to two, make them retire at 70 and put them in position on the line of succession five years earlier. Thus Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang who are the likely successors to Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, were put in the Standing Committee of the Party Politbureau at the 17th Party Congress in 2007, and made Vice-President and Vice-Premier respectively in early 2008.

The Hu-Wen leadership’s record on building democracy is a matter of much debate. On the one hand, the leaders can be credited for maintaining a fairly stable polity that saw a prospering economy. This was in the face of labour strikes, ethnic riots and some 180,000 ‘mass incidents’ in 2010, most of which were peasant protests over transfer of land for commercial purposes. On the other hand, they have firmly ruled out adoption of western style multi-party democracy. In fact, during the last two years, some intellectuals had a discussion on an alternative model called Confucian democracy that puts in power “wise, benevolent, pro-people” rulers.

Small steps forward

The election of the 2,270 delegates to the Congress including 23 per cent women and 11 per cent minorities saw some small steps forward. The choice was widened and more youths were nominated. However, no woman or ethnic leader seems to be an obvious choice for the Standing Committee, with the possible exception of Liu Yandong, the only woman member in the outgoing Politburo. Fujian leader Sun Chunlan is a rising star.

After coming to power, the Hu-Wen leadership revived the old Maoist slogan of ‘serve the people’, called the anti-corruption campaign a matter of life and death for the party and pledged to promote human rights. In fact, the Charter of 2008 signed initially by 350 intellectuals was a landmark document pleading for that. But the repression of human rights activists and ethnic demonstrators in Xinjiang and Tibet continued.

At the same time, the regime launched a large number of programmes for the minority regions. The Western Region Development Strategy was continued from the Jiang Zemin period with more allocations. One of the flagship programmes of the Hu-Wen regime was the Building a New Socialist Countryside launched in 2006. The widening rural-urban gap — urban per capita income was over three times the rural — and massive migration to cities with nearly three hundred million floating population in the cities had created a major crisis. The new initiative aimed at investing more in rural infrastructure, agricultural technology and, above all, in health and education. But after the first flush of enthusiasm, its significance seems to have waned and only routine references are made in the annual reports and plan documents.

The Hu-Wen decade saw the ‘rise of China’ as a world power poised to overtake the U.S. economy by 2040. As a growing big power, China’s moves in the South China Sea, the vigorous acquisition of natural resources and markets in Africa and Latin America and its challenging of the U.S. position on many issues in the U.N. represent one trend. This was in tune with the massive display of nationalism by millions in the cyberspace. Deng Xiaoping’s advice that China should lie low in the world and bide for time may have run its course.

At a different level, China actively associated itself with many multilateral initiatives and worked together with the developing countries, including India, on issues of world trade and climate change. It has enthusiastically participated in the emergence of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) as a new force for building a just and equitable world order. Thus the Hu-Wen leadership has constantly swung between two opposite tendencies — one pushing it to act as a big power with an eye on competing with the U.S. in every sphere, and the other working to end big power domination. In popular imagination, China is caught between the visions of G-2 and G-77. No doubt, as in other parts of the world, in China too there are people who acknowledge that humanity has entered a new historical phase in which hegemony in any form is challenged everywhere.

These contradictory pulls have been reflected in China-India relations during the past decade. There were new milestones created with the establishment of the ‘strategic and cooperative partnership’ between India and China and agreement on the political parameters guiding the process of settlement of the boundary question during Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India in 2005. The trade volume has increased steadily, reaching $74 billion in 2011, and exchanges in all possible spheres expanded vastly along with exchange visits by top leaders. At the same time, India seems to have receded in China’s strategic priorities in recent years. It is seen more in the context of the Chinese response to the new strategic line of the U.S. in forging its “Asian pivot” rather than a partner in its own rights.

‘Grandpa Wen’

As for the human face of the regime, the image of Premier Wen Jiabao standing on the rubble of school buildings during the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 or at the site of the High Speed Train accident in 2011 in Wenzhou will always be etched in the Chinese mind. While Hu Jintao, the ideologue, exhibited a stiff personality, smiling rarely, the charming Premier was fondly called Grandpa Wen by children. The two together successfully led China in a momentous decade and are all set to pass on the mantle to the Xi-Li leadership which has already been groomed to succeed them.

The composition of the next Standing Committee will be watched with great interest keeping two questions in mind. One is whether the Xi-Li leadership will reflect the Hu-Wen tilt towards equity and sustainability by deliberately scaling down the growth rate from 10 to 7.5 per cent in the XII Plan. Or would they rather give up such pretensions and resume the Jiang era focus on rapid growth? The other is the foreign policy line of the Jiang regime during 1989-2002 which was seen as being soft on the U.S. for obtaining western capital, technology and access to its market. The Hu-Wen regime was seen readjusting that policy, building up linkages with African and Latin American countries and playing tough with the U.S. on many issues such as on Syria.

(The author is Chairperson, Institute of Chinese Studies and Professor at Council for Social Development, New Delhi. E-mail: >

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Printable version | Apr 23, 2018 5:36:29 PM |