US hurdles strew China's reform path

2013-08-27Asia Times

BEIJING - Both in and out of China, there is little debate at the moment about one important point: China needs deep reform. Those on the two extremes of the political spectrum, the liberals and the neo-Maoists, may disagree on what China needs to do - whether to open up to a Western-style system or to revert to the old ways of the Great Helmsman - but they do agree on the diagnosis that the present system does not work. This autumn's Third Plenum may fully take on this agenda or partly shelve it, but it is definitely on the table for the seven most powerful men in China, the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China, the country's top decision-making body.

Whatever the decision this time, China is at a crossroads very similar to the one Deng Xiaoping faced in late 1978, when he launched the policy of "reform and opening up". However, unlike then, this time Beijing is far more isolated. Then, Deng and his allies in the Party could count on the support and international backing of the Americans, who were keen on fostering ties with China as an element of a complex anti-Soviet strategy. In fact, just months after the end of the Third Plenum of the Ninth Congress in late 1978, Beijing attacked Vietnam to punish it for Hanoi's invasion of Cambodia, a decision carried out with Washington's blessings.

Now, conversely, it is not clear what Washington will do if Beijing moves to make more drastic reforms or instead steps back into the past. A radical move into the future - liberal reforms, for instance - may not be welcomed by Washington, which could always claim it is too little, too late, and too slow. Then a move backwards - to the path blazed by former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, now awaiting the verdict after a dramatic corruption trial - could be easier and gain greater backing domestically as proceedings against Bo did not win huge support in the West. Bo's political enemies, such as former premier Wen Jiabao, took a rap on the knuckles for corruption last December, when Wen was about to charge Bo, while the family of president Xi Jinping, who pushed against Bo at a critical juncture, got a similar treatment a few months earlier.

Internal considerations are always the most important, especially for large countries such as China or the US, but only fools would ignore the international environment. A total embrace of neo-Maoism is impossible for many practical reasons aside from concern over the fate of Bo's supporters who are still active in Chinese politics. But plunging into economic and political reforms in line with the international practices adopted by most countries is also difficult as this could deeply shake the country at a moment when the US has launched its policy of a "pivot to Asia".

Whether the "pivot" is a containment policy is a moot point, as the two countries have too much economic interdependence for a Soviet-style containment, but certainly there are elements of that, as the US is lining up more physical bases and strengthening political and military cooperation around China.

This system can be characterized as a network of watchtowers or tripwires. There is a military difference between establishing a set of watchtowers and actual encirclement, but politically the two things are extremely similar. In this case, the goal could well be a warning (the watchtowers) to prevent the need for an actual encirclement, which would be closer to an act of war.

However, it seems that the US is sending a warning, and it is doing more than hedging its bets on a peaceful engagement with China. If this is the case, why not say it clearly? A clear warning would be helpful to improve relations or set a definite course for the future: "don't do this, or else". The US should tell China what to do to avoid being warned again, and then China can decide whether to change its course or move ahead.

If you have a situation that merits a warning but you don't issue a clear warning, then the warned party, China in this case, may be confused - on purpose or not - about what to do and what not to do. Then confusion may breed more confusion, leading to more and bigger misunderstandings in quick succession.

In this predicament, it is hard for China to take the plunge on a particular direction of reforms, and it pushes cautious Chinese leaders to deep considerations and reflection. Meanwhile then lack of decisive action on either side may create further confusion and breed incidents.

The US, as the more powerful country, should choose a direction, but it won't because its system makes it difficult. It is hard for the White House to impose a decisive approach on China against the opinions of the media, the US Congress and the scores of Washington's think-tanks. At the same time the huge variety of opinions and of interests about China makes it difficult to reach a wide consensus on decisive and innovative policies not widely shared by all concerned parties.

China conversely has a more structured decision-making system, or at least in this direction President Xi Jinping should move to reform his apparatus. China should then be the bravest and maneuver out of a very difficult constriction, especially because it has more to lose in a stalemate. The lack of reforms in China could derail its economies, its society and its political system, whereas it is only marginally important for the US. However, taking decisive steps on the reform path may be equally hard because of all of the vested interests that are against radical changes and which have greatly to gain in a prolonged status quo.

This makes Xi's position extremely hard. With no allies and supporters abroad, few friends and lots of enemies at home, with an ebullient society and economy to guide and change, Xi may have the toughest challenge of a Chinese leader in many decades, and his first test will be in just a few weeks, at the Plenum. (2013-08-27 Asia Times)


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