Managing the Risks of Reform

Since Xi Jinping took over as General Secretary of the Communist Party at the 18th Party Congress in November, observers have been trying to suss out his commitment to reform within the Chinese government. While activist Chen Guangcheng does not believe Xi will implement signficant reforms, others are more optimistic. From the Voice of America:

Sizing up the new Chinese leaders who assumed power in November, [Chen] painted a bleak picture, describing the situation as “dire.”

“The survival of the Communist Party has always taken precedence over rule of law and basic freedoms in China,” he said. “And there is nothing to indicate that this situation will be any different under [President] Xi Jinping. To this day, the Chinese Communist Party has not given any sign that it will change or do the right thing.”

[…] Not everyone agrees about the current Chinese leadership and its ability to change.

“We should not completely lose hope for Xi Jinping,” said Cheng li, director of research and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a director of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. “Now is still his honeymoon period…that he demonstrates some of the promises, some of the progress, like his trip to southern China emphasizing reform and openness. Now whether he will deliver, we do not know. It’s still early stages. I’m still hopeful.”

But in the Wall Street Journal, Yiyi Lu writes that people wondering whether Xi is a reformer are asking the wrong question. She writes that Xi and other top leaders are well aware of the risks of reform and are trying to manage them:

How do they attempt to manage the risks then?

First, in all his major speeches since becoming party leader, Xi Jinping has repeatedly and unequivocally stated that China must adhere to Marxism and the socialist path and carry out reform under the Communist Party’s leadership (in Chinese). While these speeches are bound to disappoint liberals and many foreign China watchers, they fulfill two crucial purposes: reassuring conservatives who worry that reform would lead to Soviet-style collapse of the party and the state, and sending a clear message to liberals to discourage them from agitating for radical change.

Second, recognizing the importance of finding the right methods, the new leadership has refrained from drawing a detailed roadmap for reform, opting instead for an approach that combines “top-level design” and “crossing the river by feeling the stones” (in Chinese). This approach leaves room for adjustments and corrections should any reform measure go awry. It favors phased reform over shock therapy. It also ensures that the leadership does not have to show its hand too early, which could serve to alert and galvanize the potential opposition.

Third, the leadership stresses that in deciding how fast and vigorously to push through reform measures, the main consideration is that stability should not be jeopardized. In Xi Jinping’s words, the degree of intensity of reform and the speed of development must match the level of social tolerance for them.

Finally, after taking office, the leadership quickly launched new initiatives aimed at fighting corruption, curtailing the privileges of officials and curing bureaucratic malaise. In contrast, it has proceeded cautiously on the issues of media censorship, freedom of speech or freedom of information. This shows that the leadership has prioritized reform measures that have the broadest popular support and that promise concrete benefits to the populace over reforms that appeal most to liberal intellectuals and that tend to raise expectations and foment discontent rather than increase satisfaction with the government’s performance.

Read more about Xi Jinping and political reform in China, via CDT.

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