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China’s Xi is no Gorbachev

by Nicolas Berggruen and Nathan Gardels

Bloomberg

Western analysts have been scratching their heads trying to figure out if China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, can properly be labeled a “reformer.”

His new policies promise to end labor camps, ease the one-child policy and migrant-residency requirement in cities, grant property rights to farmers, and open up many new areas to a “decisive” role for the market.

At the same time, he has strengthened the grip of the Communist Party, accumulated more power at the center, asserted ideological orthodoxy and clamped down on raucous bloggers.

To understand where China is headed in the next decade, it is best to take off the Western lenses and see Xi’s strategy from the standpoint of the present party leadership — something we had the chance to do when members of the 21st Century Council met President Xi, Premier Li Keqiang and others in Beijing on the eve of the recent Third Plenum.

The Chinese leaders see no contradiction between economic and social liberalization on the one hand and more political control on the other. In fact, in their minds, the latter is the condition for the former. Lightening up and tightening up are two sides of the same coin.

Only a strong state party at the center, in their view, can forestall conflicts abroad and push reforms forward against the vested interests of state-owned enterprises, local party bosses and the virtual “manufacturers of chaos” on the Internet.

In this respect, Xi is a true disciple of Deng Xiaoping. Deng was a pragmatist who continuously calibrated opening up and cracking down to both move forward and maintain stability. His loosened grip on the economy brought hundreds of millions out of poverty; his iron fist crushed the Tiananmen Square protests.

In his conversation with us, Xi was informal and relaxed. He hadn’t the least air of the stolid technocrats we have become used to over the past decade, but rather that of a fully formed leader prepared to take on what everyone acknowledges are towering challenges.

Like Deng or Mao Zedong before him, his remarks were peppered with classical allegories. “Understanding China,” he mused, “is like looking at Lushan Mountain. What you see depends on the angle from which you view it. When you are on the mountain itself, it is very hard to see the whole picture.”

Xi invoked Deng more than enough to make the point that he was treading in the former leader’s stead, noting that China was now in the “deep end” of Deng’s reform, which he always said “would last 100 years.”

Responding to our question about whether China could escape the “middle-income trap” and develop beyond a low-wage export economy, Xi expressed confidence — perhaps telling us what we hoped to hear — that the new market-oriented reforms and accelerated urbanization would keep China growing at 7 percent, at least for the foreseeable future. Noting that all of China’s problems were related to one another and could not be tackled piecemeal, Xi also emphasized that the “people-centered” reforms he was introducing would represent “comprehensive economic, political, social and ecological reforms.”

Xi said raising gross domestic product did not stand alone as a goal. He knows he has to close the inequality gap, and he expressly declared his intent to end poverty for the more than 170 million people who have been left behind during the decades of rapid growth.

Echoing Premier Li, he also said China’s development path must shift from “quantity” to “quality of life,” including on the ecological front.

All of this means China will be more, not less, engaged in the world. “The more developed China becomes,” he said, “the more open it will be. It is impossible for China to shut the door that has already been opened.”

Although top leaders seem to be unruffled by skepticism abroad, other ranking Chinese figures expressed frustration at the inability of the West to see China’s reform path on its own terms, instead acting as if we were the tutors of mankind on its pilgrimage to perfection, as Reinhold Niebuhr once put it. The leader of one of the most powerful committees of the National People’s Congress lashed out on this point: “The West will never believe that China is advancing until we produce a Gorbachev.”

At the heart of this dispute, in their view, is the unwillingness of the West to accept the one-party system as a legitimate model of governance. Yet even many so-called liberals in China today doubt whether multiparty, one-person-one-vote democracy is the best way to govern a society as large and complex as China.

While they want an end to corruption and arbitrary abuse by authorities, few want to replicate the partisan paralysis, gridlock and general dysfunction they see today across the three historic holds of Western democracy — Athens, Rome and Washington.

In the eyes of our hosts, the Communist Party — afflicted as it may be with corruption and princeling privilege — is not a dictatorship. For them, it is a 78-million-strong consensus-forming body that arrives at agreement on long-term policies and then grants the collective leadership the power to decisively implement them.

They argue that to attain internal consensus through endless rounds of consultation and trade-offs among stakeholders instead of dividing the body politic against itself and inviting polarization and paralysis through external competition, as in the West, is a superior way to govern. As long as there is internal competition of ideas and personnel based on merit and performance instead of special-interest pleading, the system should work well.

As Peking University scholar Pan Wei put it: “The meritocratic principle of competition holds the same central position in the history of Chinese governance as the electoral principle of the majority holds in Western democracy.”

What everyone seems unsure about is how a one-party system that must maintain its ruling narrative can handle the robust eruption of individual expression through social media and microblogging.

Sina Weibo — a microblogging site where 600 million people log on to complain about tainted milk, train wrecks, stolen land and corrupt officials — has replaced the Tiananmen of Deng Xiaoping’s day as the far more powerful public square of modern China. The great question is whether the party will succeed in checking and balancing Weibo, or if Weibo will balance and check the party.

Fearing the fate of the Soviet Communist Party, which collapsed under Mikhail Gorbachev, the Chinese Communist Party is trying to curb the “glasnost” — or transparency — that Weibo has enabled. By doing so, paradoxically, they risk inviting the very fate they seek to avoid. When the veil was lifted on the lies and false claims of the Soviet party, there was nothing left. China could not be more different. In China, the emperor does have clothes, because the party and government have performed for society over the past 35 years.

Everyone knows what is happening in their lives and shares that with others. Trying to censor reality will only further undermine the governing narrative, not strengthen its authority. Indeed, if the Communist Party openly allowed the public to air their concerns and addressed them, this “glasnost with Chinese characteristics” could bolster the system instead of weaken it. How deftly Xi handles this question will determine whether he can truly be considered a reformer.

Nicolas Berggruen is president of the Berggruen Institute on Governance, of which Nathan Gardels is senior adviser. They are co-authors of “Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way Between West and East.”