The Chinese Communist party has just been through its most interesting year since 1976, when the Deng Xiaoping faction purged Mao’s widow and her three key supporters in the weeks after Mao’s death. In case anyone had missed the point, photographs of Mao’s memorial ceremony — which in their originals featured the Gang of Four prominently — were republished following their arrest with fuzzy gaps in the places where they had stood.
Bo Xilai, the disgraced party secretary of the megalopolis of Chongqing, is also being airbrushed out of the city that he dominated for five turbulent years, until his spectacular fall last March. His victims now speak openly of torture, and the Mao-style rallies he promoted are out of favour.
The new leaders inherit a number of actual and impending crises, of which the most dramatic is in Tibet, where the number of self-immolations since 2009 has reached 92. A new approach there would be a convincing sign of leadership. On corruption, Xi Jinping, the incoming president, will have to work hard to convince anyone that his promises mean more than the empty talk of his predecessors.
The outgoing president Hu Jintao’s “harmonious society”, proclaimed as a rebalancing of an increasingly unequal social order, is invoked by citizens to satirise everything from internet censorship to the suppression of political debate. Instead of rebalancing China’s unequal wealth, the government stopped publishing the Gini coefficient, the index of inequality, 11 years ago, claiming its data on the rich was incomplete.
Will Xi fare any better? The first signs are not encouraging for those who hope for a more liberal China. Xi’s speeches so far have stressed the nationalist dream of an ever stronger China, and maintaining the one-party system and its spoils will be a priority. When he speaks of reform, does he mean any more than measures necessary to keep the system intact?
Perhaps the party hopes it will grow stronger as the first model of a “post democratic order”, as Eric Li, a Shanghai-based venture capitalist, writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. The party, Li argues in a notably sycophantic essay, will overcome any short-term difficulties to demonstrate the superiority of China’s wise, meritocratic, and public-spirited one-party system and expose the failings of western democracy.
The people, though, are increasingly showing their feelings, despite 20 years of rising living standards. As China’s first phase of development and modernisation comes to a close, the new leadership might wonder how its restive citizens would react to an economic setback — one that collapsed the bargain of the last 20 years in which political stasis was accepted in return for economic advance.
They might soon find out. China’s overheated property market is one of the few investments available to the rising middle classes and the estimated 10 per cent of China’s GDP represented by illicit “grey” money, and selling real estate is a major source of income for local authorities. Warnings that the bubble will burst have grown steadily louder over the last year: in the once prosperous city of Wenzhou, property prices have dropped 70 per cent since 2010. The knock-on effects on shaky financial institutions across China and the consequences for savers and investors could be extremely serious. How the leadership will handle such economic challenges will test whether the claim to wise meritocracy has any more substance than the repeatedly proclaimed anti-corruption drives.
Guardian News & Media Ltd.
Isabel Hilton is the editor of chinadialogue.net