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China Rumbles Grow; Crisis Looms

In yet another indication of the widening cracks in China’s political system, 16 former Communist Party officials signed a petition calling for two of the country’s top leaders to step down. The gang of 16, all of whom are retired mid-level officials, demanded the resignation of Zhou Yongkang, head of internal security, and Liu Yunshan, a top propaganda official.

According to the New York Times, chief among the signatories’ complaints was Zhou’s strong support for the ousted Bo Xilai:

 Mr. Wu said the signers were mostly in their late 70s and 80s and wanted to express their support for Mr. Bo’s dismissal. But they also think that the men behind Mr. Bo should go.

And as for Liu?

Mr. Wu said that Mr. Liu, the propaganda official, also opposed calls for political change and blocked them from being disseminated in the news media. “We thought that such a person should not enter the next Politburo,” he said.

That these aging reformers felt confident enough to voice their concerns in public, and that the petition was allowed to circulate online (even if it was taken down shortly after being posted) is further evidence that the modernizers are continuing to gain ground as hardliners such as Bo and Zhou are either removed or have their influence pared back.

This sounds like a step forward (with the usual caveats about the difficulty of really knowing what’s going on behind the scenes in a country like this). China needs a responsive, constitutional system that provides space for dissension as it navigates an uncertain economic and political future. Of course, it is far too soon to say whether China’s modernizers have the strength or the will to bring about the kind of changes the country needs, but if a more liberal political order does eventually emerge, then the Bo Xilai scandal may have proved a blessing in disguise.

But China doesn’t have an unlimited time for peaceful growth and development. As a piece in this morning’s NYT notes, China’s system is increasingly dominated by cronyism and sweetheart deals involving “princelings” — heirs of prominent revolutionaries. This doesn’t just involve a few lucky tycoons at the top: China’s state capitalism is mutating into crony capitalism up and down the country. From the Times piece, an example of strong reporting by David Barboza and Sharon LaFraniere:

There are also growing concerns that a culture of nepotism and privilege nurtured at the top of the system has flowed downward, permeating bureaucracies at every level of government in China. “After a while you realize, wow, there are actually a lot of princelings out there,” said Victor Shih, a China scholar at Northwestern University near Chicago, using the label commonly slapped on descendants of party leaders. “You’ve got the children of current officials, the children of previous officials, the children of local officials, central officials, military officers, police officials.We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people out there — all trying to use their connections to make money.”

China is in the worst kind of trouble: the success of its technocratically driven economic model does two things: it makes China harder to govern and it degrades the quality of China’s governance.

Economic success makes China harder to govern because every day China becomes a more complicated society. The financial system becomes more complex and more liable to booms and busts; the interface of the environment and the economy becomes more difficult to manage and more dangerous as pollution and heavy water use stress China’s fragile ecosystem and resource base; the citizens become more demanding and more politically aware; foreign policy is harder to manage.

At the same time, the accumulating friction of corruption, vested interests, semi-feudal family “Red Nobility” power nodes and other lobbies and power groups makes it harder for the governing authorities to make the kind of ‘pure’ technocratic decisions this increasingly fragile and complicated system requires.

It is impossible to predict how all this will work out or when the storm will hit, but change of some kind is coming to China. In an ideal world that change would be peaceful, gradual and benign, but that isn’t the kind of world in which China lives.

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  • Anthony

    “…but if a more liberal political order does eventually emerge….”We have more imponderables WRM as well as human vested interest inclined towards consolidation (cronyism, sweetheart deals, etc.). There is present, based on your Quick Take, a dynamic configuration unfolding in China – implying that almost anything can happen. The world looks on.

  • Luke Lea

    @ WRM – “Of course, it is far too soon to say whether China’s modernizers have the strength or the will to bring about the kind of changes the country needs . . .”

    Or the power.

    How does a bureaucratic-absolutist state governed by corrupt patron-client relationships and with no independent judiciary reform?

    Maybe a palace coup followed by a nation-wide amnesty for past economic crimes? Even then you’d need some way to legitimatize in the public mind the vastly disparate distribution of private capital wealth in China, among the most unequal in the world.

    Here’s an idea. Reveal China’s capital for what it is, namely, the accumulated crime and sacrifice of centuries, plus interest.

    From this it follows that China’s millionaires and billionaires are its stewards only, not its absolute possessors. They have a right to manage it but no claim to the principle itself and only a limited claim to its usufruct (subject to taxation).

    Not a perfect solution, maybe, but at least a conceivable one.

  • silverfiddle

    I can’t believe the Chinese leadership was so foolish as to think they could just crack the door open without the people rushing through and breaking it down. Didn’t they learn anything from Gorbachev?

  • Luke Lea

    My favorite comment from the NYT:


    “Wind of corruption blowing everywhere,from bottom of ocen’s to mountain peaks,from east to west & north to south & Greedy’s greed have no boundaries. Remember what absolute power can do-like whales of Londen gonna swept the world’s most left behind,power cronnies keep climbing mountains of wealth. It’s like thieves & riches-bedding together & ruling the nations.”

    We are being corrupted. That’s the other half of the story. And with China numbers swamp everything. This could completely undermine the moral fabric of U.S. society. It is doing so already. Just look at all the cynical comments in the NYT. People who say “big deal” or “it has always been thus.” Even those who decry and throw up their hands are guilty. Unless you are prepared to do something about it you are part of the problem. This is a decadent society right now and needs to reform. We need a new great awakening, new colleges and universities to educate our elites since the Ivy League, which actually feeds off this corruption, is obviously not doing the job. How about “charter” state colleges and universities? And aren’t there a few good billioniares out there? Found some new colleges, guys! Redeem yourselves!

  • Banchiere

    I realize the comparison is not perfectly congruent, but your description of cronyism and nepotism in China today recalls the England of Robert Walpole. Georgian Britain was a Kleptocracy, in which ministers helped themselves liberally to servings from the public trough, and the King accumulated and exercised power through a burgeoning ‘civil list’. “Interest”, or what we now term “connections” was the paramount ingredient to economic and political success. And while they sang paeans to ‘enterprise’, ‘merit’, and ‘achievement’, the actual mechanics of the political economy were grubby and self-interested.

  • Hubbub

    “…the accumulating friction of corruption, vested interests, semi-feudal family “Red Nobility” power nodes and other lobbies and power groups makes it harder for the governing authorities to make the kind of ‘pure’ technocratic decisions this increasingly fragile and complicated system requires.”

    A few changes in wording and you could say that what China is becoming is what the U. S. has already achieved. Look at our major cities, the unions, the national bureaucracies, etc and you see much the same thing in terms of corruption, nepotism, etc. It seems that such conditions are endemic regardless of the kind of political system a country has. After a while, the initial inspiration for a noble and popular government gives way, after a few generations, to the baser realities of men and nations.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    I also think China’s time is limited, once the growth stops the system will be tested by declining incomes, and support for the present regime will evaporate. I doubt anything except revolution can change things fast enough to satisfy the pent up demands of a newly wealthy Chinese middle class estimated to number somewhere between 200-300 million.

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