China Power

How the Chinese People Can Make (or Break) Xi’s Reforms

Without public participation and engagement, China’s reform efforts are doomed to fail.

How the Chinese People Can Make (or Break) Xi’s Reforms
Credit: Hung Chung Chih /

There is now a worrisome phenomenon in China. I will provide a simple description for netizens’ consideration, and I also hope that Beijing will take this seriously. For many years now, especially since the new administration came to power, there have been measures taken to fight corruption and deepen reform. From media reports and Internet dialogues, we can see that people have high hopes (and a high level of support) for the government. However, in my discussion with ordinary Chinese people, I find that most still think that anti-corruption, reforms and even the recent emphasis on “the rule of law” have nothing to do with them. In other words, they don’t think that these measures have any great relationship to their lives or their work. Reform is booming now, but the people are by and large acting a bystanders, rather than participants.

This is both puzzling and worrisome. After Xi Jinping came into power, he said that “the people are yearning for a better life; that is the goal we are striving toward.” As for the relationship between reform and the public, Xi repeatedly stressed two points: first, make the people the main subject of reforms, and second, let the people enjoy the fruits of reform. Xi pointed out that the people are not only the creators of history, but the source of any reform’s strength. Without the people’s participation and support, reform is a boat without water, or a tree without soil.

Think back to the struggle to begin reforms in the 1970s and 1980s. With a new policy allowing for economic experimentation, local farmers were immediately allowed to raise chickens and ducks. With ideological opening, a “fool” named Nian Guangjiu was able to open his own business selling sunflower seeds; today he is a millionaire. The “Two Whatevers” and their unconditional support for Maoist policies were overturned, and suddenly farmers could rent land and sell excess crops. The government announced a “spring of science” and the university entrance exam was reinstated. Children from villages and small towns could use hard work to escape agricultural life and enter the State Council or state-owned enterprises.

In all these policies, reform entered deeply into the everyday lives of China’s people. Every day, the government worked on reform; every day, the people were also taking part in reform. To be frank, reform during that period wasn’t moving particularly fast, but every step of the way the people could feel the pulse of the times and see the tangible fruits of the reform efforts. That is how the government built a consensus for the reforms.

Today, reform is not pitched so high, but the reform measures being rolled out are getting deeper and deeper – even words like “democracy, freedom, and the rule of law” are being put forward. We can’t say that reform is moving too slowly, so why do more and more people feel a sense of distance and helplessness with it comes to reform? Of course the reasons are numerous and complicated, but I’ll simply put forward a few points for further discussion.

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First, we haven’t solved the problems of the source and structure of power. Generally speaking, China hasn’t been able to realize Xi’s idea of “putting power within a cage of regulations.” As a result, powerful interest groups have formed. As long as there are no limits on power, every kind of interest group can “hijack” the fruits of reform. So the benefits of reform are more and more concentrated in the hands of a small number of people, while the general public has to bear the risks of reform.

Second, the reform measures are good, and the slogans are very pretty, but many of these policies never make it out of Zhongnanhai – or if they do, they are changed, shelved, or made toothless at lower levels. For example, the recent introduction of a rule of law with Chinese characteristics raised a lot of hopes, but very few people believe that this “rule of law” can really prevent all officials, low and high, from bullying and violating the rights of citizens. The problem is that these same officials are responsible for implementing and supervising the rule of law. So, on one hand, you have vigorous publicity about the rule of law. On the other hand, a young man can be wrongfully convicted and executed, with no way to file an appeal or reopen the case. This sort of situation is not uncommon. Interest groups and officials only promote measures which are favorable to them; they have no motivation to pursue those reforms that are beneficial to the public. This is quite a normal phenomenon when officials are appointed by superiors rather than elected by the common people.

The third point is what I want to emphasize: the people lack a sense of engagement. As we know, currently many reform measures are decided in various kinds of closed-door meetings held in Beijing. Most of the time, all we can do is stare at the great hall and wait to see the results of the meeting. Then we can see how the meeting resolutions determine our own fate. This gives a lot of people, including intellectuals, the impression that reform is someone else’s business, not ours. Anti-corruption is also someone else’s business; it has nothing to do with us – not only that, but if you do try to fight corruption, you might get in trouble.

If national policies and reform measures are not subject to widespread public discussion, but are simply suddenly pushed forward by high-ranking officials and a select number of participants, then how could the people have a sense of engagement? Without participating in reforms, how can the people be the impetus for reform, much less the beneficiaries of reform?

Since the late 1970s, China’s reform has been pushed forward by the people’s hopes and complaints. This has become even more clear in the Internet era. But there are some people who want to painstakingly eliminate the role of public pressure. For example, the public clearly wanted to eliminate “re-education through labor,” and in the end they pushed for its elimination through the Internet. But those people who pushed the hardest to get rid of “re-education through labor” almost wound up being “re-educated” themselves. Today, the corrupt officials reported by the people are arrested, but the injustices they cause (including false legal charges) are not addressed. What’s worse, many people who reported corrupt officials are still in jail.

There are many netizens who care about, call for, and support reforms, and more than few suggestions from netizens have been adopted by the central government. However, there are still some people who will always dislike netizens and use any measures to fight against them. These people want to “clean up” the most powerful platform for the Chinese people to participate in reform and fight corruption.

A lack of supervision over reform and anti-corruption is the most important reason the people feel a sense of distance from these policies. When the people see the news that a corrupt official hid 200 million RMB in cash in his home, the authorities should not be satisfied with their success in “fighting tigers.” Instead, they should communicate with the people: Where did this confiscated money go? Can it be used directly to fight poverty or help children who cannot afford to attend school? How did this corrupt official manage to get so much cash? Do they not have supervision or checks and balances in place?  Where, exactly, is the problem? If the answers to these questions are not clear — or worse, there is no explanation given — then how can you eliminate the sense of distance between policies and the people? No one will be able to convince people that their house is not hiding 200 million in cash, or even more!

To implement Xi’s vision of making the people the main subjects of reform and the beneficiaries of reform, we must let the public truly take part in reforms. The best form of participation is supervising efforts to implement anti-corruption reforms and the rule of law, as well as supervising the government and the ruling party. In this way, the reforms of the government and the Party can become the people’s own reforms. If power cannot be used transparently and if we lack popular supervision, then any reform effort is doomed to fail.

This piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.

Yang Hengjun is a Chinese independent scholar, novelist, and blogger. He once worked in the Chinese Foreign Ministry and as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. Yang received his Ph.D. from the University of Technology, Sydney in Australia. His Chinese language blog is featured on major Chinese current affairs and international relations portals and his pieces receive millions of hits. Yang’s blog can be accessed at