At a widely publicized cryptic leadership change, China’s ruling Communist Party unveiled its seven-member top decision-making body – the Politburo Standing Committee headed by Xi Jinping, the new party chief, and Li Keqiang, the premier-in-waiting.
Disappointing to observers, except the highly pragmatic economic supervisor Wang Qishan, who is going to head the Party’s disciplinary department, all other four – Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan and Zhang Gaoli – are known as “conservative leaders”.
The composition has given China experts a reason to say “We’re not going to see any political reform.”
This tone is consistent to opinions flooding in international media recently during the leadership-change Party Congress, gambling whose selection (not election) could bring what kind of reforms.
It also echoes pitiful sighs that Hu Jintao, the outgoing Chinese leader, could have launched a comprehensive reform to bring more freedom, if not democracy, to China.
But these commentators seem to forget that even when Hu vowed transparency as a measure to fight SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in 2003, a widely praised signal towards a liberal reform, media censorship remained.
At any of the subsequent major events – either positively linked to Party’s achievements or negatively to scandals – there is no time that media sound is not somewhat controlled in China. With the rising utilization of BBS and social media by the people to express their dissatisfaction, web censorship soon becomes a norm in China.
There is no exception for the domestic media reporting and netizens’ comments on the new leadership transition before and during this Party’s Congress.
No sign of change appears after the congress.
Political observers who wish to embrace China’s pro-democracy reform may neglect this “minor error” when they desperately seek any reform determination by top leaders, if any.
But the voice control, the cryptic leadership transition and the apparent determination for reform are actually consistent with each other in the logic of rule by power.
It cannot be forgotten that since Deng Xiaoping’s reform policies enabled China to shake off poverty, the very legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party has existed in the reform discourse. So any leader, whether conservative or not, needs to brand him or her as a “reformist”.
But either to a “reformist” new leader, or to the “reformist” leadership as a whole, the reform is by no means the public participatory change that aims to control the power of the ruling, at least after the 1989’s Tian’anmen Square movement.
Many analysts have correctly argued that if China, the world’s second largest economy, does not pursue more reform agenda, its economic growth cannot be sustained, and serious problems like social unrest, corruption and environmental pollutions cannot be solved.
However, there is no sign that the ruling elites tend to think the reform agenda includes making their own power checked so that they can be more responsive to the public; the market can be more efficient because of a stronger private sector less intervened with by the State; and the social unrest can be eased by the governance of the civil society.
Actually, the Chinese leadership, “liberal” or not, is responsive to the problems and to the public outcries, but they are not MADE responsive to the public. No matter in the “three represents” campaign launched by former Party leader Jiang Zemin, or in the “scientific development view” sponsored by Hu, or in the purity talk of communist party member appealed by Xi, there are slogans asking leaders to hear the appeal of the people and to serve their interests.
In a sense, more and more leaders seem really to do so. Chemical plants in Dalian, Qidong and Ningbo were quickly closed after public protest against the potential pollutions. But meanwhile, media and microblogs are continuously and strictly censored and public gatherings remained controlled during the government “good” actions. There can be only one reasonable explanation on the seemingly contradictory moves: the powerful leaders wish to act to “serve” the people, rather than being pushed by the pressure of the empowered public.
Positively, solutions to some salient problems protested by the public most loudly come quickly, as long as these protests are not censored (because there are always new terms and new tactic, particularly online, to evade censorship), but negatively, no solutions can be obtained when the solution-provider, the powerful leaders themselves, are involved, or when the protests are more separated or too sensitive.
In such a system, reform discourse will continue, and they will periodically raise the interest of political observers with this or that new move by the new leadership, but one thing is simply unchanged: the public can only be the followers of the reform, even though it may be led by the world’s smartest elites.
Hepeng Jia is the former editor-in-chief of China’s Science News Magazine and a former Knight Fellow of Science Journalism at MIT. He is currently having a doctoral study in public policy at John Glenn School of Public Affairs of Ohio State University.