The China Syndrome

5 minute read
Orville Schell

The figurative puff of smoke announcing China’s change of leadership has, at last, risen from the chimney of the Great Hall of the People. But the transition, however smooth, throws up more questions than it answers. The direction in which the so-called fourth generation headed by Hu Jintao takes the country still remains uncertain. That will depend on what sort of relationship the new leaders have with the more elderly third-generation who have now largely lost their official titles, if not their actual power, and on whether Jiang Zemin will be willing to give up the post of chairman of the Central Military Commission this spring and quietly recede into the political background. In China, age counts for a lot, and it’s worth remembering that during none of its communist, nationalist and imperial periods has this country been noted for leaders who willingly gave up power before their deaths.

Many Western observers take heart that succession in the Chinese Communist Party is now institutionalized. But that is not necessarily a positive phenomenon, since it begs two often ignored questions. First, can the Leninist system and the Marxist/Maoist ideology on which the Party is still based be reformed? Second, should this system, built on one exported from the Soviet Union to China during the 1950s, be reinforced through such seemingly orderly changes of leadership? Or, to put it more bluntly, is China in need of regime change?

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We liberals eternally hope that democracy can work its magic on even the most intractable of nationswith the possible exception of Iraq, North Korea and Cuba. After all, we are a people who believe in the notion of progress, preferably peaceful progress. We hold up the likes of South Korea and Taiwan, once run by robust authoritarian governments, as examples of what the Chinese Communist Party not so many years ago disparaged as “peaceful evolution.” And although China’s leaders seem a little less resistant of late toward that notion, they have still not explicitly embraced it.

What’s been encouraging about China is that Jiang has presided over 13 years of astounding growth and impressive change and done so with a minimum of intra-Party warfare. What’s less encouraging is that so many in the leadership, especially Hu, have long been forced to mute themselves politically, and to adopt a kind of identity-less political persona. True, after Mao, China craved less vision and theory and more practice. But one wonders if the new Party bosses have not been so defoliated by the confines in which they have been forced to operate that they have lost the genetic coding for clear, creative thinking and bold leadership. If China is not only to survive but to continue reinventing itself, it will need the kind of spirited political thinking and discussion that is the only path to a new model of what it wishes to become. In the best of circumstances, where a more open society, free press, well-educated public and a good system of communications prevail, this is already a daunting task. How much more so in a society that has been so long dedicated to stifling its press, limiting its political dialogue, trammeling its NGOs and citizen watchdog groups and warding off contagious foreign ideas.

It’s all well and good for leaders to proclaim that they believe in reform and change. But it’s a far more complex challenge to delineate what they would like their country and people to become. For China, the future lies beyond a very murky political horizon that no leader has yet dared to divine. Over the past 15 years China has evinced enormous economic energy and social resilience. It has shown it can produce a curiously vibrant form of market Leninism. But what of politics, religion, culture, values, family? Up until now, China has not found in its lexicon of reform language for these essential building blocks of society. Jiang and the government he has led have been a walking contradictiontrapped in the host of an old-style Stalinist communist party, bequeathed a Marxist ideology rouged up with Chinese characteristics, confined by the baggage of being a people’s republic adorned with such retro images as the portrait of Mao in Tiananmen Square. In Chinese parlance this is known as a sibuxiang, or the “four not-alikes”an animal said to be unique to China during the dynastic period which had the antlers of a deer, the tail of a donkey, the neck of a camel and the hooves of a cow.

So as we watch China’s newly-anointed leaders trooping out of the Great Hall of the People, we are left with some searching questions about the strange hybrid the Party has become. Will this enigmatic leadership know how to govern China during the next stage of what we can only hope will be another episode of peaceful evolution, because that is the most hopeful scenario for China and the world? Will they have the cohesiveness to do so without factional struggle? And will they manage to be the historical exception and break the gravitational pull of lurking elders who only grudgingly passed them the baton to begin with?

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