With the Chinese leadership transition upon us, many people have been asking me about my thoughts on the prospects for Chinese reform under the new leadership.I’m no formal expert, but I lived in China for 5 years and over that time I got to know the country and some of its citizens quite well.
My answer is always the same. I believe the leadership is constantly ceding power to the people in small steps while holding on to as much power and influence as the people will tolerate. It is a tricky balancing game to play and a misstep could be catastrophic.
The end result is likely to be a slow and full transfer of power to a unique Chinese system that will contain elements of democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights, an independent judiciary, and a free press.
Why do I think so? Because the people broadly want reform and the top leaders are positioning themselves to benefit from reform.
But they aren’t necessarily in a rush and many seem satisfied with the pace of change. Though there are signs that this is changing.
Importantly, the current generation of Chinese from 18-30 will be leading the country in 20-30 years. They have been influenced by outside cultures while maintaining strong Chinese identities and they want many things people around the world want, including access to opportunity, personal freedom, and a peaceful life in China.
Specifically, many desire greater:
- more government transparency, less corruption
- freedom of expression – the Internet has become a place for people to express themselves and resentment over censorship is growing
- democracy or at least more influence in the who leads and the way they lead
These are the core elements which lead to states that:
- have rule of law, independent judiciary, and a free press
- respect human rights
- are responsible international actors
During the current transition period the leaders are accumulating significant personal and family wealth. Their children are getting the best educations, many of them in liberal environments, and they will be well positioned to succeed in a more open society.
In fact, we may see movement on some democratic reforms within the Party already. And in a fully functioning democracy, the richest people still have a lot of influence and privilege so current leaders and their families could very well continue to be powerful in a more open China.
However, democratic change and reform don’t necessarily mean some sort of direct copy of a Western or American system.
Ben Liebman, head of Columbia’s Chinese Legal Studies Program and a leading expert on China’s legal system, explains in his writing that Chinese courts, the media, and the Party are in constant struggles to define their power and their independence in relation to the justice system. He shows that the courts can achieve forms of independence that do not necessarily derive from an American-style system, but rather a distinctly Chinese approach.
So it doesn’t matter who the leaders are, in the end they will continue the slow, inexorable, and unavoidable movement towards reform that they have been following since the crackdown in 1989. And in China, the 1980s were a more open period for many – the Chinese democracy movements grew on college campuses and in cities before being tragically crushed in Tiananmen Square.
The biggest fear the leadership has and the thing keeping them up at night is if they don’t do it right or some spark ignites a massive popular uprising, there will be riots in the streets and mass violence. A story they know all too well.
That is when the rich and powerful start getting killed and the world’s second biggest economy plunges into chaos. Not a situation anybody really wants.
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