Nowadays, it is clear to most observers that China is going through a systemic transformation. The economic rules, the norms of elite politics, the ways of social governance, and foreign policy are all subject to this change. As a result, with the increasing sense of uncertainty, the discussions on “whither China” will always draw people’s attention. Among all the debates, Professor Minzner’s recent article is both innovative and disturbing for that he makes an astonishing point: President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are looking back to its 1950s-60s tactics, and are becoming more conservative. If his judgment is correct, we should surely be anxious about the future of China and the world.
As far as I am concerned, although Minzner is right in his empirical observations, he more or less exaggerates their implications. My response to Minzner contains two parts. On the matter of Chinese economics, I argue that the current policy ‘turn’ is less a ‘backlash against’ than an improvement of the ‘Opening Up’. And concerning politics, although I agree with Minzner that Xi is showing some characteristics of charismatic or personalistic rule, I argue that it is too soon to make conclusions about Xi’s attitude towards the rule of law.
Beijing’s economic policies in recent years are both reformative and consistent. On the one hand, marked by the recent antitrust campaign, regulations on foreign capital are indeed under adjustment. However, it is less convincing to argue that this change is against the spirit of the ‘Opening Up’ process. During the early ages of ‘Opening Up’, the needs to attract foreign investors led to ‘super-national treatment’ on foreign capital. Under the implicit norm of ‘Western exceptionalism’, the recent punishment of foreign monopolies will easily be seen as a conservative turn. However, the implementation of the Antitrust Law can be traced back to at least the 2011 China Mobile and China Unicom case. The only change now is its application to previously untouched foreign companies. Therefore, the seemingly biased antirust campaign is a part of efforts to correct the uneven pro-foreign capital regulatory system. We are now witnessing the foundation of real market impartiality, a more mature ‘Opening Up’ under regulation, rather than back to the past.
Furthermore, supporting domestic ‘national champions’ has always been the national policy of China and most East Asia NICs (for example, South Korea). Similarly, the Chinese government’s preference for a homegrown operating system has a long history, and is largely a result of security concerns. To see these as clues of any policy turn at this early stage would be an exaggeration.
Compared to economic adjustment, the direction of China’s political reform is less clear. Minzner is correct in his observation of the centralization of power. But what does this mean? For starters, on the one hand, centralization of power contains positive aspects. Though the ‘collective governance’ model started by Deng successfully institutionalized elite politics, it also caused fragmentation of elite coalitions. In practice, though consensus-seeking in Hu’s period maintained political stability in general, the energy of reform was sacrificed. Therefore, the re-centralization of power, marked by the creation of special leadership groups, is a crucial step to break the boundaries of departmental interests and local interests, and to push the implementations of top-level designs. As the delayed progress of the Shanghai Free Trade Zone shows, the power of the central government is not too much, but still insufficient.
On the other hand, the centralization of power contains uncertainty since the reform will be heavily influenced by Xi’s personality. The anti-corruption campaign, the emphasis on Confucianism, and the recent forum on literature and arts all raise observers’ anxiety that Xi may be more interested in building charismatic authority and launching ‘movement governance’. However, I would argue that it is too early to make this conclusion. Ideologically, Xi is less conservative than Chinese-centric. The ‘Chinese Dream’ narrative shows that Xi’s target is to build a core Chinese ideology and value, not simply to turn back to Maoism. Politically, it is correct that Xi is now utilizing campaigns and personal moral requirements to purify the Party. But it is incorrect to claim that Xi has no interest at all in formal regulations—rule of law. The focus of Xi’s campaign has been to tighten Party discipline until now. There is no convincing evidence to show that this ‘movement governance’ will be used as a standard model of national governance. In addition, the newly revised Budget Law is showing its power to regulate government expenses. As Wang Qishan, head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, recently states, the aim of the anti-corruption campaigns is to buy time for the institution building that follows.
In one word, be patient, the journey has just begun.
Bowen Yu is pursuing his doctoral studies at the University of Toronto with a focus on International Law, Global Governance, and China’s Foreign Policy. He holds a degree from Renmin University. His op-ed was previously published by Lianhe Zaobao.
He can be reached at bow.yu [at] mail.utoronto.ca
Bowen YU is pursuing his doctoral studies at the University of Toronto with a focus on International Law, Global Governance, and China’s Foreign Policy. He holds a degree from Renmin University. His op-ed was previously published by Lianhe Zaobao.
He can be reached at bow.yu [at] mail.utoronto.ca
This commentary reflects only the author’s personal opinion.