Xi has to get the party started

2012-12-22Asia Times

BEIJING - The Chinese feel strongly about China, but are indifferent to the party. Yet state and party are united, and the absence of popular responsibility towards keeping the party as government could see the country forfeited. Political participation is the key to the stalemate.

During the next plenary session of the Chinese parliament, the National People’s Congress, Beijing will overhaul its administrative system, with the total number of ministries set to be reduced to about 26 from 40 at present. This is a new step in reforming the administration, and follows a similar cut in 15th Party Congress in 1997 when the number of ministries fell from 70 to 40.

There is continuity in this administrative and political reform. This latest step is Xi Jinping's first political statement, but it is also be part of Hu Jintao's political legacy - he will remain in the role of president until next March. Furthermore, in this period of political overlap between the two leaders, the Communist Party is also said to be launching a vast and comprehensive anti-corruption campaign. The administrative reform is meant to provide greater efficiency to the state machinery, while the anti-corruption campaign is meant to regain the trust and loyalty of the common people, many of whom are disgruntled by the inefficiency and the widespread graft in the state.

Improving the efficiency of the state administration should also reduce the possibilities and occasions for corruption, while the graft crackdown should increase the efficiency of the administration. These two are hence to one purpose and should bolster the present leadership.

However, there is another extremely important element in this complex political situation: common Chinese people do not have strong feelings, positive or negative, toward their political system. They do not have guishugan - a sense of belonging to the Chinese political system. Many approve of the leadership, and they may also feel strongly patriotic or even communist, but there is little feeling for the ruling Communist Party and open criticism of the system ruling the country. It is an open issue, everybody is critical of the present political system, which is being reformed.

In any case, most Chinese people feel the political system does not belong to them - it is a tool and instrument at best, but it is alien to them. This is unlike some democratic countries, America and the UK being paramount examples, where people feel a part of the country and the political system running it. This raises the question, to whom does the political system running China belong? Who are the stockholders of the Chinese political system?

In the mid-1990s, as China was reforming its ministries and administration, Beijing also took the bold step of launching widespread housing reforms. Tenants in apartments belonging to the state or state-owned enterprises were offered a chance to buy their lodgings. People who formerly owned nothing except perhaps a bicycle suddenly owned a house. These people moved immediately to the middle class and had a real stake in the welfare of the country.

The state got rid of many useless and burdensome houses, gained the little cash common people could afford to pay for their lodgings, and most importantly, the common people who became middle class now had a little capital, their houses, that could be lost in an upheaval or revolution.

Since then, the figure has grown to over 80% of people owning their houses or own lots of land in the countryside. That is, 80% of the people have something to lose in a sudden revolution. In this way, China has created a rock-solid base of self-interest in social stability and against massive upheavals.

However, these people still see nothing in favor of the current political system. They do not want the state turned upside down, but they have no interest in preserving any political leader in charge of the country. They have no sense of belonging to this political system. This does not translate into indifference to the political power struggle at the top, but a state of constant panic about the drawbacks of the power struggle. If things go wrong with the political power struggle, most people feel threatened by what could happen. People who have gained from the present situation, who made money, often feel their wealth may be put in jeopardy by political turns in Beijing or in their local city.

The sense of belonging translates into a sense of responsibility. Few Chinese feel responsible for the country. They may not want a revolution, but will they step up to improve things? If they do, in many cases they are rejected because politics does not belong to them and their concerns are routed through specific channels. Yet most simply are unconcerned by the big picture and worried only about keeping their own small or large wealth.

This lack of interest could be a positive for the ruling Communist Party in the short run. However, it can translate into indifference to the fate of the party when the party and the political system are under pressure from internal or external forces. Without the common people, the Chinese ruling system is more lonely.

Reportedly, 17 out of the 20 richest men in Chongqing had their wealth seized by now-deposed and disgraced Chongqing party leader Bo Xilai. However, businessmen who might have been close to Bo Xilai may feel that their wealth is more in jeopardy following his ouster. The wealthy do not have a sense of protection from the state and the political system, and in fact their riches are de facto in the hands of and under the ultimate control of local or national leaders.

The only people who feel they have a stake in a political system are the ones who are closely connected to its political structure, ie, the sons, daughters, and siblings of party officials. Bo allegedly felt strongly for the country and the party, as if it was something that belonged to him, as heir of his father and the their comrades.

Major and minor aristocracy may feel they have a stake in the preservation of a system guaranteeing the privileges of their parents and thus their own. Heirs of Long March veterans feel the country and the political system belongs to them and to their fathers. They have a strong sense of belonging to the political system. In fact, this system affords them direct influence and indirect privileges in the preservation of the system. They have the connections, network, and access to resources that are de facto denied to the underprivileged class.

The same cannot be said for people born outside of the official class. Everything is more difficult for them, and therefore these people have an inherent interest (although it may not be expressed as such) in toppling the system that casts them aside. They do not have any sense of belonging to the system, they have no sense of responsibility for it, and thus, they are inherently a revolutionary force against this political system. As these people are the majority of the Chinese population, this is in fact a challenge and a threat to the present political system.

The strategy adopted in the late 1990s was to expand the base of people with an interest in the social stability of the country, and this was achieved by giving people houses. Therefore, the plan was to make common people stakeholders in the present social and political stability. A similar strategy should be adopted now to regain the trust, sense of belonging, and feeling of responsibility of the common people to the present political system.

At present, at the local and state level, local and party officials and their families have influence over local and national decisions, or they feel as though they do. Of course, the Chinese system is not only in the hands of the red aristocrats and the top or lesser officials. The party has been very attentive in recruiting new people, new talents who will serve the interests of the state. This has expanded the base of people who feel a sense of belonging to the state; however we are far from the 80% ratio reached with housing reform.

How can people gain a sense of belonging to the political system? In developed countries, this is achieved through public political debate and elections. People follow the debates and campaigns, and then decide to like this or that candidate. Yet, whomever they choose, people feel attached to the political system through expressing their choices, and thus they may feel a sense of belonging to the system and responsibility for it.

Many things are different in China, and certainly one should be careful about blindly adopting alien methods, but something may go very wrong if 80% of Chinese people don't feel connected to their political system.  (2012-12-22 Asia Times)


+MoreOther Commentary