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Julian Baird Gewirtz

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"Scientific Development" and China's Leadership Transition

Posted: 01/04/12 11:55 AM ET

The coming year will see China's leadership transition from a decade under President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao to a new cadre of younger leaders. Xi Jinping, currently Vice President, is widely expected to take Hu's place in the top spot. This planned transition is already in progress; as one sign of this fact, it was recently announced that Vice President Joseph Biden will be taking over the Obama administration's China portfolio, to better build ties with his counterpart before Xi becomes President.

It might seem easy to contrast China's upcoming leadership transition with the inevitably tumultuous 2012 election in the United States -- to say that in China, continuity is all but assured, both in governance because of one Party rule and in commitment to the Party's ideological positions and slogans. Meanwhile, given the polarization of our two parties, if President Obama loses the U.S. election that now seems truly to have begun after the Iowa Republican caucuses, huge changes in policy will certainly follow.

But this contrast greatly oversimplifies China's transition. Changes in China are likely not only because of significant generational differences between the old and the new leaders, but also greatly facilitated by the fact that the Party's ideological slogans contain many ambiguities. Significant shifts in policy are possible even within the framework of continuity with -- or articulated adherence to -- a previous generation's slogans.

China's new leaders certainly have many possible slogans to draw on, from Mao Zedong's "Serve the People" to Jiang Zemin's "Three Represents," many of which have also been subject to renegotiations since their initial appearance. But one even more recent term that looks likely to receive renewed focus, despite its lack of initial success, is Hu Jintao's "scientific development concept" (kexue fazhan guan). This phrase was introduced in 2003-2004 and codified in an amendment to the PRC Constitution in 2007, despite criticism as vague or, more sharply, as pale in comparison to the "great ideological strides" of Mao and Deng, as one Chinese friend said to me. Recent speeches by a variety of top Chinese officials, including Wang Chen, the Minister of the State Council Information Office, have explicitly linked "stability" in 2012 to "scientific development," suggesting that the term may have a second life in the 2012 transition.

The "scientific development concept" is an amorphous idea, which has been criticized, for meaninglessness among other reasons, by commentators both inside and outside of China. In China's constitution, it is defined as a principle that "puts people first and calls for comprehensive, balanced and sustainable development." Joseph Fewsmith has written that the idea "aims to correct the presumed overemphasis in recent years on the pursuit of increases in gross domestic product (GDP), which encourages the generation of false figures and dubious construction projects along with neglect for the social welfare of those left behind in the hinterland." Viewed most generously, then, "scientific development" simultaneously promotes governmental efficiency, national capabilities, and "social welfare."

But we can also think about the protean nature of "scientific development" through close analysis of its multivalent terms. On one level, "scientific development" refers to a set of inductive and experimental approaches (i.e., "scientific") to governance that aim at "developing" the economy and the society -- not so different, it might seem, from Deng Xiaoping's guiding maxims of "seeking truth from facts" and "crossing the river by feeling the stones," which undergirded China's sweeping economic reforms and growth over the past 30 years. In particular, "scientific development" evokes China's fixation on raising "educational and scientific levels of the entire nation," another phrase included in the 2007 Constitution and a mechanism for ensuring continued economic competitiveness.

But "scientific development" also encapsulates a response to the dark side of this growth -- what Fewsmith points to with "false figures," "dubious construction projects," and "those left behind" -- by recalling Engels' term for Marxist ideology, "scientific socialism." What Engels meant was that Marx's ideas were based on and applicable to the real world, as opposed to the utopian socialist philosophizing of Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, and others. In the Chinese context, "scientific socialism" represents China's ostensible commitment to a "socialist market economy," in which the state takes care of those who are "left behind" by the market. (Although this term, too, has been the subject of intense reinterpretation in the past several decades -- another story!) Thus, Hu has presented the goal of "scientific development" as a "harmonious society," defined by equality and unity.

Xi Jinping has made public comments suggesting that his administration may emphasize this second meaning of "scientific development" once he assumes the top office in 2012. Since at least 2009, Xi has been calling publicly for the CCP to renew its identity as a "Marxist study-oriented Party" and its efforts to "integrate the basic tenets of Marxism with the practice of China," guided by "scientific theory." Both these ideas indicate, at minimum, that Xi sees political value in reemphasizing the lessons of "scientific socialism" for China. Indeed, he certainly seems to have been reading his Marx, emphasizing the "dialectical unity of adherence [to Marxism] and development" in a 2011 speech -- a neat encapsulation of this second interpretation of the "scientific development concept."

Some commentators have predicted that the new leadership will mark a move away from the technocrats who have ruled China for decades and emphasized ideas like "scientific development." (For example, Wen Jiabao's successor as premier looks likely to be Li Keqiang, a lawyer and economist by training.) But recent signals point to another prospect: that this amorphous policy term of the Hu-Wen set may continue to appear in the early years of Xi's administration, even as the new leaders push their own interpretations of the idea.

Indeed, in 2011 the CCP released a meticulous 12th Five Year Plan, in effect through 2016, which promises in specific terms to enact a range of sustainability- and equality-oriented policies growing out of the "scientific development concept." As China's leadership transitions in 2012, the "scientific development concept" may become a flexible tool, indicating surface continuity while also encapsulating the new substantive directions that Xi's administration takes.