Don’t expect too much to change. So says Roderick MacFarquhar, a Harvard professor known for his histories of modern China, including the exhaustive Mao’s Last Revolution, the definitive title on the Cultural Revolution.
So what should we expect in the years ahead? Earlier this month MacFarquhar spoke to the Harvard Club in Hong Kong outlining his views on China’s leadership transition and forecasting correctly that Wang Yang – Guangdong’s pro-reform Party Chief – would not make it onto the Politburo Standing Committee.
MacFarquhar began his speech with the image of an iron triangle, saying that it represented the system set up by Mao Zedong in 1949, with Mao at the apex. He asked his audience to imagine that one side of the triangle was the Party bureaucracy, and the other was the ideology that justified the Party’s rule.
“Remember that iron rusts,” he quipped.
He then said the iron triangle was initially a perfect instrument for controlling Chinese society (the triangle’s base) but that Mao damaged one of the sides (the Party) during the Cultural Revolution, while Deng Xiaoping’s reforms damaged the other (ideology) shortly afterwards.
“Both sides of the triangle were undermined,” he went on. “So now you have a political system that is enormously impressive – and has achieved much in the past 30 years – but one which is fragile.”
He added: “I am not saying the Chinese political system is going to collapse tomorrow. What I am saying is that it’s fragile. The people at the top know that, much better than I do. They have to rule 1.3 billion people each day in a fragile system. It’s a frightening prospect. There are increasing demonstrations and riots; supposedly about 500 every day, somewhere in China.”
He went on to warn: “We have a leadership which is facing problems which are increasing rather than diminishing. We have a leadership which has been able to stay in power because of success. But as many governments have learned, things go wrong and you cannot be successful forever.”
MacFarquhar also thinks the current leadership transition is unprecedented. Deng had designated Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao as his successors, but his reforms did not create an institutionalised process for selecting a leader in 2012. That, says MacFarquhar, is why Chinese politics have been so turbulent this year, leading to the purge of the “charismatic” Bo Xilai.
Given the nature of the leadership transition, the Harvard professor sees little prospect of meaningful reforms in the immediate future. Instead Xi Jinping and his colleagues will hope to “muddle through”.
“They don’t know which reform will be the one that undermines the whole system,” MacFarquhar warned. “They want to avoid the Gorbachev model and have studied that period of history in great detail.”
As a result, the likelihood of substantial change is limited. “All I am prepared to guess is that the new leadership will be risk-averse. That means, like Wen Jiabao, they will not confront problems. They know the dangers, they just don’t know how to solve them.”
Among the challenges he highlighted in this category is corruption. “The former chief editor of the People’s Daily said to me that in the forties – which he lived through as an adult – that corruption helped to undermine Chiang Kai-shek, but that it was peanuts compared to the present problem. Now he said the sky is the limit and it’s everywhere. The problem for any incoming regime is how do you deal with it? The leaders have said it could undermine us, but what do you do about it? Where do you start?”
By introducing the rule of law, perhaps? MacFarquhar described this as “impossible”, saying “Party supremacy depends on the ability of the Party to know what justice is going to be delivered”.
The gist of the speech: only a genuine crisis is likely to produce real change. “No one knows what the traumatic event will be. Without it, China will just muddle on,” was the 82 year-old’s conclusion.
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