Compromise in the Air?

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As Austin notes below, Donald Tsang’s “election” as Hong Kong’s chief executive was a foregone conclusion in which the electors were all carefully selected by Beijing. That didn’t stop the Beijing-published English-language China Daily from hailing his “landslide win.” And yet, although the attempt to make the selection of the city’s new chief seem democratic was pretty feeble, it was a relatively open and public affair. And even though he knew he was going to win, Tsang actually ran a campaign to try and convince Hong Kongers that he was the right person for the job anyway.

Coincidentally, the same day saw the announcement of a new top man in Hong Kong’s long time commercial rival, Shanghai. In this case, there was no pretense at democracy or informing the public. The brief announcement that Shanghai had a new Party Secretary was issued by China’s cabinet, the State Council, but everything else remained shrouded in the same fog of rumor that has been swirling since the fall back in September of Chen Liangyu, previously the top communist party official in the city. Chen was arrested for allegedly being part of a corruption scandal that centered around misuse of the city’s pension funds. The new man is Xi Jinping, a 53 year old who was until now running the province of Zhejiang, part of the economic powerhouse centered around the Yangzi river basin. Mr. Xi’s appointment is widely seen as a compromise in the ongoing factional power struggle that pits President Hu Jintao and his supporters against the “Shanghai Gang,” which is associated with Mr. Hu’s predecessor Jiang Zemin. As neither a dyed-in-the-wool Hu man nor a Shanghai partisan, and with strong pro-reform and pro-business credentials, Mr. Xi may well represent a new compromise approach to factional struggle that may allow the Chinese political elite to come to semi-powersharing arrangements that avoid the sort of hugely destructive infighting that was the characteristic mark of the Communist Party’s first 25 years in power. For those interested in all the gory details, academic Cheng Li has panned a timely and incisive analysis of the Chen arrest and what it portends for the future of Chinese politics.

Unfortunately, as much as party leaders try to work out methods of avoiding public outbreaks of fighting by secret, behind-the-scenes maneuvering and compromises, laying down of unspoken new rules about tenure, limits of revenge taking by those in power etc etc, the system is inherently unstable: there’s eventually going to be some sort of breakdown somewhere. There is a lot at stake after all, power over the lives of 1.3 billion people, not to speak of hundreds billions of dollars. If China blows a gasket and slips back into the pre-reform stone-age again it’ll be because of political problems, not economic. Which means of course that there’s probably only one cure for that ill: democracy, the rule of law, a free press and all attendant goodies. Sorry guys. It may not be for a while, but the Party’s got to end sometime, if you’ll excuse the pun.