In Chinese culture unlike in the Anglo-world the future is always behind one’s head, not in front, because it is unknown – it has not yet been seen and experienced. For the Chinese Party-state as it undergoes its current leadership change there are many senses of a more certain future. It is not that there are not significant challenges for the leadership to meet and negotiate, but that the solutions being suggested to meet these challenges are tried and tested.
One of the stranger aspects of the current leadership change is the extent to which the outgoing Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao leadership has been either implicitly or explicitly criticized for its failures. In the course of the decade 2002-2012 there has been steady economic growth, political stability, and an increasing international profile for the People’s Republic of China [PRC]. GDP per capita has increased from $1,135 (in 2002) TO $6,100 (in 2012.) Welfare spending has increased dramatically since 2005; prestige projects like the high speed rail system and national universities have made the PRC the envy of the world; and other projects such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai Expo have placed the PRC firmly on the world stage. Yet the Hu-Wen leadership stands roundly condemned for its relative lack of political and legal reform, and the extent of growing inequality. Possibly one reason for this condemnation was the unrealistic extent to which expectations were built up in the early years of the 21st Century.
On the other hand, there is no question that the new leadership faces some substantial problems, of which rising inequality is clearly a major issue. 10 per cent of households now own 86 per cent of total wealth according to a recent survey by Southwest University. The Gini Co-efficient of income (in)equality has risen over the decade 2002-2012 from 0.45 (already considered socially destabilizing by many) to anywhere between 0.47 and 0.61 according to different estimates within China. Perhaps more disturbing is the increase in rural-urban inequality. Urban incomes were 2.5 times greater than rural in 2002; now they are 3 times greater.
While inequalities of these kinds reflect problems for the individual, there are also more general economic uncertainties. The Party-state is now committed to the development of an olive-shaped or middle class society. Consumption is central to that endeavor, yet consumption has shrunk over the last decade so that it now represents less than 45 per cent of GDP. Ownership is another obvious area of difficulties. Despite recent legislation the practice of ownership would seem more contested, and in the case of the vast variety of state-private hybrid enterprises almost infinitely complex. About a quarter of all so-called private enterprises are estimated to be owned by State-owned Enterprises [SOEs]; most SOEs are open to non-states owners, stakeholders and even shareholders in ways that would have former socialist planners scratching their heads. Even corruption, which is often seen as corrosive because of its moral and political impact is an economic problem. So much capital is going into fixed asset investment, particularly real estate, as a result of official corruption that it is likely to distort economic development.
The issue of corruption leads of course directly to another urgent challenge facing the leadership. There is considerable popular dissatisfaction and cynicism about politics and the political system in general in China today. Even though the government has over the last decade moved to increase welfare and to ameliorate the impact of inequality, these actions have been discounted as merely self-serving window-dressing by many. To be fair this discontent has been reflected in statements by the incoming leadership to some extent. They have highlighted the need for the greater accountability of cadres for their actions, more responsible government, improved administrative efficiency, and increased regulation. The emphasis has been on streamlining government and improving the virtue of officials.
This is where the certain future becomes revealed. ‘Better troops, simpler administration’ was the rallying call for establishing the Chinese Communist Party’s moral authority in the early 1940s in the base areas of North China in the War of Resistance to Japan. As the exigencies of rule started to take their toll during the 1950s the same prescription for political reform was embraced, and into the 1960s. In 1978-1981 when the Counter Cultural Revolution began to take hold there was as by then senior Party veteran Chen Yun pointed out (in 1979) something of a moral vacuum as the PRC headed into the era of reform and openness:
At present we must give top priority not only to economic adjustment but also to correcting the way people think. To put it even more clearly, we must revive the morale of the Party, the People and the Army. Unless we win the confidence of the entire country there can be no resolution.
The solution at that time was to adopt a raft of ‘Better troops, simpler administration’ measures, this time described as ‘socialist democracy.’ To quote the instructions to government cadres:
… uphold democratic centralism, obey the leadership of the organization … lead a plain and simple life, observe social ethics and stress civility and courtesy … be modest and prudent, guard against arrogance and impetuosity, uphold truth, correct mistakes, and regularly conduct criticism and self-criticism
Returning to the Party’s roots and organizational precepts seems to be a large part of the prescriptions that Xi Jinping and others are suggesting for political reform and the restoration of the Party’s moral authority. And the sense of the certain future is further reinforced by the CCP’s treatment to date of Bo Xilai. Regardless of the justice in trying Bo for corruption or whatever charges it is finally determined he will face, the lack of transparency, detail, and differentiation that have attended his dismissal speak to the past. An increasingly complex China with greater wealth, education, and experience in understanding political options needs new ways of resolving political conflict, which it would seem that the CCP has been (at least so far) unable to provide.
Professor David S G Goodman is Academic Director of the China Studies Centre, University of Sydney; and in the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Nanjing University. Recent publications include Twentieth Century Colonialism and China; China’s Peasants and Workers ; and Middle Class China. He is currently completing Class and Social Stratification in China for publication by Polity Press in 2013.