When human-rights activist Chen Guangcheng escaped house arrest a year ago, he released a video urging then-Premier Wen Jiabao, reputed to be a real reformer, to look into his case and to take action to stop the abuse by local officials.
This tactic of appealing to a powerful leader — in this case, the country’s second-in-command — and implying the issue was one of local and not national proportions seemed like it could open the door for Beijing to step in and come to the rescue.
That is not what happened.
Chen recently spoke with Business Insider about the continuing plight of his family and during this conversation he explained that his appeal to Premier Wen was a test. If the central government stepped in to help it would be a sign of reform and hope for the Communist Party of China.
The results of that test?
“I believe that the actions of the CPC (Communist Party of China) tell us now we shouldn’t have any hope or expectations of them [to push reform].” Chen said to Business Insider.
But it may not be so straightforward.
Chen acknowledges that there may be individuals or factions within the Party who would advocate for reform, but that the “disagreement that we see…may not be as strong as we thought.”
Yiyi Lu, a Senior Research Fellow at ChangCe Think Tank and contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report blog, sees the issue a bit differently.
“Collective leadership means that no one person is powerful enough to make changes to the whole Party,” she told Business Insider.
Lu explained that while she does believe President Xi Jinping, China’s new leader, is committed to change but that the days of an all powerful Party leader like Chairman Mao or Deng Xiaoping are over. According to her, asking whether a leader is a “reformer” might even be the wrong question.
Complicating the issue further is the rate of change and the way it is best achieved. Lu explained to Business Insider that even top leaders hoping to reform see big risks inherent in pushing reforms – both to their own careers and to the stability of the country.
Lu often looks to local level “experiments” for evidence of political reform and there are many of them to find. But she said that in recent years there have been many complaints from local participants that they are not getting the necessary support from Beijing.
She also noted that there is often a mismatch between the local and the bigger system that prevents broad reform, “at some point you cannot take the reforms further because the bigger system has not changed.” Yet.
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