In the four and half months since his installation as China’s new leader, Mr. Xi Jinping has been talking about reviving the country’s economic reform almost incessantly. Although his branding campaign is generally considered successful and Mr. Xi appears to be enjoying a honeymoon period with the Chinese public, much remains unknown about what he means by reform. In particular, whether Mr. Xi’s reform agenda includes much-needed political reform (real democratizing reform, not just administrative window-dressing) is a hotly debated topic.
An astute politician, Mr. Xi himself has said little in public about the substance of his reform. However, what he reportedly said at a gathering of local officials in Guangdong in January suggests that he was not contemplating a dramatic overall of China’s political system. According to leaked notes, Mr. Xi reflected on the collapse of the Soviet Union in his remarks to these officials. The fact that Mr. Xi should dwell on a two-decade old historical subject is illuminating in itself. A reasonable guess is that he might be thinking about the same challenges that faced the leaders of the late Soviet Union. But what he said about the causes of the Soviet collapse was even more revealing, if not disconcerting. The loss of ideological commitment to communism, Mr. Xi allegedly warned his audience, was the root cause of the rapid demise of the Soviet regime. As a result, there was not “one real man” in the entire Soviet Union, Mr. Xi further pointed out, who would stand up to defend the teetering communist edifice.
Of course, one could read many things into such alleged remarks. To be fair to Mr. Xi, without knowing the specific context in which such remarks were delivered, there is a real risk of distorting his message. However, should these remarks be genuine, they should trouble those who expected Mr. Xi to re-balance China’s reform strategy by reintroducing political reform to constrain the power of the ruling party and the bureaucracy.
We don’t have to look very hard for other signs that China’s new leadership will be extremely cautious about, if not averse to, political reform. Mr. Yu Zhengsheng, ranked number four on the Politburo Standing Committee (the Communist Party’s top decision-making body), declared in his acceptance speech after being appointed the chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Council (a ceremonial advisory body) in mid-March that China “would never copy the Western model,” effectively dispelling any doubts about the political direction of the new leadership team.
It seems that the door to greater political openness has also been closed on the people of Hong Kong in recent days. Hong Kong is scheduled to elect its chief executive directly and competitively in 2017, but a senior Chinese official, Mr. Qiao Xiaoyang, chairman of the law committee of the National People’s Congress, dashed such hopes when he said, in an internal seminar, that Beijing has the final say on whether or not to appoint such a leader, even if he is democratically elected.
However fragmentary such clues are, it appears that what informs the political thinking of China’s new leadership is the experience of the late-Soviet regime. In particular, three different leaders and their policies apparently weigh heavily on the minds of the new occupants of Zhongnanhai. Having endured a decade of political stagnation amid rapid economic growth, China’s new leaders are obviously not in a mood to try another version of the Brezhnev model, the essence of which is pretending to govern while doing nothing in reality. Yet, aware of the enormous risks of introducing democratic reforms into a sclerotic political system, they abhor the radical Gorbachev model even more.
That leaves the Andropov model as the only feasible choice. Mr. Yuri Andropov, the head of the KGB, became the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in November 1982 after the death of Leonid Brezhnev. He immediately launched a campaign against corruption and began to promote reform-minded younger officials, one of whom was Mikhail Gorbachev. Unfortunately, Mr. Andropov was in poor health and died in 15 months.
Because of his premature death (he was only 70), no one knows for sure whether Mr. Andropov could have saved the Soviet Union with a reform program that capitalized on the inner-strengths of the old regime and avoided the fatal political gamble Gorbachev later took.
In the Chinese political context today, it is unproductive to debate historical counterfactuals. What is important is to analyze whether an Andropov model – cleansing the ruling party from within – will work for China.
Unfortunately, both the Soviet experience and contemporary Chinese reality would suggest that the Andropov model was doomed wishful thinking. Those familiar with the history of the late Soviet Union would surely remember that Gorbachev did not start his tenure as the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party as a radical reformer. In his first two years, he pursued an essentially Andropov model and eschewed democratic reforms. It was only after he realized that the Communist Party could not be reformed from within that he launched glasnost and embrace democratic reform in earnest.
Of course, the economic and social conditions in the former Soviet Union and today’s China are dramatically different. But the two countries share one critical similarity: a post-totalitarian one-party system. Economic reform, which boils down to reducing the power of the state and allowing market forces to flourish, inevitably will curtail the power and privileges of the political elites. A reformist leader may try moral persuasion, urging his colleagues to think long-term and make short-term sacrifices for the good of the party. For a ruling party full of cynics, opportunists, and rent-seekers, such appeal is unlikely to work. The same leader may also deploy the party’s own secret police (the KGB in the Soviet Union or the dreaded anti-corruption agency inside the Chinese Communist Party) to force its officials to fall in line. This approach is extremely costly (because it requires an enormous army of secret agents and corruption busters to watch over 86 million members of the Communist Party), and ultimately ineffective (who will watch the watchers?).
At the moment, however, the Andropov model seems to be an attractive option to China’s new leaders since it offers the middle road between political stagnation and regime suicide. Alas, it won’t be very long before they realize that it is a road to nowhere.