The Western media has largely missed the most significant development in Chinese politics these days. It’s not the dramatic downfall of Bo Xilai, although the incident is one of the most important events in elite politics in post-Deng China. Rather, it’s the stirrings that have revived contentious political issues banished from polite society in China since the Tiananmen crackdown more than two decades ago.
Of course, one is unlikely to find the discussion of such sensitive issues in most official publications (although some media outlets affiliated with official publications have been particularly adventurous in carrying articles on these topics in the past few months). The range of issues is wide and diverse. Despite disagreement among participants in this incipient post-1989 Chinese intellectual renaissance, the discussion is fast converging on three critical issues. First, there appears to be a widely shared consensus among China’s thinking class that the country’s economic reform is either dead or mired in stagnation. Second, those who believe that economic reform is dead or stuck argue that only political reform, specifically the kind that reduces the power of the state and makes the government accountable to its people, will resuscitate economic reform (some advocate for more radical, democratizing changes, although the consensus on this particular point has yet to emerge). Third, the status quo, which can be characterized as a sclerotic authoritarian crony-capitalist order, isn’t sustainable and, without a fundamental shift in direction, a crisis is inevitable.
Such signs of an intellectual awakening are worth noting for many reasons. Its timing is certainly significant. Many people would connect this development with China’s pending leadership transition. In China, as in most other countries, pending changes in leadership usually stimulate discussions among the intelligentsia about the future of the country and the accomplishments or failures of the departing leadership. Chinese intellectuals, mostly liberals, may want to seize this once-in-a-decade opportunity to reignite a debate on whether the existing political system serves the country’s long-term needs of economic development, social justice, and national unity.
Another, perhaps more important reason, is that more than two decades after the Tiananmen crackdown (and after Deng Xiaoping famously admonished his colleagues there should be “no arguing,” essentially ending the ideological debate among the ruling elites over whether post-Mao China was embracing capitalism), members of China’s thinking class have come to realize that the post-Tiananmen consensus, which might be characterized as giving economic reform and development a chance to solve China’s political problems (one-party rule and poor governance), has basically broken down. In other words, the post-Tiananmen model, all but intellectually bankrupt, provides no useful guidance in the coming decades.
One may be tempted to dismiss such discussions as idle chatter among marginalized Chinese intellectuals. This would be a mistake. Some of the participants in these discussions are influential opinion makers or advisors to the Chinese government. Their views reflect the thinking of at least some insiders of the Communist Party. So the frustrated tone and anxiety conveyed by their views could suggest that more open-minded elements in the party, some of whom may be in line to assume senior or important positions as a result of the leadership transition, share the same sense of crisis and urgency.