China’s reforms at a critical junction

By Joseph Tse-hei Lee 李榭熙  / 

Tue, Dec 31, 2013 - Page 8

As China celebrated the 120th anniversary of former leader Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) birth, there has been much discussion about his legacy in the early 21st century.

In light of an economic slowdown, China’s communist leaders are likely to confront many structural obstacles next year.

These problems are exacerbated by several explosive factors such as a lack of prosperity, high inflation and unemployment rates, rampant corruption and incompetent government that is devoid of democratic legitimacy.

Since its founding on Oct. 1, 1949, the People’s Republic of China was neither a reproduction of the Soviet Union model nor an incarnation of the ancient Confucian empire.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) distinguished itself from previous regimes by extending its political power to control society, the economy and national culture.

The Maoist regime tightened control at all levels, dominating political, social, economic and cultural domains.

However, everything changed following a series of important political moments.

The most notorious movement was the Cultural Revolution (lasting from 1966 to 1976) that was launched to activate popular radicalism in support of Mao, but almost brought down the regime.

The state only survived this movement by effectively suppressing the popular outpourings that Mao had encouraged.

Since then, communism as a unifying ideology collapsed and pragmatism prevailed under former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) and his successors.

From the 1980s, economic growth has become the people’s common hope and desire, and thus the only collective value supporting the CCP’s legitimacy.

Combining the transformative power of the market economy and stability of authoritarian rule, CCP leaders have adapted certain tenets of capitalism such as opening to foreign investment, deregulating the labor market and building infrastructure, while maintaining firm control over the government, military, public security and information.

However, accompanying China’s economic miracle are authoritarianism and domestic conflict.

Because of explosive grievances caused by the state’s aggressive development strategies and reluctance to liberalize its authoritarian system, a rising China that denies its citizens what they desire — such as job security, healthcare, gender equality and freedom — drives discontented sections of society to mobilize for collective action in order to guarantee security, solace and justice.

Popular protest has become a prominent mode of political participation, and the dangers of ineffective governance will be reflected internally.

As many as 180,000 strikes, demonstrations and protests were reported in 2010. This is an average of 493 incidents per day.

This official figure indicates a dramatic increase from the 90,000 incidents documented in 2006 and fewer than 9,000 in the mid-1990s.

China is now confronting the negative aspects of economic liberalization.

Unprecedented growth gave China a temporary reprieve, but the national economy has slowed down and the state has yet to offer a sustainable social developmental strategy.

As China is trapped in a perceptual cycle of discontent, time seems to be running out for Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) to resolve these internal problems and place the country on the right track.

Joseph Tse-Hei Lee is professor of history at Pace University in New York.