China’s new leader faces major issues

Role of Communist Party in capitalism is unclear

By Dale R. Herspring

One of the problems Communist regimes face is succession that is neither regularized nor transparent. We observed such a process in North Korea. Now that Pyongyang’s succession crisis appears over, specialists are trying to figure out what Kim-Jung-un’s rise to power means for North Korea and the world.

More recently, China has gone through the process of succession. At the 18th Communist Party Conference that opened Nov. 8, Xi Jinping replaced Hu Jintao, who was General Secretary of the Communist Party for 10 years.  Xi will take over the world’s most populous nation as well as a growing economic power a result of the “capitalistic” reforms China introduced in 1992. 

In spite of what is written about China’s economic rise, Xi and his colleagues face daunting problems that could slow economic growth and perhaps even upset its political stability.

Beijing has been trying to prove that it can remain Communist while embracing capitalism.  Indeed, many of the country’s biggest capitalists are welcomed into the party, something that must cause Karl Marx to turn over in his grave. China wants to retain the Communist Party structure in order to maintain political control while China continues its transition from a developing to a developed country.

One problem is that a good part of the population is beginning to resent the existence of a party, whose ideology makes little or no sense in a world of wide open capitalism. Some even contend that the party is reaching a crisis of legitimacy. With the exception of a few “old-timers” who remain convinced that communism remains the wave of the future, communism is increasingly showing its irrelevance. For many Chinese, the idea of the state serving the people — as by Mao tse-tung — is a thing of the past.

The concern — and a legitimate one — is that if the party liberalizes and permits dissent, the experiment may get out of control. For example, a free press would help in uncovering corruption, but it would almost certainly indict a number of top officials. Beijing remains very concerned about this, as is evident from its efforts to control the Internet. There are reports of individuals who get around government controllers, but when discovered, they are put out of business.  The issue would arise if government officials were answerable to the courts. It would increasingly undermine their authority.

This is one reason some fear that it is only a matter of time before the Communist Party of China goes the way of the Soviet Communist Party — in other words, implodes.  Such a development could undermine the capitalist experiment and, perhaps even lead to the break-up of the country.

Meanwhile, as is the case in Russia, corruption has become a major problem. Very little happens in China unless the correct bribe is paid. Also, and perhaps partly as a result of corruption, the gap between the rich and the poor is widening. Upward mobility is becoming more closed. Without connections, a person may well remain at the bottom of the social, political and economic ladders.

One outgrowth of corruption is the rise of officials who willing to flaunt their authority. While this has always existed in Communist China, one of the effects of the “economic miracle” is a growing middle class.  One attribute of this class, say some observers, is a group of people concerned about protecting their rights. These include the desire to protect themselves from corrupt officials who engage in land grabs, primarily to enrich themselves by constructing large building complexes while leaving the inhabitants out in the cold.  There is also growing dissatisfaction with environmental problems. Pollution appears to exist everywhere, especially in Beijing. On some days, one can barely see the sun through the haze that hangs over the city.

Despite these problems, the West has been wrong more than once when it tried to predict what would happen in the “Middle Kingdom.” What is clear is that China will play an increasingly important role in the world. It is in all of our interests that China’s transition to a “super power” be stable and peaceful.

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.

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