David Bandurski, editor of China Media Project, recently translated an article that Sun Liping—a sociologist at Tsinghua University who served as President Xi Jinping’s dissertation advisor— has published harshly criticizing the Hu administration’s decade in power, and even comparing China under their administration to North Korea.
Sun begins the article by noting that when Hu first took over power in 2002 there was hope among Chinese that he would further open up the system, and a number of incidents in the earlier part of his tenure seemed to confirm he would.
“But then,” Sun continues, “without explanation, the new administration lowered its banners and muffled its drums. It studied the ways of North Korea. Control and stability preservation (维稳) become the salient priority, and this approach was relentless.”
In considering possible explanations for this crackdown, Sun comes to focus, interestingly enough, on the 2008 Beijing Olympics. According to Sun the preparation for the international sporting event marked the beginning “of the ascendance of the stability preservation regime in China.” As a result:
“In the 21st century, China’s two most obvious characteristics have been the inflation of power (权力膨胀) and the failure of power (权力溃败), and the way the two of these have woven together. The process of the strengthening of the government’s capacity to extract resources, which had already begun before, concentrated more and more money in the hands of the government [during this decade]. And he who has wealth speaks loudest.”
The rest of the article is available on China Media Project’s website here, and is well worth the read (as are Bandurski’s insights preceding the article).
The gist of what Sun goes on to argue is that after the Beijing Olympics the leadership began touting all the great things China was capable of, even as interest groups became more powerful, social inequality rose, and the government became “utterly helpless” of doing anything to rectify the situation. Instead, the Hu administration merely tried to preserve regime instability in the face of it. However, Sun contends, “Preservation of this sort, has preserved China right down into the gutter.”
Although harshly critical of Hu and the current state of the CCP, Sun seems to be speaking at least as much to his former student than to Xi’s predecessor. In fact, he seems to take an indirect swipe at Xi’s Chinese Dream when he criticizes the Hu administration’s post-Olympic “fantasy of a national system concentrating forces to do great things” while failing to solve everyday issues.
If Sun is directing his message at Xi he is urging him that drastic action is needed, and warning that token reforms—of the kind that Hu took early in his tenure— will not suffice.
As Bandurski rightly points out in the post, it is striking how similar the expectations for Hu during his first years in office are to the current speculation about Xi. In this sense the current speculation might be very much misplaced.
One potential key difference between Hu and Xi, however, is their ability to reform the system. It’s unclear if reforms stalled under Hu due to his personal preference for the status-quo or rather because his attempts at reform were blocked by conservative and status-quo elements of the regime. At the very least Premier Wen Jiabao was a strong advocate of significant political and economic reforms but was seemingly unable to overcome resistance to them.
In this sense there are reasons to believe that Xi might be more successful. To begin with, his princeling background gives him significant connections and a degree of legitimacy that Hu (or Jiang Zemin for that matter) did not possess when first taking office.
Furthermore, Xi has already consolidated his power far more than Jiang or Hu had during this time in their tenure; for example, neither Jiang nor Hu took command of the Central Military Commission (CMC) at the same time that they became party chairman. Xi’s charisma gives him a greater ability to harness his bully pulpit in getting the Chinese people behind him and reform.
Finally, Xi is likely to find more allies should he seek to institute economic reforms. To begin with, most of the members of the Politburo Standing Committee are both Princelings like Xi as well as patrons of Jiang Zemin and Shanghai Clique, which was more proactive in adopting pro-growth economic reforms and bringing local authorities under greater central control. Furthermore, many of the key architects behind former Premier Zhu Rongji’s fight against State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) in the 1990s have been given important economic postings.
None of this is to suggest stronger reforms will be easy or even likely. But it does mean that if Xi is strongly committed to reforms of whatever sort, he does have a better chance of succeeding than did his predecessors.