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.