Wen Jiabao’s Endgame: neither Law, nor Order

Wen Jiabao at the World Economic Forum in Davos, 2008 (Wikicommons, click on this picture for source)

Wen Jiabao at the World Economic Forum in Davos, 2008 (Wikicommons, click on this picture for source)

The State Council outlined the main areas of the economic system’s reform for 2011, on a regular meeting on April 20th, chaired by chief state councillor Wen Jiabao. Besides the usual buzzwords – stability, scientific development, and improving the economic system’s ability to react to economic challenges, capital movement and forms of investment (including private investment or 民间投资) were high on the agenda, too, according to Xinhua, as quoted by China National Radio (CNR).

Another prominent issue, though more familiar than capital issues, was the people’s livelihood (民生), in terms of income distribution and social insurance, both in urban and rural areas, and the establishment of an affordable housing system (住房保障体系). All that and more, plus basic public services – a concept that has been mentioned more and more frequently during the past months, mostly in connection with the concept of “social management”.

It may be tempting to focus on the issue of human rights violations alone. After all, such violations can most easily – and justifiably – be seen in simple terms. The CCP’s and its propganda agents’ attempts to sell it as something more “complicated” can be easily – and correctly -, be condemned. But sometimes, the question is asked if the current political stagnation will continue beyond the expected change in leadership in 2012 / 2013. To go beyond the obvious – that the CCP’s human rights violations are reasons to worry about our interactions with China -, and to “try to predict the future”, we have to go far beyond statements about how we feel. The past six or seven months have been decisive and should be looked at closely, and frequently.

One should bear in mind if there was anyone among China’s leaders who ever came (remotely) close to being a standard bearer of individual rights as the essential prerequisite for a functioning economy and a stable society, it would be Wen Jiabao – for a month, that is, from September to October 2010. But Wu Bangguo, the National People’s Congress’ (NPC) chairman and party secretary, trashed practically every idea of political reform, in favor of “social management” (see second part of this March 13 blogpost), in his work report to the 4th session of the 11th NPC. A Central Committee session in October 2010 – see next paragraph – had shown him (and Wen) the way.

Wen Jiabao is nearing the end of his second term as chief councillor, and party secretary of the State Council – he will probably step down in March 2013, along with the entire “fourth generation” of top leaders, including Hu Jintao (in his capacity as state chairman. As party chairman, Hu is likely to step down in November 2012). Only a month after Wen Jiabao had mentioned a need for reforms of our political system, People’s Daily hit back, in October last year: the Fifth Plenary Session of the Seventeenth Central Committee had decided to adhere

to the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics, upholding the party’s leadership, the role of the people as the masters of their country, the organic unity of government work and the rule of law, the active and prudent promotion of political restructuring, and the continuous advancement of the socialist political system, self-improvement, and development (党的十七届五中全会强调:“坚持中国特色社会主义政治发展道路,坚持党的领导、人民当家作主、依法治国有机统一,积极稳妥推进政治体制改革,不断推进社 会主义政治制度自我完善和发展”).

The editorial citing these central committee findings then interpreted them as an uncompromising adherence to “a hard-earned and efficient political system”. Given that People’s Daily is part of the CCP apparatus, this is exactly the way the central committee (more specifically: the politbureau) does view China’s political system. Wu Bangguo’s work report reflected the Central Committee’s endorsement for the political status quo.

Wen, who had pointed out in September 2010 that

if economic reform doesn’t get the protection that comes from reforming the political system, it won’t be fully successful, and even the achievements made so far could still be lost again,

will spend the remaining twenty-two months of his term as chief councillor on tinkering with the “economic system” alone. That the political system will become an issue once again within less than two years is highly unlikely – the times may be changing fast, but experience tells that CCP’s policies do not. In the light of the months preceding the numerous arrests of dissidents and other shitlisted Chinese citizens – Ai Weiwei is, after all, only one out of many -, one can quite safely predict that there may be more surprises from the CCP’s operational activities and reactions to changing times, but that there will be no more long-term strategic changes.

Bereft of all options to improve political protection for his economic reforms, Wen’s task starts looking depressing. Alright – Tingyi, a major food manufacturer, won’t increase the price for its instant noodles, China’s migrant workers’ most common lunch, writes Felix Lee, in a report for German weekly Die Zeit. This piece of good news about price stability, at least on one item of daily use, is meant to be a signal from the government that there are measures against inflation after all, writes Lee. “Our vigilance” – re inflation – “must never falter”, Wen is quoted by Lee. And to reduce liquidity, and therefore “hot capital” within the market, banks are told to recommend the purchase of gold to its customers, as gold absorbs liquidity without the effects that speculation on property (housing) or food would have.

That’s as much as Wen’s State Council can do for now. “The economic system’s ability to react to economic challenges” will mostly remain a theory, probably even beyond Wen’s last battle.

His most likely successor is Li Keqiang (Hu Jintao reportedly wanted him to become his successor as party and state chairman, but wasn’t able to get him accepted by the collective leadership, and Hu Jintao himself will be succeeded by Xi Jinping, who hails from Jiang Zemin’s political school.


Human Rights: throw them a Bone, April 16, 2011
China Developers Could Resist Cheap Housing Push, WSJ, April 11, 2011
Seasonal Considerations: Safeguarding “4.9”, February 19, 2011
Inflation: the Emperor’s new Thermometer, February 16, 2011


24 Responses to “Wen Jiabao’s Endgame: neither Law, nor Order”

  1. Agreed. Political reform seems dead for the next ten years at least, and it is the events of the last six month or so that decided that.


  2. JR. Picking up on your tag industrial relations, this truck driver strike in Shanghai IS the story to watch:


    Also noted by Shanghaist

    Why. Most long haul truck drivers in China own their own rigs and have very serious loans to service.

    They are a particularly hardy breed of individual who traverse long distances, so the media shutdown of their industrial action means exactly peanuts to them. All big cities rely on them for food supplies as do exporters. The possibilities here are endless.

    As I continually remind, it wil be economic issues which will determine the future of the existing order.


  3. @KT – Most likely they’ll be successful, just like the taxi drivers in Shenzhen they cannot be driven off by strike breakers, cannot be replaced by black-legs, and are vital for the running of the city. Factory or mine-based unrest is a different thing – the government knows that large-scale organisation of workers beyond their control is a threat.


  4. I’m thinking of the CCP’s power strategies as an informal coalition-building with certain groups in society – and it would be a minority coalition with the elites, so far as they aren’t employed within the party’s command structure anyway. The informal coalition would include people outside the classical bureaucracies – let’s say, every privately-owned newspaper or broadcaster.

    The “middle class” may or may not be a part of that coalition. Ai Weiwei, for example, is most probably well-to-do in economic terms, but he is no part of such a coalition. The fringes of that coalition themselves may belong at times, and differ at others.
    Truck drivers who own their vehicles and who travel far within China are a particular breed (as Shanghaiist noted), not only because their services are essential, but also because they are worldly-wise in their own ways. You can’t easily fool them.
    Therefore, I think that your reminders that economic issues .. will determine the future of the existing order falls too short in my view, King Tubby. Sure – a major breakdown of China’s economy could seal the fate of the existing order – but so may further development, and insubordinate emancipation.

    A reminder of something mesaid months ago – the economy isn’t everything. .. Volition has mattered, too, all along the way since the 1930s, or even earlier.


  5. JR. Reviewing this thread, I think Shanghaiist agreed with my 5.04 and not the reverse. Peace.


  6. Your 5.04, KT? What’s that?


  7. JR @ FOARP Here is some serious background reading on the truckers strike, which I might add is far from settled.

    The price of fuel will continue to rise and hence subsidies.
    Provincial interests are serious obstacles to attempts to rebalance the domestic/export economy.

    Short of a open split in the Politburo, the economy will always be the determining factor as per my claim above, but I do concede that it is subject to political calculations as argued by JR. So I will talk of political economy and eat a very small portion of humble pie..


    And some quality reading on Bo Xilai, esp the first back link:


    5.04 was the timestamp. Cheers.


  8. I have the feeling that the Socialism 3.0 in China article wasn’t written in a day, KT. The authors, or other WSJ correspondents, conducted several interviews the article draws on, and it goes a few months back into the past, too. Xi Jinping’s visit to Chongqing in December 2010 followed Wen Jiabao’s to Shenzhen in August 2010 – Xi’s tour therefore followed the central committee resolution I’m referring to in the above post. Bo Xilai’s line in Chongqing fits the resolution better than Shenzhen’s move toward the separation of powers.

    That doesn’t necessarily mean that Shenzhen’s policy is over – if tradition prevails, some autonomy at the empire’s periphery will be likely to continue -, but Xi is da man of the future, and Chongqing combines several of the -isms the central committee apparently holds so dear.

    I’m not the omniscient narrator or interpreter of “what really happened” within the Chinese leadership, but I continue to believe that a will to power – a political will – is at play here. However, I do realize that Wen Jiabao’s role as a quasi standard bearer of individual rights as the essential prerequisite for a functioning economy and a stable society lasted for three, rather than only for one month. I had first ticked his Shenzhen speech off as some rhetoric to groom his imprint on history, and only started reading more closely when he reiterated his views in New York, in September 2010.

    But I’m a very self-confident blogger. Martin and Cohen seem to suggest that the political debate in China were pretty diverse. I disagree. I believe that between August 2010 and March 2011, the CCP’s collective leadership has opted for orthodoxy, and that this will define the coming years, beyond the generational change in the national leadership.

    As for the logistics story, I’ll have to read it more closely. It seems to include some statistics we wouldn’t easily find elsewhere.


  9. Thanks for the detailed, JR. I simply put the Cohen/Martin read up there, since Bo is now a serious power player who, possibly, is trying to leap frog ahead of the left-right orthodoxies. Just can’t get over the suspicion that he has very western style presidential ambitions, albeit with Chinese xistics which incorporate both Mao and Deng elements. He is envisioning something beyond collective Politburo government, but will probably get slapped down. Kill a very big rooster to ……

    Wen is trying to establish a more general match between the people wishes and the Party’s policies and their implementation. Don’t for one minute believe that he is considering any diminution of the CCP’s State power monopoly. He is trying to put some flexibility and responsiveness into sclerotic governmental institutions.


  10. Yeah – to watch Bo Xilai from abroad is fun, while it (or he) lasts. He’s treading a particularly fine line in Chongqing, which has all the features of a gold-rush city in an economic sense, and all those of a tunnel of horror in a political sense. But I wouldn’t be 100 per cent sure that he will be axed.

    As for Wen, it’s about squaring the circle. Sure, I can’t think of any politician who is a produce of a totalitiarian system who can think outside that systems category from the start. Wen can’t, and Mikhail Gorbachev couldn’t, either. But contrary to Wen, Gorbachev got the chance to take the journey. Last year, Yevgeny Bazhanov, vice chancellor of research and international relations at the Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy in Moscow, gave his views as to why “Russia isn’t China”. The problems Bazhanov described as a situation “completely different” from that faced by Deng Xiaoping, are no longer that different when you would contrast a fictional secretary-general Wen Jiabao with Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s/1980s.

    Wen might have taken the journey, even at the risk of losing some of the empire. You don’t need to be a democrat to get started. But you might become a democrat along the way, out of necessity.

    Even if I leave the CCP’s economic interests out of the account, many questions would remain open, and the crucial question might be if China is indeed a nation-state (when looked at minus Tibet and Xinjiang), which can live without continuous brainwashing operations and pressure (to use a very nice term) on its own people, in order to “keep China united”. Look at the difference between Chinese religions on the one hand, and the Russian-Orthodox church on the other. No Russian government needs to “instill” patriotism into Russian religious communities the way Beijing is trying to with Confucianists, Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, or Christians. So: how reformable is China?


  11. Even if you exclude CCPs economic interests in the periphery, you still have the problem of those economic interests in the core region. In many instances, those interests and their higher eschelon Beijing beneficiaries are at variance with peoples wishes and economic aspirations. (I cut this point out in my post but now return to it.)

    This additionally focusses attention on Beijings policy prescriptions and what senior cadres, bankers, upper-level govt officials at the provincial level actually do on the other side of the mountain.

    Very serious tensions and contradictions here also.

    Liked the PRC – Russian contrast.

    Other things beside patriotism can function as patriotic cement. Take my country for example. It is sporting prowess at the international level (excl football), very little of which it touched by the hand of govt or its finances. Grass roots stuff, and quite naturally we will excell in the top 6 nations in 2012. As certain as the next disqualification of the Bulgarian weight lifting team for steriod use. Sport leaves me cold but couldn’t resist the point.


  12. I left the CCP’s economic interests (that of the cadres and their family people) themselves out of the account to focus on the question of a “united China” – it’s obvious that they do exist all the same, KT.
    Yes, sports comes without political strings attached to it – and still, people are usually happy about a good performance of “their” team. Me too, especially when it comes to the categories I can relate to, i. e. football, or table tennis.

    One problem in China may be that people frequently don’t respect each other. I have quite a lot of objections to Wolfgang Kubin’s recent interview with German weekly Die Zeit, but I think he has a point in one of his explanations:
    “There is a certain negligence, a certain disinterest, a lack of preparedness to get involved when it comes to people who aren’t doing that fine. Chinese history and cultural history isn’t taken into consideration sufficiently. There is hardly any Chinese intellectual, artist, writer who would say something positive about a Chinese colleague. There is a long tradition of that.”

    Not to mention class relations, or relations between nationalities within China.

    Anyway, I’m just getting started with thinking about it…



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