by Elizabeth C. Economy, CFR


Let’s face it. China’s 18th Party Congress was a heartbreaker. In terms of personnel, it was a triumph of the Party’s conservative clique; and in terms of policy, it was a victory for more of the same. It didn’t have to be that way, but the Party elders elected to preserve their legacy at the expense of opening the door to real change. The candidates for the Politburo Standing Committee with the strongest reform credentials—Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang—were left high and dry, while those who anchor the “hold back change at all cost” wing of the Party—Zhang Dejiang and Liu Yunshan—took their place among the top seven. The remaining five—Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Zhang Gaoli, Yu Zhengsheng, and Wang Qishan—represent a range of relativity: relatively more or less interested in political reform and relatively more or less committed to economic reform. So what to expect from this somewhat mixed bag of conservatism? Hu Jintao’s November 8 Party Congress speech offers some clues.

1) Democracy will become a new Communist Party buzzword. But don’t be fooled. This is not “a democracy is a democracy is a democracy is a democracy.”

Topping Hu’s political wish-list for the next leadership is a desire to root out corruption, a goal of every Chinese leader since 1950. In his speech, Hu warned, “If we fail to handle this issue well, it could prove fatal to the Party and even lead to the collapse of the Party and the fall of the State.” Hu’s prescription to meet the challenge looks to be democracy—Chinese-style. Political scholar and activist Li Fan described to me what Hu and his successor Xi Jinping have in mind: intra-party democracy, which means more candidates than positions but only for the Party faithful; and deliberative democracy, which means developing institutions to channel public opinion into the political process through consultation, but not granting any real decision making-power to the people. This is not “democracy” but democracy with Chinese characteristics, all in service of strengthening the Communist Party.

2) A high GDP growth rate is addictive. Don’t look for the Chinese leaders to take on the tough reforms up front.

Hu’s economic plan for the next ten years reads like his own from ten years ago: rebalance the economy, make growth more balanced, coordinated and sustainable, and reform the financial system, among many other laudable reforms. Unfortunately, nothing in Hu’s speech gives the new leadership the roadmap to success. And since the most able economic reformer of China’s new leadership, Wang Qishan, has been tasked with taking on corruption, it is hard to know who in the new leadership will have the vision and political wherewithal to push the painful reforms necessary through the country’s powerful “vested interests.”

3) Peaceful rise is passé.

There is little doubt about Hu Jintao’s preferred direction for Chinese foreign policy. Forget about Deng Xiaoping’s “hide brightness, cherish obscurity” mantra. China is ready to come out to the world as a military power. Hu called for developing a “strong national defense and powerful armed forces that are commensurate with China’s international standing,” strengthening the military’s capabilities to “win a local war in an information age,” and becoming a “maritime power.” No doubt Hu’s speech leaves China’s neighbors longing for the days of Premier Wen Jiabao’s “win-win” “a rising tide lifts all boats” diplomacy.

It is possible, of course, that the new leadership might surprise with a far more proactive reform orientation. Hu Shuli, one of China’s best-known journalists and outspoken advocates for political reform, has examined Hu Jintao’s speech with an eye toward what “could be” were China’s leaders to seize the moment and “move from ideas to realities.” I hope she is right, but if the new leaders’ past is prologue, China’s reformers are in for a long five years.