David Tobin: China’s Divided Leadership, China’s Divided Society

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Hu Jintao has emphasised building a “harmonious society” at home and a “harmonious world” at the international level. Given that official figures tell us that China experiences approximately 500 protests per day, it is safe to conclude that the party’s emphasis on harmony represents the awareness that contemporary China is anything but harmonious. Today’s China may enjoy double-digit growth figures on paper but it is also rampant with corruption, struggling to address a growing wealth gap, and has a state-media increasingly viewed as a form of “brainwashing”. One of the party-state’s greatest concerns following the end of the Soviet Union was an “ideological vacuum”. However, its greatest challenge is not a vacuum but its own irrelevance in the face of competing alternatives in an increasingly diverse China. The party’s inability to offer a genuine economic model to meet people’s needs is placing strains on its legitimacy. Furthermore, its inability to speak to ordinary Chinese people and share in the meanings they give to daily life is driving its own demise.

The present leadership handover has been less than harmonious as we have seen with the arrest and expulsion from the party of one of China’s potential future leaders, Bo Xilai. Bo Xilai is seen as a representative of China’s “new left” and one of the architects of the “Chongqing model”. Bo’s “cake theory” of economics was now that China has a big enough cake, the pressing concern is how to divide the cake. Bo Xilai’s concern for inequality ought to be easily incorporated into the discourse of a nominally Communist party. However, factionalism within the party is so rife that discussion of inequality has become a political sensitive issue. The website of the Utopia bookshop was shut down this year because it supported Bo and his redistributive policies. As one media executive put it, “we don’t mention Chongqing. I don’t eat Chongqing hotpot. I won’t even date Chongqing girls”. When Mao Zedong said that “the Chinese people have stood up”, it was not his intention that protesters who respectfully knelt down in front of his portrait should be arrested as happened earlier this year!

The politics of contemporary China appears all the more bewildering when we see the opening of the Party Congress with a very orthodox celebration of the party’s communist heritage and use of communist symbols. The party has long wished to present itself as the only Chinese voice the world should listen to and this performance was no different. However, thanks to a global telecommunications revolution we know Chinese people are already posting sarcastic and dismissive remarks online where “harmony” is talked about as something that is done to the people and not by them. The ban on knife sales in Beijing lest the proletariat turn on the dictatorship reflects the party’s awareness that public performances of harmony have yet to produce harmony.

The expulsion of Bo Xilai led many to speculate that Wang Yang’s “Guangdong model” of “free-markets” would be the new path for China. Wang Yang’s response to “cake theory” was that China “must bake a bigger cake before dividing it”. His claim that small and medium size enterprises are inefficient and should be allowed to be eliminated by the market is closer to what one would expect from Mitt Romney than a Communist Party leader. This debate on the future of China is not simply about party factionalism but the very heart of daily life in today’s China where the divide between the 128 million people who live on roughly a dollar a day and the number of dollar billionaires is growing. Most of the 500 protests a day in China are focused on economic issues such as evictions, property redevelopment, and labour rights. Educated people in China have always corrected my Chinese to tell me that “class” (jieji; 阶级) does not exist in today’s China, only “status” (jieceng; 阶层). However, those on the bottom rung don’t blink when I mention China is a classist and unfair society. In the words of one taxi driver “China is a capitalist communist country. We don’t even know who rules us anymore because they are hidden away in luxury apartments and plazas buying diamonds and playing on computers. We are slaves.”

Wang Yang’s alleged removal from the Politburo Standing Committee has raised questions regarding the influence of Jiang Zemin and Conservative elders. What appears to be happening is that factional politics inside the party meant that ousting some of the leading proponents of the left and the right was necessary for a workable political compromise for the leadership selection. How long can this uneasy compromise last? Xi Jinping, who will take over from Hu Jintao as the party General Secretary, is a careerist who is happy to jump from left to right to gain power, so this choice may work for now. However, the ongoing pretence of “building socialism” coupled with no transparent debate amongst officials, the party-state appears to be atrophying into its own ideological vacuum while the rest of China diversifies and conducts heated political debates outside official channels.

Hu Jintao’s statement that “we will never copy a Western political system” will speak to nationalists but it continues to define China in terms of what it is not and uses a mythical, homogenised Western Other to do so. Factionalism and multiple ideologies are good things for China but unless the party can find a way to make itself relevant to the daily lives of citizens, these ideologies will blossom and be turned against them. The party is increasingly backing itself into irrelevance by performing Communism yet pursuing a state-led capitalist model of development. Chen Bilan had to live in exile from 1945 after warning the party that if they did not democratise rapidly the dictatorship of the proletariat would degenerate into a self-interested, bourgeois bureaucracy. It turns out that she was right as today’s China has in the words of Yang Jisheng become a “power-market economy” where rent-seeking and corruption are not threats to the system as such because they are the system itself.

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