China got its new president this week, completing a formal handover of power from former president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) that began long before November last year, when Xi Jinping (習近平) was anointed general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and chairman of the Central Military Commission.
The were no surprises in Thursday’s vote for Xi as president by the National People’s Congress, although one member did cast a ballot against him and three abstained.
Also no surprise is that another health scandal surfaced in China this week. Thousands of pig carcasses have been floating down the Huangpu River, which supplies drinking water to Shanghai.
Municipal officials said the corpses posed no threat to public health, while agricultural officials said there was no epidemic affecting the animals, only inclement weather. As with previous scandals, the official announcements are difficult to believe.
However, a river of porcine putrefaction is a good metaphor for the widespread corruption and environmental degradation that are the hallmarks of modern China and among the main challenges facing Xi.
To quote Marcellus in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
It is a rot that extends from the top levels of government in Beijing to villages nationwide and deep into the land, the water and even the air.
Corruption and environmental abuse are so entrenched in the CCP, the state bureaucracy and the economy that they would appear almost impossible to eradicate, despite the increasing unwillingness of the average Chinese to tolerate them in the name of development and stability.
The question on everyone’s minds since November is just how reformist Xi and his team will be. No one can say, not even Xi himself.
His selection of Li Yuanchao (李源潮) as vice president over Liu Yuanshan (劉雲山), a member of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee and the CCP’s former propaganda chief, has been hailed as a sign of his ability to stand up to former Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民), who made crony capitalism a byword of his government and whose influence remained strong during Hu’s reign.
While the selection of Li, a protege of Hu’s who had been head of the CCP’s Organization Department, could have been a tilt toward reformists, it may have simply been a balancing act, given that Xi must contend with the many supporters of Jiang and Hu who fill the ranks of the party’s senior cadres and have their own agendas. It will be a couple of years before Xi can put his own stamp on the party.
In any case, the CCP’s reform wing is reformist only in its efforts to drag the party administratively and technologically into the 21st century to enable it to survive as the dominant power in China. There may be talk of making the party less corrupt and more responsive to the needs of the people, but princelings such as Xi — and their families — have grown influential and rich precisely because of incestuous layers of corruption and abuse in the party and bureaucracy.
Crony capitalism’s tentacles run deep and wide and there are many vested interests with their own agendas, including the military, that Xi will have to contend with.
His pronouncements, public appearances and populist moves since becoming CCP general secretary have hyped expectations of change, but there are limits to his powers.
Xi may be able to reduce bureaucratic pomp and circumstance, but think of all the crackdowns on official corruption that Hu launched. They barely dented the problem; efforts to combat environmental damage and public health scandals also just scraped the surface of the problems.
Whatever changes Xi is able to make, in the end a more open, less corrupt authoritarian regime will still be an authoritarian regime.