By Paolo von Schirach
October 27, 2012
WASHINGTON – Autocrats would rarely initiate by their own free will a process leading to their demise. And yet this is essentially what The Economist hopes Xi Jinping, the anointed new President of China, will do for the good of the country. This is wishful thinking carried to such an extreme that it is almost laughable. The very conclusion of the Leader titled “The man who must change China” shows a dangerous detachment from reality. After having made its case as to why Xi should engage in an unprecedented process of radical reforms, the article suggests that this would be a good way to reaffirm the Communist Party as a positive force in China: “ Bold reform would create a surge of popular goodwill towards the party from ordinary Chinese people”.
In theory this may be true. The people managing an autocracy who voluntarily relinquish power may indeed get some more support. However, history shows very few cases of such orderly transitions; and Mr. Xi and his colleagues know this as well as we do. Indeed, it is far more likely that, as soon as the grips on society are loosened, the whole regime will fall apart, because the party would lose control and therefore will be unable, even if it wanted to, to lead the transition in an orderly and peaceful manner.
Very few orderly transitions
I can think of few examples of orderly transitions. One would be South Africa in 1994. But the circumstances there were quite unique and there was luckily a common plan genuinely shared by the White minority and the emerging Black majority wisely led by Nelson Mandela, a man of rare and truly special talent. I can think of the worn out Franco dictatorship in Spain in 1975. As the old general was in his death bed, Adolfo Suarez, the head of the National Movement, Franco’s party, concluded wisely that he had to start a process leading to democracy. Suarez, working with the young King Juan Carlos, managed this feat remarkably well. But do keep in mind that Franco’s Spain, although an autocracy, was a rather bland one in 1975.
Reforming the Soviet Union did not work out well
More recently, we had Michail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. His well meaning efforts at reform ignited a process that he could not control. The regime imploded and he was gone. I suspect that China’s leaders remember this rather significant precedent.
It is true, as The Economist stated, that China’s future no longer looks rosy. There is a bad combination of economic slowdown due in part to built- in inefficiencies, growing and more open popular discontent about land grabs, rampant corruption, environmental disasters, public health failures, and a lot more. Repressing all this may be indeed a losing proposition.
A tall agenda for China
That said, the idea that the Communist Party can open up the system, institute genuine democratic controls via free elections, allow a free press, establish an independent judiciary that will prosecute many of its members, privatize state controlled enterprises that are used largely as political tools –the very idea that the party can do all this and retain power sounds rather fanciful.
Of course, in such complicated matters of reform timing is everything. If the pace of reform is right, things may turn out fine. But this is difficult and extremely risky. The idea that party bureaucrats who have advanced only because of their tactical abilities at avoiding troubles and traps will be able to morph into men of change looks improbable. The idea that the Communist Party will be re-legitimized on account of all this looks even less credible.