Since last October, when Chinese leaders congregated for its Third Plenum, Xi Jinping has pursued a crack down against government corruption unseen since the rule of Mao Zedong. A precondition of his reform has been centralizing power within his office. While deregulation and anti-corruption policies have generally been seen as harbingers of greater economic opportunity for American businesses, it's questionable if this will be truly positive for China in the long run.
Following the rule of Mao Zedong, which brought China to the precipice of social and economic collapse, Chinese political leaders vowed to never invest so much power within one person--the resulting decades saw the rise of technocrats and economic reform of Chinese economic institutions. Most notably, Deng Xiaoping led his country through profound economic reforms during his tenure from 1981-1987. However, he largely squabbled an opportunity to reform political institutions. While China has made numerous strides since the cultural dark age brought on by Maoist policies, it has not been enough to bring forth the true potential of China's economy. As Wen Jiabao noted in 2012, “Without successful political reform, it’s impossible for China to fully institute economic reform, and the gains we have made in these areas may be lost.”
But political reform does not just hold important economic opportunities--it's also vital for the stability of China as a whole. Mr. Wen went onto say that absent political reform, “historical tragedies such as the Cultural Revolution may happen again in China.” Chinese history is cyclical, which is perhaps best exemplified by the 700 year old Chinese novel, "Romance of the Three Kingdoms". In its opening lines, Guanzhong makes a cognizant observation of his nation's history, "Empire long divided, must unite. Long united, must divide." When the mandate of a government is questioned--such as one that is ripe with inefficiencies, has failed to bring forth significant economic success, or faces numerous military defeats--then citizens take it upon themselves to remove it from power. Chinese leaders appear to recognize this fact, too. Its state security council is inward facing, and massive military expenditures have been coupled with an even larger internal security budget. Though territorial disputes have been an important policy issue for Chinese leaders, it appears their foremost concern is putting down unrest in outlying provinces of China.
Yet, despite the foreboding words of Mr. Wen, unrest has been predominantly centered in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong. In the more culturally unified areas of China, the immediate political climate appears bright. The rise of Xi Jinping's image has reached soaring heights. One minute, he is leading the crusade against "phantom" officials who are paid by the government but do not work. The next, he's eating with citizens at a restaurant. By all metrics, Mr. Xi is the most popular leader since Mao. However, he's also in what we call here in America the "honeymoon" period of his tenure. Without reforms which address the core causes of corruption, his popularity will inevitably decline.
Ultimately, an independent judiciary which holds government officials accountable for their actions needs to be established. Currently, cases which are deemed sensitive by the state are handled by nebulous "political-legal committees." The current system wherein preordained decisions are played out in kangaroo courts perpetuates corruption in the government. Without an effective legal mechanism which independently metes out decisions regarding the guilt of accused officials, all anti-corruption efforts by Mr. Xi will be for nil. Second, restrictions on freedom of speech need to be loosened. Many voices calling for officials to report their assets or for the government to establish an independent judiciary are being arrested in a vigorous campaign to clamp down on all forms of dissidence. Independent journalists and grass-roots campaigns are everywhere--anti-corruption mechanisms are not. Allowing their voices to be heard will multiply the government's ability to identity corruption across the country.
Of course, these changes can be pursued through the power Mr. Xi has been accumulating during his short time in office, allowing him to bypass much of the bureaucracy endemic to China's bloated government. But to do so establishes a dangerous avenue for reversals by his successors. To provide more context for our American readers, think to current controversies surrounding whether Obama should to bypass congress and use executive power in order to deal with the humanitarian crisis on our border with Mexico. It's easy to support Obama or Mr. Xi when we are partial to their pursuits, but precedents stay in place regardless of who wields their power. When a Republican politician holds the presidency once again and uses Obama's precedents on executive action for their own goals, will those on the left be so happy? Though Mr. Xi's clout can be beneficial if used to reform how power dynamics work in China, it's difficult to envision a China which is both prosperous and stable when so much power is vested within the General Secretary. Thusly, if Mr. Xi truly wishes to display an intention to implement effective checks and balances, he will eventually have to reduce his own share of power. Naturally, this is easier said than done. Power is always easier to gain than shed.
So far, signs of how Mr. Xi will use his power have been ambiguous. Though he has instilled fear among party officials, the lack of a more neutral judicial entity does not bode well for his campaign. If he fails to successfully root out corruption, then political opposition both inside the party and from the population will begin to accumulate. Moreover, if the General Secretary retains the ability to rapidly change China's political disposition, it's easy to foresee a future where gains are partially or entirey dismantled. Right now, observers and practitioners should be grateful about reforms brought forth by the Third Plenum. But without more profound changes to Chinese institutions, it could very likely be for naught.