The dog that didn’t bark

The curious silencing of China’s prime minister and his views on political reform

Published on The Economist, Nov. 11, 2010.

IT WAS not the right time of year, and all previous Beijing “springs” have ended in far deeper floods of tears anyway. But it is still remarkable how swiftly a hopeful debate on political reform that seemed about to blossom in China a couple of months ago has been nipped in the bud. Hunched in a booth in a Beijing campus coffee shop, Hu Xingdou, a liberal academic and blogger, who has recently seen one of his posts deleted from the internet, has an explanation. China’s leaders are still stuck in the old mindset that political reform will lead to chaos … //

… As ever in Chinese politics, you can interpret this in countless ways. But almost all of them are related to the party plenum last month and the five-yearly congress in 2012 for which it was preparing. That will see power shift to a new generation of rulers under Xi Jinping, China’s presumed next party leader and president. It would be surprising if there were not profound differences over one of the biggest issues China faces: how to adapt the political system, organised along Leninist lines and designed for a monolithic command economy, to suit modern China, with a booming private sector and fast-growing middle class.

One explanation of Mr Wen’s surprising solo performances, that they were for foreign ears alone and not to be taken seriously, seems unlikely. Politicians everywhere, and perhaps especially in China, never forget their domestic audiences. Another, favoured by some Chinese liberals, is that he heads a reformist strain in the party beaten back at the plenum by conservatives. Since then, Mr Wen himself has been silent on political reform. Or it may be that the party sees the appearance of political debate as a useful way of fending off pressure for real change.

Tony Saich, of the Kennedy School at Harvard, points out that such episodes, when the debate intrudes into the official press, have occurred a few times before at similar moments in the party’s political calendar over the past two decades. Yet political reform itself has been confined to tinkering at the margins, and has largely stagnated. Village-level elections have not been replicated in townships. The National People’s Congress remains a rubber-stamp parliament. And, as has been seen in recent weeks, restrictions on the freedom of speech remain fierce.

It’s alright, Ma, I’m only surfing:

Despite that, Chinese politics has over this period been transformed: by the explosion of the middle class, by the internet, and by the emergence of a new generation with a very different outlook from their parents’. Mr Hu says none of his students has any interest in democracy, being focused on their careers. Writing in Time a year ago, Ai Weiwei, the artist, agreed the young do not share the idealism of the Tiananmen generation of students in the 1980s. But he saw their practical bent as a reason for optimism. “They aren’t ready to march in the streets, but they are equally unwilling to be told what they can or can’t read and discuss online. They simply want to be free to live their own lives.” Sooner or later, that wish will collide with the party’s control-freakery, and some sort of change will have to come.

Already China is far freer than it was. In another Beijing coffee shop, a disgruntled intellectual rants about the party’s shortcomings and failure to embrace political reform. He even asks the staff to turn down the Bob Dylan song playing in the background so that he can be heard—and overheard—more clearly. But he would prefer not to be named. (full text).

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