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David Cohen (Page 2 of 2)

Sticking with the Southern Weekend standoff for a moment, one aspect of the controversy I didn’t see a whole lot written on was that it took place soon after Hu Jintao protégé Hu Chunhua took over as party secretary in Guangdong. How do you think Beijing viewed little Hu’s handling of the crisis in general? What do you believe are his greatest challenges in continuing to move up the ranks?

Hu certainly came out of this affair better than anyone else who got involved in it, but I don’t think he broke any new ground.  He basically followed his predecessor Wang Yang’s “Wukan model” playbook, acting more as an arbitrator than a policeman.  I don’t see what else he could have done – as a party official, you can’t ignore a “mass incident,” and given how clearly the central leadership wasn’t willing to stand behind a censorship crackdown, I don’t see any chance they would have supported him violently suppressing the protests.  So I think Hu did a fine but not innovative job – he correctly read what the leadership wanted him to do, and he defused the protests as quickly and quietly as possible.

That said, if Xi is able to build a consensus around reforms, being head of Guangdong is going to be a huge opportunity.  They’re going to be looking to the provinces for successful policies to bring up to the national level – a sort of “laboratories of autocracy” system – and Guangdong is the place that has by far the most experience with a relatively free press and market reforms.  If Xi wants to work on the rule of law, Guangdong even has an experiment with a more independent judiciary going on in Shenzhen.  But Hu will have to be careful if he wants to start experimenting with a “Hu brand” in policymaking – we all know how that worked out for Bo Xilai.

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Back in November you predicted that Xi would make a number of reforms aimed at reducing corruption, privatizing the economy, and rebalancing it to make economic growth less dependent on public investment in infrastructure. Do you still believe Xi will attempt these goals and what would you say are his chances of succeeding?

I was making a bit of a facetious point with that article – at the time, there were a lot of editorials in the Economist and other publications saying approximately “Mr. Xi needs to understand that corruption and land seizures are bad things and put a stop to them,” which I find pretty silly – these have been major, and very public, topics of concern for the top leadership at least since Hu Jintao took over. So I was pretty confident in predicting that at a minimum Xi would continue to sort of pick at these big problems as the previous administration did.

But in fact Xi’s first few months have been really dramatic – he made a big effort to signal an interest in reform, and so far it seems like he’s been welcoming all these responses from liberals who are trying to push various causes.  I think this is almost certainly a tactic to build up pressure for some kind of substantial reforms – presumably, Xi is calculating that he can’t count on anyone inside the party to make sure they’re carried out, so he’s decided to give the press and the public more latitude to help make sure they are.

So is cracking down on corrupt local officials going to lead to some bigger changes – going after high-level corruption, or breaking up some of the state monopolies to rein in their power?  I think this would make sense, especially as there’s a good deal of evidence that the top leadership feels that its power is slipping away in favor of the industrial and financial powerhouses.  But it could also be that Xi has a very conservative understanding of reform – that he thinks the problem is just some bad low-level officials ruining things for the rest of the Party.

I don’t think we can really answer these questions yet.  The National People’s Congress meeting in March will most likely produce some evidence on this – I’ve heard from people who are better-plugged in than me that there might be some restructuring of how the big SOEs are held, which would be how you’d start making big economic changes.  But I don’t know.

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