by Anastas Vangeli

Political reform has a very righteous, even a Confucian purpose in the Party’s discourse. The Party often conceptualizes the need for political reform as an answer to the growing “plagues” in governance.
One of the most important of these plagues is corruption. The definition of corruption in China stretches far beyond only bribery and financial crime – it refers to abuses of power that due to the dynamics of the society, opacity of politics, the sheer size of the country and the remoteness of the periphery from the center, take on frightening proportions and erode the legitimacy of the system.

Corruption is in fact a very active problem of China’s leaders. The Bo Xilai scandal has deeply shaken the Party lines. Earlier, one saw a sneak preview of local revolt in Wukan (with small-level protests against corrupt officials being held elsewhere). Netizens have publicized and criticized the decadent lifestyle of some of the relatives of Party seniors.

These and many others are all cases that are constantly used as a pretext to discuss political reform. Some analysts talk of a crisis of legitimacy. Wen Jiabao used the Bo Xilai case to wage war on a potential relapse into a new Cultural Revolution. The incoming leadership will have no choice but to address them before they spiral out of control.

A second function of political reform would be to stabilize and facilitate the policy process in China – process driven by a myriad of stake-holders, agencies, and diverging agendas. Political reform in this sense is patching up the cracks in the “fragmented authoritarianism” and strengthening the consensus between different elites.

The divergence is not only seen between the big political factions, but it is increasingly seen across different sectors and at different levels in Chinese policy-making. The burning example is of course the South China sea, where about a dozen governmental bodies help as the International Crisis Group puts it, “stirring the sea.” Structural deficiencies and internal divisions are the major reason for the uncoordinated maritime policy process; which has already become security concern.

The incoming leadership will need to act early on this issue, and put the house “in order.” Negotiation and mediation between different government branches, political bodies and/or increasingly the private sector could be institutionalized and regulated by political reform. Political reform in this sense would be a counter-balance to an overly entrepreneurial policy making attitude.

Finally, the developments outside China in the last few years have greatly affected the thinking of leaders in Beijing as well.

The Jasmine Revolutions and the fall of regimes in Northern Africa and the Middle East (the most important cases for China being Libya and Syria), as well as the change in Myanmar, are bad news for the CCP.

To a great extent, China’s authoritarian friends abroad were used as an example to further legitimize a concept of paternalistic-eudemonic but non-democratic leadership; now, with the fall of these regimes, there are ever-fewer examples to be pointed out as close to China.

Moreover, in the age of new media and globalized communication, there are growing fears that popular unrest abroad might be exported to China. One must also not dismiss the constant support by the West for pro-democracy and pro-human rights activists in China.

While China has responded to the changes in the global landscape by boosting its domestic security apparatus, it has yet to act on the obvious problems that might lead to a popular unrest.

At the end of the day, the new leaders might interpret these issues, the problem of corruption and legitimacy crisis, diverging interests within the political elite, and external pressure, as a threat to the Party’s stability or as a chance for advancing political reform. While political reform is certainly easier said than done, and is in no way a panacea (even if done thoroughly), it seems a very possible task the Xi Jinping leadership will take up.

Anastas Vangelis is a freelance writer on Chinese politics and Sino-EU relations based in Beijing.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

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