Will Xi become China’s Gorbachev?

By Elizabeth Pond

Will Chinese President Xi Jinping be another Deng Xiaoping? Or, as he fears, might he become another Mikhail Gorbachev? The answer may lie as much with China's nouveau middle class as with the fallout from the sensational trial of deposed Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai.

So far the wager among analysts seems to be that Xi, who assumed the presidency in March, aspires to emulate Deng's feat. The one-time "paramount leader" suppressed the 1989 Tienanmen pro-democracy demonstrations in order to carry out his market reforms with a unified party and convert an overwhelmingly peasant China into the world's new economic powerhouse. The very success of Deng's transformation of China makes any repetition of this achievement much harder today, however.

Xi's hints that he will restart economic reforms this fall—after they stagnated at the start of the 21st century, state enterprises clawed back powers from the private sector, and party corruption ballooned—echo Deng's rhetoric. Similarly, Xi's actions in recent days in apparently authorizing police detention of prominent critics like Chinese-American businessman Xue Manzi (who tweets to 12 million followers) parallel Deng's enforcement of party orthodoxy.

Yet at this stage of China's economic and political development, Xi will have much more difficulty repeating Deng’s successful prevention of a split in the top Communist leadership . The feared example that Chinese think-tankers cite again and again is Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who believed he could reform the one-party system, but instead ended up destroying it as rivals ousted him, renounced Communist ideology, and broke up the Soviet Union.

In his time Deng achieved what many Western China-watchers at first deemed impossible. A generation after Chairman Mao Zedong's forced collectivization led to mass starvation of some 45 million peasants, Deng's changes lifted more than half a billion peasants out of a subsistence economy in the largest and fastest poverty alleviation in history. The reforms quickly spawned as well a middle class much larger than America's total population. Yet Deng effected this transformation by establishing a social contract with the rising half billion-plus that gave them an ever better consumer life as long as they remained apolitical.

As the new system stabilized, Western observers dropped their earlier analysis that a modernized economy would prove to be too complex for the rigid Communist Party to steer—and that the burgeoning middle class would follow Western and East Asian precedents to become a vanguard in demanding more political as well as economic participation. An American consensus then evolved that China had molded an "adaptive authoritarianism" that repeatedly made just enough tactical concessions to prevent discrete local protests from escalating to any broader political challenge.

The five-day show trial of Bo Xilai for alleged bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power suggests that it's time to revise such revisionism. No one seems to doubt that the court, at the party's behest, will declare the former high-flying Politburo member and party secretary of Chongqing  guilty as charged. Indeed, independent of the verdict, after the earlier conviction of his wife for murdering a British businessman and apparent subsequent complicity of Bo in a cover-up, few doubt Bo Xilai's guilt. Nor does anyone seem to think that a jailed Bo will be able to revive the campaign he once waged for rule by iron fist, populism, and Mao nostalgia. But Bo's own spirited defense in the dock last weekend and the unprecedented information about the trial that has been made public will make the administration of adaptive authoritarianism far trickier.

For a start, revelations of Bo's extravagant lifestyle invite cynicism about how many other senior party officials are enriching themselves in a society that preaches equality but practices extreme inequality between elites and the proletariat. It also raises tantalizing questions about Xi's reliance on a court of justice to sweep his 64-year-old fellow "princeling"—both men are sons of party elders who were comrades of Chairman Mao—off the political stage forever. The trial has lent approval to the unfamiliar precept that the accused should have his say in court—and that someone who has previously confessed to party interrogators can retract that confession in court.

This point is sure not to have been lost on China's more than 200,000 licensed lawyers and 800,000 students of the post-Mao discipline of law. A significant number of them are already advocating a more fundamental rule of law that differs sharply from the Communist version of "rule by law" that the party creates for its own purposes.

Moreover, the pressures on Xi are growing as the maturing Chinese economy decelerates and the credit bubble threatens to burst. The population's rising expectations risk disppointment, many in the new streams of university graduates face unemployment, and the age of the microblog provides a handy forum for spreading discontent.

Already intellectuals in China's party-related think-tanks are urging reforms that go beyond what Xi may think are compatible with continued one-party rule. They want to introduce real rule of law with independent courts and to scrap Mao's outmoded hu kou residence registration that bans villagers from the cities that now hold half of the country's population. They also call for overhaul of  a woefully inadequate tax system that forces local governments to fund their communities' modernization almost exclusively by expropriating adjacent farmland, thus stoking farmers' resentment of local Communist authorities.

These conditions provide increasing possibilities for an eventual coming together of malcontents among villagers, intellectuals, youths, entrepreneurs, party factions, and the hitherto apolitical middle class against today's still highly centralized rule. More participatory models of governance are already available for an increasingly well-traveled and sophisticated population – not only in the West, but also in Hong Kong's more open blend of Chinese and British political tradition and in Taiwan's emergence decades ago from one-party Kuomintang rule to real democracy.

So far Xi Jinping has kept the Chinese together by nationalist assertiveness in the South and East China Seas. Among Chinese who feel that their new national strength is finally avenging the West's humiliation of China in the 19th and 20th centuries, that may serve to help him avoid the fate of Mikhail Gorbachev. If this is his price for becoming the new Deng Xiaoping, though, it will exact a high cost from both China's citizens and its neighbors.



Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of an essay on Chinese rural land tenure.

[Photo courtesy of Jan Zdzarski Jr.]

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