There will be no surprises this week as China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress, holds its annual meeting to “elect” the nation’s new leaders. The die was cast at last year’s Congress. Chinese Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping will be elected president (head of state), while Li Keqiang, second-ranked member of the party’s politburo standing committee, will become premier (head of government).
The prospect of a younger generation of Chinese leaders more in tune with domestic and international realities could mean a fresh approach for China’s relations with the West, with enormous mutual benefit. For Canada, this once-in-a-decade leadership transition could have big implications. A move to rule of law, stable democratic political institutions, openness and transparency would do much to allay Canadian concerns over Chinese investment in Canada, lack of confidence for Canadian investors to enter the Chinese market, and China’s poor record regarding the human rights of its citizens.
But will it happen?
At his final press conference at the close of last March’s Congress, outgoing premier Wen Jiabao pleaded for the implementation of democratic political reform, warning that otherwise, “such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution may happen again.” One would hope that his younger successors will make these sentiments a starting point in setting a new agenda.
Unfortunately, this presents a problem for the Communist Party. If China adopted the rule of law and a new transparency that exposed the pervasive corruption of party officials, many of them would end up with convictions and jail time.
The Communist Party does not want a spotlight on its culture of getting things done with kickbacks, bribes and thuggery, or anyone looking too closely into matters such as the arbitrary arrest of rival independent businessmen, or the “disappearances” and torture of human-rights activists. Not to mention the violent suppression of Tibetans and Uyghurs, which verges into International Criminal Court territory.
Back in January, Mr. Xi acknowledged that “some” party members have become “degenerate and corrupt,” although he said in a speech a month earlier that the problem is “Westernization and bourgeois liberalization.” Regardless, Mr. Xi has implored party officials at all levels to revive their commitment to Marxist-Leninist values and not follow the former Soviet Union, whose Communist Party collapsed, he said, because “they denied Lenin, they denied Stalin. Everything was denied. It led to historical nihilism and ideological anarchy.”
While such a stark call to Stalinism may sound archaic to the West, it appears to be the new leadership’s strategy of “circling the wagons” against any challenge from citizens emboldened by the ability of social media to rally support for democratic discourse. In its response, the government looks like the sorcerer’s apprentice as it tries to delete sensitive postings on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) and block access to Web pages that sprout like cyber mushrooms, jumping from server to server in order to keep one step ahead of China’s Internet police.
The only answer that Xi and Co. have come up with is to reinforce and strengthen the party’s Leninist approach to government by using stricter controls of the Internet to inhibit freedom of expression, by suppressing political dissidence and by increasing state control of all aspects of China’s society and economy. But they have been unable to stop increasing numbers of citizens from realizing the complete disconnect between the party’s official ideology, the reality of Chinese politics and the social values of Chinese young people.
The Communist Party leadership is desperate to make Marxism seem relevant to China’s contemporary circumstances. The latest national policy, “Project in Theoretical Research and Development of Marxism,” involved a state investment of a billion Chinese yuan. The net result of this massive expenditure was a new political program known as the “Three Confidences,” which states that “the whole party must have firm confidence in this path, have confidence in this theory and have confidence in this system.”
To have such a weak, even pathetic outcome after so much money and effort will not inspire anybody with much confidence. That this is the best that the party’s intelligentsia can come up with in these circumstances does not bode well for the party’s revival during this government’s 10-year term.
Ultimately, it appears that Mr. Xi, Brezhnev-like, is presiding over a fin-de-siècle Communist regime, devoid of new ideas and severely constrained by a stifling Leninist system that was emphatically repudiated elsewhere more than 20 years ago.
There is little that Canada can do but watch and hope that China is not on a path to political and economic meltdown. But, regrettably, it is becoming more and more apparent that the new boss is not just the same as the old boss. Mr. Xi is arguably a weaker and even more ineffectual leader of a fading caretaker regime that has more past than future.
Charles Burton is an associate professor of political science at Brock University in St. Catharines, and is a former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing.