By Russell Leigh Moses
[Wall Street Journal, August 20, 2012, 6:35 PM HKT]
What happens to the prospects for political reform in China when Premier Wen Jiabao leaves office?
With senior Communist Party officials resurfacing after the meetings in the seaside resort of Beidaihe, and preparations commencing for the upcoming 18th Party Congress, Wen’s opportunity to move decisively in pushing political reform is clearly ticking away.
It’s never been completely clear how much party reformers owe Wen for trying to push-start political change in China. He may be, as some have charged, merely paying lip-service to the need for political reform as a way to burnish his legacy. Lately, however, he hasn’t seemed open — or able — to do even that.
Instead of charging out of the gate after the Beidaihe meetings to argue for further change in the party, Premier Wen seems intent on tending to other matters — specifically, comforting those hurt by a faltering economy.
Wen’s first public appearance after the seaside sessions was in Zhejiang, an export-dependent province hit hard by recent declines in global demand. Just a few months back, Beijing moved to liberalize the way loans are decided and disbursed there.
Wen was one of the major architects of that initiative. But now those reforms appear to have stalled. So in Zhejiang, the Premier preached “calm and confidence” amidst an economic situation he insists remains “generally good.” Wen stressed the need to control prices (especially in the real estate market), and stated that the twin goals of advancing social development and meeting economic targets could still be achieved by the end of this year.
According to one local media report, the Premier won over the crowds in Zhejiang with his “democratic, pragmatic, populist style” – this despite introducing no new initiatives.
Once the 18th Party Congress commences — an event that could happen any time between early September and the end of November, depending on which rumors you believe — Wen will officially begin the process of handing over duties to a his successor (widely expected to be Vice-Premier Li Keqiang).
But time isn’t Wen’s only problem: He’s also being hamstrung by a misbehaving economy that demands his attention.
So while Wen could be using this moment to build up momentum within the party for political reform, he’s once again being called on to deflect anger from an increasingly pinched populace. It’s tough to start fires when you’re spending so much energy fighting them.
Cadres and commoners alike may have been, in the words of the report, “encouraged by the breeze” Wen brought to this area in a scorching summer, but there are far stronger conservative winds gusting across China currently—and those are not at all encouraging for Wen and his allies.
For example, hardliners have recently signaled that they will continue to press for even more control over society — for example, striking out at television’s efforts “to mislead this generation” of younger viewers.
Conservatives also have to be heartened by the sentiments of the presumptive next leader of the party, Xi Jinping, who recently highlighted China’s “talent gap” — not the country’s lack of transparency or open elections — as a major obstacle to further and faster development.
While the premier may have wavered at producing substantive political restructuring during his tenure, he and his associates have been brave—and at least he and his allies had been holding off party conservatives from dominating decisions across the board. With Wen concentrating more on soothing the masses’ economic concerns than pushing back on politics, that era appears to be winding down.
The question now is whether anyone else at the top cares enough about political reform to take up his mantle.
(Russell Leigh Moses is a Beijing-based analyst and professor who writes on Chinese politics. He is writing a book on the changing role of power in the Chinese political system.)