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Society & Culture

Why China Needs a Transparent, Competitive Political System

Nov 27, 2019

The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China met in October and issued an official communique setting forth the Central Committee’s perspective from its Fourth Plenary Session. The result was an apparatchik boilerplate, as one would expect.

Nearly 400 full and alternate members attended, along with “some grassroots comrades and experts and scholars.” At the meeting Xi Jinping, “the general secretary of the Central Committee, made an important speech.” Notably, that position is viewed as more significant than his nation’s presidency, which he also holds. The members “fully affirmed” the politburo’s work and “unanimously held that in the face of the complicated situation of increasing risk challenges at home and abroad” the politburo “holds high the great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics and adheres to Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought,” and much more.

Not only has the CPC guaranteed a glorious future, it is responsible for an extraordinary past. Announced the Central Committee: “The Plenary Session believes that since its establishment, the Communist Party of China has united and led the people, insisted on combining the basic principles of Marxism with China’s concrete realities, won the victory of the Chinese revolution, and profoundly summed up the experience of both domestic and foreign aspects, constantly exploring practice, and constantly reforming and innovating.”
The statement goes on for pages, lauding “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” For most people, the paper’s greatest threat is to promote narcolepsy. Apparatchik-speak is even more sleep-inducing than a typical American legal document.

Yet the Central Committee’s claims illustrate the fundamental challenge posed by any closed, monopoly political system. No one can doubt the extraordinary difficulties posed by the collapse of the Chinese Empire and succeeding years of conflict. Nor the extraordinary transformation of China over the last three decades. Hundreds of millions of Chinese have escaped poverty because reforms adopted in recent years.

However, this good news followed years, even decades, of bad experiences. The 1949 revolution certainly resulted in “constantly exploring practice, and constantly reforming and innovating,” as the members declared. However, much of that turned out badly. That doesn’t make the People’s Republic of China unique. Other nations also have endured serious problems. But the PRC’s bad was really bad—mass starvation, for instance. Unfortunately, Chairman Mao’s dominant position made it difficult for anyone, including high party and government officials, to question policies which he advanced.

Ironically, the CPC admitted as much when it judged the Chairman’s record to be 70 percent positive, 30 percent negative. To acknowledge even that much fault must have been difficult for party members. Yet doing so hinted at how increased transparency and independence would greatly benefit the Chinese people.

That even this limited judgment was made was helpful. But it was not offered until years after the Chairman’s death in 1976. That was 27 years after the PRC’s founding. Imagine if the CPC had been able to honestly assess the Great Leap Forward and Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution as they happened. The Chinese people would have been far better off.

This principle does not only apply to the past.

The Central Committee understandably pointed to “the complicated situation of increasing risk challenges at home and abroad.” That is no doubt the truth, and not just for China. The U.S. doesn’t necessarily set the gold standard in dealing with such problems. Nevertheless, human experience convincingly demonstrates that no one person, no matter how gifted, possesses a monopoly of useful knowledge and good judgment. The best way to sift through and test the value of ideas is to establish a process that is both transparent, allowing those most affected to view the alternatives, and open, enabling even those without substantial political power to judge the likely consequences.

Consider the many economic challenges facing the PRC. For instance, Chinese officials express concern over malinvestment, high indebtedness, inefficient state enterprises, and foreign investment restrictions. Such issues will have an important impact on future economic growth rates. Good answers are more likely if relevant policy ideas move up and down simultaneously.

The Belt and Road Initiative also deserves thorough scrutiny. Even if the basic concept is sound, specific projects require serious scrutiny. Attend any conference on the BRI and Chinese officials, recognizing President Xi’s sponsorship of the program, uniformly speak softly and reverently about it. Yet the results are uneven. More than a few countries have been unhappy with the consequences of their participation. It would be better to more vigorously assess and anticipate such problems. That is more likely if the decision-making process invites scrutiny.

International security issues may be more sensitive, but that only increases the necessity of improved study. North Korea long has been a difficult partner of Beijing as well as subject of criticism by Washington. Even the Xi government has revised its attitudes toward Kim Jong-un. Yet in the past the PRC has stifled popular criticism of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Allowing Chinese citizens to vent their unhappiness with the DPRK might help chasten a government which relies so heavily on China for its support.

Various territorial disputes also are controversial. However, they are both intractable and volatile, and create a real, if still, hopefully, small possibility of conflict. The PRC’s claims are serious but not necessarily convincing; so are those of its neighbors. The objective of all parties should be to ensure peaceful resolution of such disputes. Creative ideas should be welcomed, even if not strictly consistent with past Beijing positions. One can imagine various alternatives—regional resource development, suspended territorial claims, bilateral cooperation, and more—which might help dampen international tensions and minimize military confrontations. The Xi government would benefit from such a discussion.

The Chinese people obviously must determine their political system. Only they can decide how they will live. But the experience of other peoples offer important lessons for Beijing. One of the most important is that China would benefit from a government which eschews coercive monopoly and unnecessary secrecy. That would help the Chinese achieve a future worthy to be called the China Dream.

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