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Eric X. Li

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Toward a New Equilibrium -- China Before the 18th Party Congress

Posted: 04/ 7/2012 12:21 pm

Speculations continue to swirl around apparently the highest-level purge in China's political leadership in years. The intensity seems to be rippling through Chinese society. Websites have been shut down; Weibo comments were disabled; arrests were made. Some continue to attack the government's decision to remove Bo Xilai from his post. The vehemence and ferocity of their discontent are rare in China's public life. Below is a rational voice from someone in the midst of it all.

This piece was written exclusively for this space by Wang Wen, an editor of one of the largest daily newspapers in China with two million in circulation.

BEIJING -- Anxiety and rumors have overtaken Beijing. Everyone is obsessed with the possibility of an upheaval in China's politics after Bo Xilai. Bo, who was a strong contender to join the top leadership of China, was dismissed from his post as Party chief of Chongqing. The news soon became the number one topic on Weibo (China's Twitter). Pictures of the National Day parade two years ago were posted as evidence of a military coup in the capital. Superstition is rife. An unseasonably late snowfall in Beijing the day after Bo's dismissal was billed as heaven's grievance against an injustice.

Public opinion seems starkly polarized. The pro-Bo camp sees it as the biggest political crisis in China since 1989 and is deeply concerned about the future of the Party. His detractors, on the other side, regard his dismissal as an event similar in significance to the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. To them, Bo's Chongqing model had always meant the restoration of the ultra-left political line of the Cultural Revolution. The division between the two groups is so fierce that it seems to have resuscitated what was until now a wholly discredited theory: China is near collapse.

Those who have predicted China's imminent collapse have done so continuously since 1999, only to have had to postpone such eventuality year after year. After so many years, their prediction sounds more like a wish than a theory. Any sign of political discordance, such as this one, is quickly used to revive their wish. In this politically sensitive year, with the apparent fall of a major political figure, they are busy at work attempting to provoke a Beijing version of the Arab Spring.

As a long-time close observer of China's politics, I'm afraid the provocateurs will be disappointed again. The current conditions of China are fundamentally different from those that prevailed in Egypt in the spring of 2011. They are not even close to the conditions that precipitated significant social movements in London in the summer, Wall Street in the autumn, and Moscow in the winter. Regardless of the noise, stability remains the overwhelming consensus of Chinese society.

In my discussions with those in Beijing's elite circles I find a wide range of opinions. Some are resentful of Bo's removal and even feel betrayed. Some are euphoric as they see the central government has finally made the right decision. Regardless of the seeming intensity of their views, no one wants to take to the streets. On the contrary, they seem all worried that such a controversial event might drive others onto the streets. In China, without the instigation of the elites, it is impossible for ordinary people to have the channel and willingness for meaningful political protests. As for the Chinese elites, the memory of the Tiananmen Square incident 22 years ago is still fresh in their minds. Radicalism, in the name of any political ideal, has no appeal in reality.

Another interesting phenomenon is the seeming reversal of roles between China's public intellectuals. Those with a history of expressing discontent and even dissention to the Party are the most vocal in supporting the government's move. They have been generally disapproving of the "Chongqing model" and had been attacking it long before Bo's trouble. They had always been hostile to Bo's "Singing Red and Striking Black" campaign. They had worried that Bo might go to a higher post in the leadership and seek to expand his policies to the whole country. Therefore, supporting the central government's decision becomes the rallying cry of those were usually the government's harshest critics. In contrast, Bo's supporters, who have been traditionally the government's most loyal defenders, are vehemently and publicly disagreeing with the government's move.

However divisive people's opinions are, there is one thing they have in common: they all put their hope in the Party to solve problems facing Chinese society. China's one-party governance structure has matured to a state in which groups with intensely opposing views and interests fight to influence the Party, not to subvert its rule. What they all want is reform that would favor their positions, not revolution that could overturn the entire system. Many aggressively vent their dissatisfaction and satirize the government. There are even many incidents of mass clashes. Yet even the most dissatisfied take their grievances to the authority of the central leadership for redress. It is a reality that can be counterintuitive to the eyes of an outside observer.

In the past decades, each time a crisis occurred, many Western observers opined that it spelled life-threatening trouble for the Party. But to me, the Party's capability in modern governance has been practiced time and again in coping with these uncertainties. Dealing with crises seems to have continuously strengthened the Party, not weakening its grip on power.

China in the early 21st century is not dissimilar to the U.S. during its Progressive era of the early 20th century. We see a society frequently plagued by chaos and bad news, which has the effect of making people feel hopeless. Yet reality prevails just like it did in America then. Just like the young and growing America weathered its ills 100 years ago and developed, China will, too, enter a new period of long-term prosperity and stability.

This is an objective judgment of China's future. For many years, the West has been looking at China's political system through an ideological prism. It is similar to the faith Soviet Union's communists held half a century ago that the capitalist America was destined to perish. The bias against China is so deeply rooted that many political analysts on China failed to anticipate China's rise in recent decades.

To a biased observer, America at the end of the 19th century would be near collapse. A myriad of seemingly intractable problems plagued its society: Racial conflict was intense; the economy was in constant and continuous crises; corruption was rampant; the rich and poor divide was unprecedented and expanding. Yet, an objective student of politics and history would see that, despite these problems, the American political system was robust and its society healthy. China today in many ways is in a much better situation than American was then.

Perhaps the world is in need of a paradigm shift in its conceptual framework on China. Only when we fundamentally alter our underlying assumptions on China's political system and social conditions can more intelligent and enduring assessments be made on the state and trajectory of a country that would have arguably the greatest impact on the world in the 21st century.

As a matter of fact, those who are familiar with Chinese history might have noticed that political struggles, even at the highest-level, have become increasingly less a matter of "life and death." Compared with what befell losers in previous political struggles, such as Lin Biao, whose forced defection resulted in a plane crash that killed him and his family 41 years ago, today's political infighting is much more moderate. Chinese people, as all peoples, like honest and upright officials. They hope that good political leaders end well, and even the not so good ones do not get destroyed completely. I'd like to wish the same for contemporary China that has created the miracle of leading 1.3 billion people out of poverty in one generation.

Wang Wen, April 2012, Beijing