BEIJING – Here is the story of today’s China in five brief news items.
• Story No. 1: For most of the last two weeks, Xi Jinping, the man tapped to become China’s new Communist Party leader, was totally out of sight. That’s right. The man designated to become China’s next leader – in October or early November – had disappeared and only resurfaced on Saturday in two photos taken while he was visiting an agricultural college. They were posted online by the official Xinhua news agency.
With the government refusing to comment on his whereabouts or explain his absence, rumors here were flying. Had he fallen ill? Was there infighting in the Communist Party? I have a theory: Xi started to realize how hard the job of running China will be in the next decade and was hiding under his bed. Who could blame him?
Chinese officials take great pride in how they have used the last 30 years to educate hundreds of millions of their people, men and women, and bring them out of poverty. Yet, among my Chinese interlocutors, I find a growing feeling that what’s worked for China for the past 30 years – a huge Communist Party-led mobilization of cheap labor, capital and resources – will not work much longer. There is a lot of hope that Xi will bring long-delayed economic and political reforms needed to make China a real knowledge economy, but there is no consensus on what those reforms should be and there are a lot more voices in the conversation.
Whatever top-down monopoly of the conversation the Communist Party had is evaporating. More and more, the Chinese people, from microbloggers to peasants to students, are demanding that their voices be heard – and officials clearly feel the need to respond. China is now a strange hybrid – an autocracy with 400 million bloggers, who are censored, feared and listened to all at the same time.
So Xi is certain to make history. He will be the first leader of modern China who will have to have a two-way conversation with the Chinese people while he tries to implement some huge political and economic reforms. The need is obvious.
• Story No. 2: In March, Chinese authorities quickly deleted from the blogosphere photos of a fatal Beijing car crash, believed to involve the son of a close ally of President Hu Jintao. The car was a Ferrari. The driver was killed and two young women with him badly injured.
“Photos of the horrific smash in Beijing were deleted within hours of appearing on microblogs and websites,” The Guardian reported. “Even searches for the word ‘Ferrari’ were blocked on the popular Sina Weibo microblog. . . . Unnamed sources have identified the driver of the black sports car as the son of Ling Jihua, who was removed as head of the party’s general office of the central committee this weekend.”
It was the latest in a string of incidents spotlighting the lavish lifestyles of the Communist Party elite.
Chinese authorities are so sensitive to these stories because they are the tip of an iceberg – an increasingly corrupt system of interlocking ties between the Communist Party and state-owned banks, industries and monopolies, which allow certain senior officials, their families and “princelings” to become hugely wealthy and to even funnel that wealth out of China.
“Marx said the worst kind of capitalism is a monopolistic capitalism, and Lenin said the worst kind of monopolistic capitalism is state monopolistic capitalism – and we are practicing it to the hilt,” a Chinese Internet executive remarked to me.
As a result, you hear more and more that “the risks of not reforming have become bigger than the risks of reforming.” No one is talking revolution, but a gradual evolution to a more transparent, rule-of-law-based system, with the people having more formal input.
But taking even this first gradual step is proving hard for the Communist Party. It may require a crisis (which is why a lot of middle-class professionals here are looking to get their money or themselves abroad). Meanwhile, the gaps between rich and poor widen.
• Story No. 3: Last week, the official Xinhua news agency reported that authorities in the city of Macheng, in Hubei province in central China, agreed to invest $1.4 million in new school equipment after photos of students and their parents carrying their own desks and chairs to school, along with their books, “sparked an outcry on the Internet. . . . The education gap in China has become a hot-button issue.”
• Story No. 4: Hu suggested that it would be good if the people of Hong Kong learned more about the mainland, so Hong Kong authorities recently announced that they were imposing compulsory “moral and national education” lessons in primary and secondary schools.
According to CNN, “the course material had been outlined in a government booklet called ‘The China Model,’ which was distributed to schools in July.” It described China’s Communist Party as “progressive, selfless and united” and “criticized multiparty systems as bringing disaster to countries such as the United States.”
High school students from Hong Kong, which enjoys more freedom than the mainland as part of the 1997 handover from Britain, organized a protest against Beijing’s “brainwashing” that quickly spread to parent groups and universities.
As a result, on Sept. 8, one day before local elections, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, Beijing’s man there, announced the compulsory education plan was being dropped – to avoid pro-Beijing candidates getting crushed.
• Story No. 5: A few weeks ago, Deng Yuwen, a senior editor of The Study Times, which is controlled by the Communist Party, published an analysis on the website of the business magazine Caijing. According to Agence France-Presse, Deng argued that Hu and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao “had ‘created more problems than achievements’ during their 10 years in power. . . .
The article highlighted 10 problems facing China that it said were caused by the lack of political reform and had the potential to cause public discontent, including stalled economic restructuring, income disparity and pollution. ‘The essence of democracy is how to restrict government power; this is the most important reason why China so badly needs democracy,’ Deng wrote. ‘The overconcentration of government powers without checks and balances is the root cause of so many social problems.’” The article has triggered a debate on China’s blogosphere.
This is just a sampler of the China that Xi will be inheriting. This is not your grandfather’s Communist China. After three decades of impressive economic growth, but almost no political reforms, there is “a gathering sense of an approaching moment of transition that will require a different set of conditions for Chinese officials to maintain airspeed,” observed Orville Schell, the Asia Society China expert.
The rules are going to get rewritten here. Exactly how and when is impossible to say. The only thing that is certain is that it will be through a two-way conversation.Thomas Friedman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist.