Hu colossus strides across the strait

2011-07-07Asia Times

BEIJING - President Hu Jintao's official time in power will be up after nine years at the 18th Chinese Communist Party congress in the autumn of next year. Although he could linger on - as his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Deng Xiaoping did - for some years, sitting as chairman of the almighty military commission or as a senior adviser to the government, his tenure as president will be over. Now looks like the right time to draw some conclusions about his era.

Many things may be controversial about his personal contributions to China. The Beijing Summer Olympic Games, hosted in 2008, were won by his predecessor, Jiang; the economic success, overtaking Japan to have the number two gross domestic product (GDP) in the world, was certainly a product of Deng's decisions on reforms and Zhu Rongji's structural changes as premier in the 1990s.

Yet one thing is certainly Hu's, and in this he managed to do what even Mao Zedong failed to achieve: He laid a solid foundation for reunification with Taiwan. In fact, there is no doubt that since 1949, when the Great Helmsman took power in Beijing and the defeated Kuomintang (KMT) troops fled to Taipei, the two halves of China have never been so close.

Taiwan has given up the three communications: Airplanes, ships and telecom now follow straight lines and do not go through the fictitious Hong Kong route as before. Taiwan's economy is not simply integrated with that of the mainland, it is dependent on it. Moreover, its President Ma Ying-jiu has started talking with his Beijing counterpart about political unification. Last year, Hu's political adviser Zheng Bijian crossed the strait to Taipei to broach the subject.

Things, in sum, are so advanced on this front that even if the island's pro-independence opposition party Democratic Progressive Party candidate were to win the elections next year, he or she would have a very hard time backpedaling from the present situation without gravely compromising Taiwan's welfare. In some ways, unification with Taiwan is near impossible to undo. This was in many ways prima facie Hu's pet project, which started with KMT party chief Lian Zhan's trip to his hometown of Xi'an in 2005.

This immense triumph, so huge that it seems hard for China to even come to grips with and admit it, should give Hu enough political capital to spend in the coming years of his retired or semi-retired life supporting daring new projects. In a very delicate balance to preserve, Taiwan has remained Taiwan, as it would have been easy to scare the Taiwanese people with the prospect of a de facto invasion by mainlanders.

As China moves toward being the world's biggest economy in the next decade or so, a debate between the "universalists" and the "exceptionalists," as James Miles put it in The Economist, [1] is raging in Beijing. Yet, this debate can have only one result, unless China wants to destroy itself.

China is too big and too powerful to remain exceptional in a world that is very different, but it is too small and too ''exceptional'' to Sinify the rest of the world. China could vow to remain aloof and different when, despite its enormous population, it was isolated from the rest of the world and economically and politically insignificant to the remainder of the planet. The end of that isolation was underscored in the global financial crisis when China managed to be the first to ignite a recovery that spread to other countries.

For a country that for centuries took pride in staying different, the only real issue is how to become "universalist", how parts of Chinese culture could become part of the universalist baggage.

The landscape of modern Chinese cities and the clothes Chinese people don show they want to be like Americans, like Westerners. Yet the food they enjoy, the books they read and the way they think are all still very Chinese. But these things are also very different from what they were some 170 years ago, when the first extended encounter with Westerners came with the Opium Wars, starting in 1842. Actually food for their bellies and for their thoughts is constantly changing, and changing them - even if it doesn't turn them into true New Yorkers.

Here, while Hu's experience and tact with Taiwan could be important, radical changes are also necessary. In the coming years, for the second time since the beginning of reforms, the general consensus will have to be broken, and some will be the losers in that necessary transformation. The first time the universal consensus on reforms was broken was in the mid-1990s, when Jiang pushed for a radical transformation of state-owned enterprises (SOEs). They stopped being a government administrative tool and became true enterprises, and on the way, they laid off millions of workers.

Now the predicament is similar: SOEs have to adjust once more, and basically accept that they will shrink in favor of more efficient private companies. Politically, this time is going to be more difficult. It will not be about sacking a few low-class, politically not influential people; it is about taking power and money away from men and women who are the backbone of the Chinese system, sometimes even related by blood and interest to the past and present party leadership.

This will be a gigantic challenge that China's next boss, Xi Jinping, will have to take on in order to pursue the country's universalist mission. Xi is not without experience; he came to prominence by ruling Wenzhou, a city almost totally in the hands of private entrepreneurs.

1. Rising power, anxious state ( Economist, June 23.  (2011-07-07 Asia Times)


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