It is now one month since power was handed over to China’s new leadership team of Vice President and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平) and Vice Premier Li Keqiang (李克強).
The international assessment has been largely favorable; in China, dozens of intellectuals have signed a letter calling on the authorities to undertake reforms with the same kind of anticipation that accompanied the nascent administration of Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) a decade ago.
This anticipation is primarily based upon the positive reception of the personal styles of Xi and Li, as well as figures such as Wang Qishan (王岐山) and Yu Zhengsheng (俞正聲) of the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee.
People feel that these four men represent a departure from the wooden, cautious, linguistically staid delivery of Hu and that they have the confidence to express themselves in their own way, to let their own individual styles come to the fore. One example of this is Wang’s recommendation that people should read the translation of Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1856 analysis of the causes of the French Revolution, L’Ancien Regime et la Revolution.
This kind of anticipation harks back to the traditional idea in Chinese politics of the enlightened ruler, in which the fate of the country was placed in the hands of a certain individual or group of individuals. It is a mindset that places more importance on people than the system in which they operate.
People seem to forget that the days of charismatic rule are a thing of the past, and that the men who stood before the press on the stage at the National Congress late last year are actually constrained by a whole raft of factors, not least the system itself.
Systemic structural constraints still conspire to stay the hand of individual leaders.
When Hu was studying at Tsinghua University, he became good friends with a classmate named Wan Runnan (萬潤南). They traveled everywhere together, and were very close.
Wan became chief executive officer of the successful computer company Stone Corp — earning himself the name of “China’s leading businessman.” He later started pushing for reform and eventually was forced into exile.
Hu, despite having been the president of China for a decade, was not able to help Wan return to seek medical attention when his health declined. Despite all his power, Hu was unable to show his old friend mercy.
Liu Yuan (劉源), now a general in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and a politician, is another case in point. In the 1980s he was a student in Beijing, and took part in a simulated democratic election. During the election campaign, Liu swore to do all in his power to further the cause of democracy in China.
He was not saying these words just for effect, they were with sincerity; the result of how he felt about the damage done to people during the Cultural Revolution.
Later, he entered politics, but has never breathed a word about political reform.
We cannot say that Hu is an irredeemably cold person, just as it would not be true to suggest that Liu was being intentionally deceitful when he spoke of the need for reform.
Why is it that these two men, having ascended the heights of political power, have found themselves unable to do anything that conforms to the most fundamental acts of kindness, or carry out anything they had originally intended to do?
It is because, in the context of the CCP’s long term political struggle, an individual, once they have entered the party, and especially when they have become part of the power mechanism, no longer act in an individual capacity, and no longer make decisions based on their personal wishes or express their own political standpoints. They have, in other words, subjugated their individuality to the party machine.
When an individual joins a system, then, they cease to be an individual, they become the system, or someone who works in line with the system.
This system also exhibits what we might term the party-centrism of power relations in the CCP. The political discipline of the party derives from the fact that the individual is invariably subjugated to the interests of the party. This is an important way in which the CCP has managed to maintain its hold on the state.
Historically, anyone who has sought to exert their personality over the CCP has been unceremoniously toppled, as happened in the case of former CCP general secretary Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽).
The expectations the outside world has on people like Xi and the rest of the current crop of communist leaders in China derive from accounts of what influenced their individual traits.
In Xi’s case, for example, some say they were shaped by the influence of his father, Xi Zhongxun (習仲勛), one of the founding members of the party. Others might feel that the current generation of leaders is to be more enlightened because of their past experience.
No doubt these traits do exist, but they can in no way compete with the system or the CCP’s party-centrism. If we are to deal with the existing political mechanisms of the CCP, we cannot pin our hopes on individuals.
Wang Dan is a visiting associate professor at National Tsing Hua University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Translated by Paul Cooper