Will Xi Jinping Change China?


By He Qinglian on November 15, 2012.

In his address delivered at the 18th Party Congress, Hu Jintao described Western democracy as the evil path. That remark made the Chinese people temporarily stop expecting political reform. Outraged, someone commented that expecting the CPC to carry out political reform is like a new form of Stockholm syndrome which paroxysm would happen en masse every once in a while.

The funny thing is, on the contrary, the international community is developing a “reform expectation syndrome”, and that too is happening en masse.

International Expectations

How high an expectation the international community has for Xi Jinping to carry out reform? Let's have a look at a Wall Street Journal article published on November 12, “China's New Boss: Xi Jinping”, which serves together with other articles like “Meet China’s Folk Star First Lady-in-Waiting” as the embodiment of the ongoing hope for change.

That article analyzed where Xi Jinping would find his governing inspiration by starting with the assertion that he would not be fond of Mao Zedong, it then proceeded to dig up several positive factors that indicate Xi would lead China into a new era. The factors are as follows.

First, Xi Jinping is more amiable in the eyes of Western countries, in particular the United States, than Hu Jintao. Xi lived with a U.S. household in Muscatine, Iowa when he first visited the United States; his daughter is now studying at Harvard University.

Second, Xi Jinping appears more lovable than Hu Jintao because of his appearance, his voice and his glamorous wife.

And third, the influence of Xi Jinping's father, Xi Zhongxun. Foreign media unanimously see Xi Zhongxun as an economic reformist and comparatively a political liberal. In 1987 he spoke in defense for reformist leader Hu Yaobang, then general secretary that came under fire, and he condemned the Tiananmen incident in 1989. 


Unlikelihood of Changes

While stressing the positive factors that Xi Jinping might lead China into a new era, the commentator made studied omissions of some crucial facts.

First, when Xi Jinping was assigned the responsibility to plan and coordinate preparation for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, he and Zhou Yongkang devised together an “Olympics Security Model”, which became known for its all-encompassing strict surveillance with “six nets”. The security model became a precedent for all subsequent major events and conferences in China.

Second, during his visit in Mexico in February 2009, Xi Jinping made a grand statement: “some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do engage in finger-pointing at us." He then added, "First, China does not export revolution; second, it does not export famine and poverty; and third, it does not mess around with you. So what else is there to say?”

Third, at the opening ceremony of the Central Party School in early September 2012, Xi Jinping expressed his commendation for Mao Zedong and Mao's thoughts.

This way of deliberately omitting some important facts while over-interpreting others would at most be a reflection of the expectation of the author (and the Western societies) that Xi Jinping initiates political reform. If this WSJ report could be liken to a lollipop that is used to make a child behave, then the Economist article, Xi Jinping: the man who must change China, could be seen as a warning.

Distressful Signs

The Economist article listed out all unstable factors in China, such as the decelerating economy, social inequality, pervasive corruption, deteriorating environment and officials' grabbing of land by hook and crook. After quoting scholars as saying that China is “unstable at the grass roots, dejected at the middle strata and out of control at the top”, the article continued that “If China’s leaders mishandle the discontent, one senior economist warned in a secret report, it could cause 'a chain reaction that results in social turmoil or violent revolution'”. To avert this, Xi Jinping must initiate change. Recent articles from BBC and the Guardian are basically also of this view. 

Those Chinese people who expect a reforms are out of the same reasons above. Yet the deeper causes that these foreigners expect change are not what the Chinese people could readily think of. For instance, the Economist expressed its worries chiefly on the grounds that “the world has much more to fear from a weak, unstable China than from a strong one”—a stark contrast from the years of propagandist claim of China that “the West (or the U.S.) fears a mighty China”—and what Xi Jinping said in 2009 was actually a response to this worry of Western societies. 

Fear of an unstable China

Why would the international community worry that turmoil would break out in China? For one reason, China is now in a period of boom that is unprecedented in history. While the country seizes resources around the world by such means as investment in stakes, acquisition with high prices and others, it causes anxiety around the world with its exports of various kinds of bad commodity that are unsafe, its output massive numbers of emigrants by means of human smuggling and others, and the engagement of these Chinese migrants in money laundering.

Southeast Asian countries neighboring China are where illegal Chinese immigrants head for, Chinese communities, big and small, have been formed. In these communities, the thriving prostitution, mafia, money laundering and drugs are creating serious headache for the police there. These problems have also emerged in Spain, Italy and other countries. These countries worry that, once large scale unrest breaks out in China, illegal Chinese immigrants will be heading for them like tidal waves and would be much more difficult to manage. 

What is expected of China?

For the United States, there is another concern. If a powerful China could become a responsible member of the international community, then it could perhaps be counted on to control some smaller thug regimes. America as the world leader has long discovered that the situation now is more difficult to address than it was during the “Cold war”. Back then there was the Soviet Union, the big brother of the Socialist bloc, the U.S., Britain, and France needed only to negotiate and reach an agreement with the “big brother”, and then count on it to control its little Socialist brothers. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the evil empire was no more.

The United States realized later on that there are still plenty of small thug regimes creating troubles, and there was no major country that could exert influence on them. And then, the United States figured that China might process this type of influence. 

China and its dictatorial friends

What did this influence of China come from? Given that China needs to resist international condemnation of its human rights, it has to form an alliance with some autocratic countries. In addition, China needs resources and has developed all kinds of cooperative economic ties with these countries. The increasingly affluent Beijing is very willing to become “good friends” with these dictatorial countries through aids, and interest-free loans. This alliance of interest acquired with money enables China and its “friends” to successfully resist Western societies' condemnation and sanction against them in UN.

Although China's political influence and controlling power on these countries is nowhere near the former Soviet Union back during the years when the Socialist bloc existed, it sees itself as the big brother of “the club of tyrants”.

The United States understands that China's controlling power falls far short of that of the former Soviet Union, it nonetheless wishes China could play this role. In its fight against terrorism, and in dealing with North Korea and Iran, the United States has this hope for China, that it could become a responsible major power in the international community. 

Which way will China go?

And for China to become a responsible player in the international community, it would have to embark on the road of democratization. This time, Hu Jintao's declaration that China would not take the road of Western democratization, and called it the evil path has really disappointed the West. But then what could be done? The European Union is still caught in a crisis that has no end in sight, U.S. economy has yet to fully recover, if Beijing insists to oppress its people, it would definitely lead China to unrest and bring unease to the world.

What kind of a path will Xi Jinping lead China onto? The world is watching.