Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 23

By Jonathan Mirsky

China’s new rulers, the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, confront critical problems bequeathed to them by their predecessors. These problems, which would be called a crisis anywhere else, are partly the result of over fifty years of Communist rule. The new men, handpicked by those who have just left the stage, are equally unlikely to tackle, much less solve, them.

First, and fundamentally, there is no national belief in anything but money and power. Whereas other great countries stand for something, even if imperfectly–democracy, parliament, equality, opportunity, even revolution–China’s core beliefs, proclaimed by its leaders, are aggrieved nationalism, wealth, power, and a Communist Party that must never be challenged.

Second, there is rampant official corruption, which already taints at least one of the nine new leaders, Jia Qinglin, former Party secretary of Beijing, arguably China’s most corrupt city. If high-level corruption were honestly faced up to, the Party would fall.

Other basic systemic problems include:

— a legal system that can charitably be termed “nascent”

— stagnant rural incomes so low that at least 100 million country people roam China looking for work

— collapsing state industries with at least 70 million of their workers either jobless or subsisting on tiny allowances

— the inferior status of women

— a financial system crippled by failed banks and WTO demands (which China can meet only by insisting on special conditions)

— the breakdown of most social services, in Maoist times at least minimally functioning and free (such as education, health and care for the old)

— continued persecution in the “minority areas” Tibet and Xinjiang–where leaders calling for autonomy (not even independence) are termed criminals or terrorists

— no religious practices permitted except under the aegis of the Party’s official “churches”

— the prohibition of the slightest organized nonviolent political opposition, so that even the tiniest groups of challengers are behind bars.

Finally, there is the problem of how the leadership chooses its successors; this process remains as secret as ever. When the BBC showed pictures of the new president and Party chairman, Hu Jintao, to citizens in the streets of Beijing, few knew who he was and when they were told they uttered bland remarks such as “he must be very capable.” I remarked on this secrecy during a radio discussion with Charles Powell, who heads a British-Chinese trade organization, and cannot endure criticism of China; Lord Powell told me that the way China chooses its leaders is no more secret that the selection of members at White’s, one of London’s exclusive gentleman’s clubs.

In a recent letter from an American also active in trade with China I was further chided for my negative writing about Chinese affairs and reminded how much better things are there than they were some time ago.

This is unquestionable–and of little consequence. As Bruce Gilley, an acute scholar-journalist, recently observed, “Compared with the bedlam of Mao Zedong’s days, the upcoming succession will appear as orderly as the procession of monks to vespers. Unfortunately, that is the wrong comparison. What matters in today’s China is not how bad things used to be, but how much better they need to be to keep the party in power. China has a rapidly changing society whose resources and diversification demand competent rule. The Party is failing to provide such rule. Even foreign investors have good reason to worry when the top-most control of the country is so inherently unstable.”

The man who wrote me the letter said that the Western press bad-mouths China. That is hardly surprising: most foreign reporters live there and are not invited to banquets by Chinese officials keen to seduce foreign investors. In a recent article in The Times of London (owned by Rupert Murdoch, a supporter of Beijing), the paper’s China correspondent reported that after his appointment Hu Jintao addressed journalists: “We look forward to working with you more closely.” When a Hong Kong reporter rose to ask a question, “he was instantly wrestled down by the stewards, while Mr. Hu waved to him silently.”

Of course all but a handful of Chinese are shut out of this system of successor-selection. But even with all their myriad sources of information and analysis, not one of well over 300 world-class foreign China-watchers on a single American website was able to predict the names and number of the new Politburo Standing Committee.

This was not for lack of weeks of guessing. But the secrecy defeated them. While guessing, few speculated on what difference it would make to China if this or that man made it to the top. Nor has this failure impeded the experts from a new guessing game: will Jiang Zemin, who quite a few predicted would abandon all power, now keep his chairmanship of the Central Military Commission for months, a year, several years, or indefinitely? For most China-watchers the game does not include what this might mean for China. The game, as if it were no more than procedure, seems sufficient. Professor Kenneth Lieberthal of the University of Michigan, and a leading authority on Chinese politics, has described this point of view as “an interesting picture of fidelity to procedural niceties without any consideration at all of substantive power–not the picture that has traditionally been painted of elite politics in China (or anywhere else, for that matter).”

The Western press also failed to predict the new Standing Committee. (For future reference: Although many experts maintained that the new leadership remained uncertain right up to November 15, the day of the announcement, the South China Morning Post picked all the names correctly on November 8.) But Western reporters, traveling about the country, conversing with Chinese, who are often punished immediately for speaking with foreigners, see China for what it is: a vast authoritarian country run by a Party responsible for many of its ills.

Like the man who wrote me the letter, the Chinese authorities also regard the Western press as bad-mouthers. That is why they interfere with the BBC and the Voice of America and block internet carriers of Western newspaper reports like Google.

This Party, moreover, permits no domestic challenge to its power. Openly blowing a whistle can bring incarceration in one of the police-run psychiatric hospitals for the “politically mad.” Even telling the truth about the sources of Aids and the numbers of those infected is regarded as suspect. It is unlikely that the new Politburo will be more receptive to unwelcome news.

Democracy alone, it is true, will not save China and make it a relatively prosperous country in which everyone can share in its prosperity and have a hand in its politics. But even this possibility will never come about under the Party. This is why the who’s-who-in-China or the Who is Hu guessing games are mildly interesting but, finally, useless.

I do not fault my academic friends for poking about like Sherlock Holmes in a London fog–except that Holmes always got his man in the end. After all, it matters little who runs China these days. Whoever it is must face the problems I set out earlier; there is no reason to suppose they will start to get to the bottom of them. What matters to these men, each selected by two or three of his predecessors as a protégé, is keeping the Party in power by adhering to the self-serving adage, “The Party makes mistakes, but only the Party can correct these mistakes.”

No one knows more about the Party’s inner workings than ex-Central Committee member Bao Tong; he spent years in prison after Tiananmen for being too close to then-Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who still languishes, wholly illegally, under house arrest. Mr Bao, who is now permitted limited liberty and expects little from his ex-colleagues, wrote recently “People predict that as red capitalists join the party, Chinese communism will begin to be transformed from authoritarianism to more democratic tendencies. I believe they will be disappointed, for it is like asking a tiger for its skin.”

Jonathan Mirsky was the China correspondent of The Observer [London] and East Asia Editor of The Times [London]. In 1989 he was named the British editors’ International Journalist of the Year for his reporting from Tiananmen. He lives in London.

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