Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Where Are The Reformists?

Part of the great treasure-trove of document disclosed by Wikileaks last December was this report of discussion between a political officer at the US Embassy in Beijing and an undisclosed contact, in which the leadership is described as, venal, corrupt, and lacking any kind of reform wing:

xxxxx asserted to PolOff [Political Officer] March 12 that the Party should be viewed primarily as a collection of interest groups. There was no "reform wing," xxxxx claimed.xxxxx made the same argument in several discussions with PolOff over the past year, asserting that China's top leadership had carved up China's economic "pie," creating an ossified system in which "vested interests" drove decision-making and impeded reform as leaders maneuvered to ensure that those interests were not threatened. It was "well known," xxxxx stated, that former
Premier Li Peng and his family controlled all electric power interests; PBSC [Politburo Standing Committee] member and security czar Zhou Yongkang and associates controlled the oil interests; the late former top leader Chen Yun's family controlled most of the PRC's banking sector; PBSC member and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference Chairman Jia Qinglin was the main interest behind major Beijing real estate developments; Hu Jintao's son-in-law ran; and Wen Jiabao's wife controlled China's precious gems sector.


xxxxx, separately described leadership alignments at the top of the CCP as shaped largely by one's "princeling" [i.e., descendant of the first generation of communist leaders] or "shopkeeper" [i.e., bureaucrat who came up through the ranks] lineage"

Granted, this is a leaked precis of a discussion with an unidentified Chinese source written by a US diplomat with no reason to be sympathetic to the Chinese government. However, the recent wave of arrests of Chinese dissidents, including Ai Weiwei, does lend this interpretation some credence. Morevoer, it is somewhat in keeping with the history of other Chinese dictatorships, particularly that of the communist party's immediate predecessors, the Nationalists, whose farming off of state concerns to family connections and essential running of the state as a family business was notorious.

Rather than the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) top leadership being divided between reformists and hardliners, as people like, for example, Nick Young have argued, instead it is dominated by people whose main interest is to secure their piece of the PRC pie - some of whom have the advantage of family history. These people will attempt to silence anyone who, like Liu Xiaobo, threatens this by advocating reform which might result in them losing their share of the big PRC carve-up.

This theory leads to an interesting conclusion: Rather than criticism from overseas making it harder for reformers to do their work, instead it helps to highlight the venality of the leadership, and silencing criticism would simply cut off the last source of assistance that those trapped in the present crack-down have.

[Note: Thanks to "Slim" whose comment lead me to the Wikileaks document in question and whose analysis this piece owes much to]


justrecently said...

I think the traditional term nomenklatura may be adequate here. A new class, as it was the case in the Soviet Union, too - but with a much bigger pie to share than the CPSU ever had.

xian said...

This kind of pie-carving has always characterized Chinese "nobility" since the Han dynasty, especially when it comes to real estate. The same thing happens in Hong Kong and Taiwan, albeit much more openly. These revelations shouldn't surprise any educated Chinese.

Anonymous said...

There is a companion wiki document which focusses on Xi Jinping's forthcoming and primary role as an ideology-free manager or mediator between the various economic interest groups in this pie carving exercise ie the maintenance of parity between the various family cartels. Don't want any open Cali-Escobar type warfare developing. Unity is paramount.

That aside, it will be interesting to see if yesterdays crackdown on one of Beijing's house churchs is extended to other jurisdictions across China. There are about as many Christians as Party members (70m), and images of obstinate hymn singing aunties being shovelled into buses en masse will go down a treat, domestically and internationally.

Perfect example of negative soft power.


justrecently said...

Xian: I agree that there are similarities between mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Given that the KMT was to quite an extent modelled after the CPSU (even in the 1990s, they still carried the KMT chairman's and president's picture in their parades like a thurible), and depending on how far the DPP is modelled after the KMT, Taiwan is probably even more similar to China, than Hong Kong. But China would be closer to the past in that than the two - as you said in your comment -, things are less hidden there. Besides, you have the choice between at least two political platforms in Taiwan.

Another difference is the role of Confucianism. It works as an everyday tradition in Hong Kong and Taiwan (and may help to explain why people may be ambiguous about, but not hostile towards the bigwigs), and president Ma Ying-jeou leans more on Confucianism politically than his two predecessors, but only China ponders the use of Confucianism as a justification for uncontested rule. Confucianism, as well as Marxism, Leninism, Maoism etc. are more actively and intentionally used in China, than elsewhere, and we may soon see how it makes China more encrusted, as political Confucianism has traditionally been.

All the same, I doubt that China's nomenklatura of today can be compared with the gentry of the imperial past. Enterprise wasn't held in high esteem in traditional China.

As for Xi Jinping, I believe that many modernizers of the 1950s were pretty ideology-free, too, KT. But just as today, they'd never question the importance of ideology in public. And I doubt that ideology was the first thing the gang of four, for example, had in mind. Even Confucianism, if growing in importance, would only be a political tool. The big contradiction of today is that the common people are expected to be believing people.

Anonymous said...

RE: JRs "The big contradiction of today is that the common people are expected to be believing people".

Just who are the common people?

The rural peasantry, migrant workers or the urban aspirational apartment owning middle classes, who work for an SOE or have their own small businsses.

Only the last urbanite category counts in the Party's calculations, and it is evident that educated urbanites join the Party for career objectives and not because of any so-called ideological belief commitment. (Maybe, there is a bit of nationalism in the mix though.)

This is no contradiction as identified by JR at work here, simply a rational decision as to where their economic/family personal $ interests best reside.

The only contradiction or tensions of any significance for observer blog sites such as this are economic, and they are still in play.

Another point. The reformer -hardliner paradigm is a Western import of little explanatory value.

The PRC and the CPC have forged a wide range of fairly seamless governmental structures in recent decades, which are both refined and very effective in both 1)controlling and surveilling the population and 2} improving the standard of living for a significant percentage.

Okay, immensely corrupt, not particularly productive in terms of RMB investment unit, but holding together nonetheless for the time being.

This is where the contradictions will be found, and they are not about the strength or otherwise of State ideology, but come down to material living conditions.

And if it can successfully urbanise a few more percentage points of its rural population and create additional jobs for these new urbanities, it will survive any and all of the West's opprobrium over its thuggish HR record.

In the short, near and long term, it will be about distribution of the Chinese economic pie, and not about different ideologies chest-butting each other.

The side show is being mistaken for the main game.

PRC State ideology is a hoot as witnessed by CMP, and they must stick with their program with all its laughable semantic slippages because of Party origins.

Welcome the identification of any contradictions in my very reductionist Marxism.


Anonymous said...

FOARP. Should be a post in your spam folder. Cheers KT

FOARP said...

@KT - Once again, apologies about the spam filter. It's embedded in blogspot and I can't turn it off. One of these days I'll re-vamp this blog and get my own domain, hopefully that will fix it!

justrecently said...

Try wordpress, FOARP. Their spam filter seems to work much better.

KT: you can rarely tell what is lip service, and what is genuine belief. Obviously, lip services will frequently do (and depending on your position, the in Chinese society, discrepancies between lip service and actual behavior may differ more or less widely).
But the mere fact that the nomenklatura has a disproportionately high stake in the business pie doesn't make the ideological "superstructure" obsolete at all. Anything disproportionate needs ideological justification, just as collectivization did, in the 1950s. (It is frequently argued that ever since, the countryside had to subsidize China's industrialization.)
"Belief" is as important now, as it was then.

The common people are people in the countryside, and the urban population, and some or much dissatisfaction may exist in the countryside, or among migrant workers, or among the "middle class". The countryside may settle with less than urbanites, and so may the migrant workers, but who knows their minimum requirements? It doesn't take a conciously dissatisfied majority to generate sparks - it only takes a critical "mass". You bet that four months ago, most Egyptians didn't know how they "hated" Mubarak and his sons - many only discovered that once the Tahrir square had become filled with protesters, and the government began to sway.

China's "unity" depends on the maintenance of it as a community of acquisitions, or a convincing fiction thereof: belief. That Chinese investment is much less productive than Indian investment as you mentioned is no trife. Employment for university graduates, for example, depends on exactly that productivity. That the urban population these days enjoys a much higher living standard than fourty years ago doesn't compensate for lost hopes - that's not how the human mind is working.

Belief - try this story about public housing, or that edifying anecdote from Beijing. The party made that (idiotic or not) propaganda effort partly out of fear of the "Jasmine revolutions", but certainly also because many urban people do not feel that a significant percentage is or will be - subjectively - better off.

I mentioned this in a discussion of ours before - if China wants sustained growth, he sticking point will be the preparedness of the central and local governments to help the poorer provinces grow by demand from eastern provinces. Here, regional rather than class interests are in the way of a productive division of labor. That the central government will be able to find the right balance between the potential of the richer province and the needs of the poorer ones is something that I believe is possible, but I’m not taking it for granted at all. My rough guess is that chances that it will happen successfully and to the scale social "stability" would require are no better than fifty per cent.

The importance of volition is grossly underestimated when it comes to China - maybe the old cliché of the blue-suited ants is still at play here. What the common people want is only remotely known, because they themselves may not know their own potential and ambitions yet (see Egypt). What the nomenklatura wants seems to be much more obvious to me. They want most of the pie, greed is hard to be controlled by reason, and an ideology people can believe in therefore seems to be an essential to their rulers. Nobody would do the propaganda department's work for fun.

justrecently said...

P.S., FOARP: to each his own, of course, but I simply wouldn't comment on HH - it only adds fuel to an otherwise silly project. If you leave them in their own stew, they'll bore themselves stiff.

Anonymous said...

FOARP. Thanks. Why pay for a site.

Have recommended Leslie Changs Factory Girls many times over the past two years, and have just covered Peter Hessler's Country Driving (her husband), and am now wondering why I am even commenting on China, despite my 7 years residing there.

Serious intellectual crisis here.

Im returning to my strength which is western music.


FOARP said...

@JR - I guess I've mellowed on HH a bit since they helped delete CDE's comments attacking me when they could have left them up. I do leave the odd comment up there just because I can't help myself.

Poor regions are definitely a problem. Despite China being a country in which nearly every region does better than average (ahem) some regions are lagging behind. Germany of course has some experience with this kind of regional disparity, and the unwillingness of people in the same country to bale out substantially poorer regions.

In my own home country, this kind of regional disparity is at least partially subsumed in the necessity to maintain the union. The Celtic Fringe was the home to much in the way of government funded heavy industry. After the collapse of the nationalised industries Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the North of England have become poor in comparison to the wealthy south-east. However, funding to Scotland and Northern Ireland is far higher per-capita than it is to Yorkshire or Tyneside. This is understood by many as the cost of keeping the UK united.

In China investment in Xinjiang and Tibet is motivated both by the poverty of those regions, and by the necessity to attract immigration from other parts of China. However, for the other poor regions of China (Yunnan, Gansu, Hainan, etc.) the poverty exists but not the need for Han settlement, These regions seem likely, therefore, to be the true losers long-term.

@KT - I comment on China for the same reason that I carried on living there - it's interesting. There's few places in the world today where living there makes you feel, at least occasionally, like you have a finger on the pulse of world history, and China's one of them.

Anonymous said...

To be sure we are living in interesting historical times, with the rapid re-emergence of Chinese civilisation. I think we are looking at something far more profound than an ascendent nation state. More like an ascendent civilisational mentalite with all that that entails: values, ethics, ways of thinking, etc.
I was taken by Evan Osnos The Grand Tour in the New Yorker this morning, esp the tour guide and passengers comments on all and sundry they encountered, and all I can say is, hell, I hope that China is not the 21st century hegenom. (Not that that is likely.)

Bit like have burqa covered women living in the house next door. Not my type of immediate neighbours. Would feel much more comfortable living next to a family of Nigerian fraudsters, because they at least have a great musical culture not to mention fab sense of humour. I'm serious here.

Probably get flamed for expressing this opinion, but what the heck.

My other gripe is the all round reduction across most forums to a simple US - China universe.


justrecently said...

Well... I can see your point re HH, FOARP. As for regional disparities, southern Europe seems to be the next case (after East Germany) where Germany pays for unity. Given that the fragmentary measures to consolidate the finances of Greece or Portugal wear a strong German handwriting, it doesn't help to make us more popular there. In an ideal EU, Brussels would take control of the southern budgets, and that would be that.

Re burquas, KT: I certainly won't direct a flamethrower at you. I don't talk to people who hide their faces "for religous reasons" - there's no communication without a face. Headscarves are fine with me.

On the other hand, the "ban on burqas" in France seems to be a mistake to me. It makes an unnecessary fuss of a rather small number of people, and doesn't solve any problems, as far as I can see.

Went into a convenience shop the other day where a Turkish man was playing an online game behind the counter without caring about customers, while his wife next to him (almost fully veiled, but leaving her dead-serious face visible) did all the work. Simply no nice experience, and it's a shop I entered for the first and the last time.

FOARP said...

@JR, KT - I lived in the East End when I lived in London, and never had any problem getting along with the locals, mostly Somalis and Bangladeshis. As for the Chinese, I have always found them to be a wonderfully cheerful people.

justrecently said...

Nice, FOARP.

KingTubby said...

I suppose I wrote myself into a literalist corner there. To amend.

The Chinese civilisation and its diaspora is an ascendent entity and it knows it, while the Western Enlightenment project is now stumbling and hollowing out, I would not like to see cardinal Western values being replaced by those presently dominant in Chinese society. Okay.

Its the unreflecting nationalism and viewing/JUDGING the rest of the world thru a Middle Kingdom prism of experience, values and ethics which cheeses me off, and which prompted my immediate neighbour diatribe.

The burqa comment stands.

Anonymous said...

FOARP. The spam folder again. Best KT

justrecently said...

My comments always stand, unless I say something different elsewhere.

FOARP said...

My comments stagger a bit before collapsing in a heap . . .

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the kind hat tip, FOARP. I enjoy, and agree with, the comments on practically everything by everyone on this thread.

I don't perceive it as reformer vs hardliner, more like North Korea with several ruling families (or Cali-Escobar) all willing to use hard-liner methods when needed.

Best, Slim.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, sounded a bit like a toady there. I meant to say I enjoy and agree with the comments I see "practically everywhere" -- meaning JR, KT, FOARP's inputs on other blogs. (Slim)