Amid Calls For Reform, China Waits For New Leaders

Oct 20, 2012
Originally published on October 22, 2012 1:21 pm

The slogan "Long Live the Great Communist Party of China" is emblazoned on the wall outside the Beijing compound where the country's leaders live and work.

But now that party is under pressure to change as it prepares for a once-in-a-decade transition of power, which starts at a party congress scheduled to begin Nov. 8.

Change could be in the air in China, as the country's leaders wrestle with the fallout of a damaging scandal encompassing murder, corruption, abuse of power and sex.

Even a staid party publication is warning it faces a dead end if it doesn't move to change its political and social system.

High oxblood walls ring the leadership compound, punctuated by cameras above and policemen beneath. Very few people are party to the intense power struggles that may be playing out inside these walls.

But outside the walls of power, there's growing criticism of the legacy this generation of leaders has left after a decade in power.

"I don't think these 10 years will be seen as having achieved all that much for China," says Susan Shirk, a former State Department official during the Clinton administration and China expert at the University of California, San Diego. "There's tremendous criticism inside China of the way this administration has made a U-turn and set China back."

Discontent From Many Quarters

Political reform has stalled since 1989, while economic policy has concentrated on building up the state sector at the expense of the private sector. On a recent visit to Beijing, Shirk says there was a clear mood of dissatisfaction.

"It looks like the leaders were feathering their own nest, creating patronage for themselves, rather than pursuing an economic policy that really distributed the benefits of development broadly to the people," says Shirk. "This is not just my criticism. There's a consensus among Chinese economists that policy has made a U-turn."

Even the state-run media is on the offensive. Two months ago, an editor at the Study Times newspaper wrote an article declaring that the problems caused by the past decade's policies "are even more numerous than the achievements."

This was followed by a call for reform in the party publication Seeking Truth, which pronounced that "stagnation and turning back is a dead end."

Historian Zhang Lifan believes this essay is significant.

"That a conservative magazine is singing about reform shows a change in attitude at the top," says Zhang. "I don't think they've reached consensus on how reform will be carried out. They just realize they can't continue as before."

Zhang himself sees the party's future in absolute terms, predicting either "reform within five years or death within 10 years."

Populists V. Princelings

Politically, the party is reeling from the downfall of disgraced politician Bo Xilai, who is being investigated for abuse of power, corruption, improper relationships with women and involvement in a murder.

His wife, Gu Kailai, was given a suspended death sentence after being found guilty of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood. Until seven months ago, Bo was a hot contender for a top post.

Now his downfall has upset the delicate balance between factions inside the Communist Party. Many analysts see Chinese elite politics as having two informal coalitions: the "populists" who rose through the Communist Youth League and include the top two leaders right now; and the "princelings," who are the descendants of old revolutionaries. That category includes Bo Xilai and Xi Jinping, the man who will be China's next president.

"The regime is like a company. The youth league are like professional managers. The princelings are like descendants of the shareholders," Zhang says. "For the past decade, the managers have been in charge. But the descendants think they've managed the company badly, so they want to take over."

Xi Jinping is the son of revolutionary hero Xi Zhongxun. His father's political legacy gives hope to reformists like Bao Tong, a former senior official who spent seven years in prison after 1989, when he was secretary to Zhao Ziyang, the party leader who sympathized with student demonstrators.

"If he's like his father, there'll be hope," Bao tells NPR. "His father was very upright. He was a good person. He didn't talk about reform, but he did seek fairness."

Uncertainty Surrounds Transition

The new president isn't all-powerful, however. He'll be first among equals in a collective leadership. Currently that committee consists of nine people, but rumors are circulating that it will be reduced to seven posts.

Only two of the current members of the committee will remain: Xi and his premier, Li Keqiang. As for the rest of the positions, horse-trading could continue until the very last minute.

But the black box of Chinese politics means all this happens behind closed doors. Zhang, the historian, warns of the dangers of oversimplification.

"Westerners think black is black and white is white," he says. "How could they know that for Chinese, black contains white, white contains red, red contains black, everything is mixed. It's rather complicated."

In less than three weeks, a new chapter in China's political history will begin at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. However, no one knows how many men or women will rule China, or who they are. Change may be coming, but the question remains just how much.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Reform could be in the air in China in the run-up to a once-in-a-decade transition of power, but China's leaders are still wrestling with the fallout of a damaging scandal that's brought down one of its most powerful politicians. So, what will happen? The perplexing task of reading the tea leaves has fallen to NPR's Louisa Lim in Beijing.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: I'm standing near the compound where the men who rule China live. Who knows what intense power struggles have been going on behind these oxblood walls these past few months. But outside these walls, there's growing criticism.

SUSAN SHIRK: I don't think these 10 years will be seen as having achieved all that much for China.

LIM: That's Susan Shirk, a China expert at the University of California, San Diego. She says political reform has stalled, while economic reforms have been rolled back.

SHIRK: It looks like the leaders were feathering their own nest, creating patronage for themselves, rather than pursuing an economic policy that really distributed the benefits of development broadly to the people.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: The party is reeling from the downfall of disgraced politician Bo Xilai. State TV says he's being investigated for abuse of power, corruption, improper relationships with and involvement in a murder. Now, calls for reform are mounting. Even a party publication called Seeking Truth has joined in. This is significant, according to historian Zhang Lifan.

ZHANG LIFAN: (Through Translator) That a conservative magazine is singing about reform shows a change in attitude at the top. I don't think they've reached consensus on how reform will be carried out. They just realize they can't continue as before.

LIM: Some see Chinese elite politics as having two informal coalitions, the populists, who rose through the Communist Youth League and include the top two leaders right now; and the princelings, the descendants of old revolutionaries. That category includes Bo Xilai and Xi Jinping, the man who will be China's next president. Historian Zhang sees the current situation like this.

ZHANG: (Through Translator) The regime is like a company. The Youth League are like professional managers. The princelings are like descendants of the shareholders. For the past decade, the managers have been in charge. But the descendants think the Youth League managed the company badly, so they want to take over.

XI JINPING: (Speaking in foreign language)

LIM: China's next president, Xi Jinping, is the son of revolutionary hero Xi Zhongxun. His father's political legacy gives hope to reformists like Bao Tong, a former senior official who spent seven years in prison after 1989.

BAO TONG: (Through Translator) If he's like his father, there'll be hope. His father was very upright. He was a good person. He didn't talk about reform, but he did seek fairness.

LIM: But the new president isn't all-powerful. He'll be first among equals, in a collective leadership. But so far, no one knows if that committee will be nine people - as it is right now - or fewer. So everything is in flux. Even things that look clear, might not be. Historian Zhang warns about the danger of oversimplification.

ZHANG: (Through Translator) Westerners think black is black, and white is white. How could they know that for Chinese, black contains white, white contains red, red contains black; everything is mixed. It's rather complicated.

LIM: Complicated, indeed. And in less than three weeks, here at the Great Hall of the People, a new chapter in China's political history begins. We know change is coming. But how much change, nobody knows. As with so much in China, the only certainty right now, is uncertainty. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.