A Reformist Chinese Leader? Stop Fooling Yourself

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Nelson Ching / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Pedestrians walk past a billboard displaying, from left, Chinese Communist Party leaders Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao at an event celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing

For those of us who have tracked Chinese political trends since the late 1970s when Deng Xiaoping came to power, reading the news about China these days can prove strangely disorienting. One week, we’ll be struck by a slew of stories, on everything from fast trains to record growth rates, which underscore how different China is than it was when Deng first launched his reforms. The next week, though, we’ll be struck just as powerfully by a sense of eerie familiarity. Headline after headline — about the intractability of corruption, the death of a watermelon vendor or a petitioner’s desperate attempt to draw attention to this plight by detonating an explosive device at a Beijing airport — seem just like those we came across a few years or even a couple of decades ago.

Last week, things got especially strange because a big we’re-in-new-territory and a significant here-we-go-again China story hit simultaneously. In the former category, there was the release of new Pew Global Attitudes Project figures showing just how many people around the world are now convinced China is or soon will be the leading global superpower. Of the many stories that triggered déjà vu, one of the most significant told of Xu Zhiyong, a moderate campaigner for civil rights and the rule of law and whistle-blower on official corruption, who has been detained.

(MORE: Why Bad News Elsewhere Is Good News for China)

It’s worth remembering, where the Pew numbers are concerned, that when Deng took over a country, which was still reeling from the tumult of the decade-long Cultural Revolution (1966–76), not only did he make the need to modernize China his mantra, but many Americans wished him Godspeed. The main U.S. worry then was about a weak China unable to feed itself, and an unstable China that might prove a wild-card actor in global affairs. There was little thought that China could one day go head to head with America. There was also a lot of hope in the West that economic development in China would bring democracy in its wake, especially among those convinced Deng would prove a thoroughgoing, rather than just economic, reformer.

The Pew figures show just how much the ground has shifted. Four years ago, a third of the Americans surveyed (33%) were already saying they believed China already was or soon would be the world’s leading superpower, but now almost half claim to think so (47%). In Britain, meanwhile, the 2009 to 2013 numbers went from 49% to 66%.

The Xu story, by contrast, points to lack of change rather than transformation. Reports about his latest detention read almost word for word like those written when he was arrested a few years ago, when Hu Jintao rather than Xi Jinping was China’s President. Xu’s arrest, as well as that of other similar campaigners for reform, is now being widely interpreted as the latest in a series of signs that it was overly optimistic to think that Xi would be more liberal and tolerant of dissent than Hu. Commentators are also noting the irony of anticorruption activists being seized at a time when Xi is saying one of his top priorities is stemming corruption. A particularly dispiriting development followed Xu’s arrest, when the lawyer trying to get him freed, Liu Weiguo, was also seized.

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It is not just the crackdown that is depressingly familiar, but also the references to dashed hopes about Xi. When Hu came to power, there was the same cycle of expressions of hope that he would prove more tolerant of dissent and more determined to rein in official corruption than his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, had been, followed soon by stories of that optimism proving unfounded.

The same thing happened, even more memorably, with Deng. Hopes for his potential to liberalize China were stronger than for either Hu or Xi, but then he dashed them definitively by backing the brutal June 4, 1989 massacre, which crushed a movement that began with students calling for an end to corrupt and nepotistic practices.

To historians of the pre-1949 period, like me, there is an added twist to this interplay between novelty and familiarity in recent headlines. Decades before Deng dreamed of leading a party that would take China out of a period of chaos, and modernize it, and raise its global stature by building up the economy, Nationalist Party leader Chiang Kai-shek had the same aspiration. Chiang too inspired hopes in some quarters that he would be both a great liberalizer and a great modernizer. And he too in turn did things that made many feel they had misread him, as he proved unwilling or unable to rein in corruption and nepotism within the National Party, seemed much readier to tinker with the economy than shift China from a single party to a multiparty state, and showed the same kind of intolerance to an earlier era’s dissidents that Xi is showing to civil-society activists now.

When I read the news on China, I think not just about how far the country has moved since Deng’s time but also since Chiang’s. And yet, while China is radically different in so many ways than it was in the Nationalist period (1927–49) or earlier in the current post-Mao era, Xu’s detention and increased doubts about Xi’s potential to move China forward politically remind me not only of things I’ve been reading in the press since the late 1970s, but also things I’ve encountered in the archives from three-quarters of a century ago.

Wasserstrom is the author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, an updated edition of which has just been published by Oxford University Press.

MORE: Crackdowns and Executions Provoke Shock and Outrage in China’s Business Community

26 comments
Danielle
Danielle

most of you think the rebellion happening in 1989 is the fault of ccp,of china.however,have you ever thought about the mistakes of the students?aren't they a little unreasonable?undoubtedly,deng ,as well as his party, is cruel to the walkers,but i hope we can be fair to all the details of the rebellion.be more clear-headed.

ysprefer
ysprefer

1989 incidents sacrifice many students with passion and creative mind, the society's mind turn back from idealism to practism, the people's republic of China survived after the collapse of other communist countries and avoid the possible outcome of chaos, but it is not a thing that we can be pride of. I hate those shameless people, who say Zhu Yuanzhang or Zhu Li, is a good emperor, what they are doing, represent the trend of the development, and is a advance of society. In the same way, the 1989 incidents, make China more focus on economic reform than institutional reform; the market economy is based on the protection of private property and ownship. The state-owned company is belong to the people, which is only nominal, but actually it is controlled by a layer of previliaged people. It is reason that the Chinese economy may face future downfall. Although China is boasted as the world's second largest economy body,  which we can not be pride of also. it has sacrificed too much environment polution, and the people are rarely benefitted from it, after decade of  almost two figure growth, the average income of Chinese, is till around 1/10 of that of America. Farmer's land are acquisited by the developers, some willingly, some forced, in exchange of a few hundred thousand RMB, they exchange the living methods for those paper which is depreciated very rapidly, and may cause future unrest for the society. There is nothing we may be pride of.

trademarkwx
trademarkwx

@withoutdoing @jwassers 我觉得很多人有“乐观”的想法也是正常,受到几千年传统思想的影响,中国人还是很喜欢期盼“明君”的,总幻想金字塔的顶尖可以带动整个社会整个官僚体制走向正确,以致于“人治”的概念在近代总难以被”法制“撼动,进而保证了专制的延续。

jwassers
jwassers

@AndyLangenkamp good question but economic & political shifts should be seen as things that may be but aren't necessarily entangled

jefforsythe9
jefforsythe9

It is far too late for the brutal gangster regime known as the Chinese Communist Party to make any amends as if it has any intentions of doing so. And it does not. The CCP is a blood-thirsty cult that has murdered one hundred million of its own people since it took power in 1949 and since 1999 has been attempting the genocide of the tens of millions of innocent Falun Gong by the use of torture, slavery, organ harvesting and murder. The heinous CCP has hundred of slave camps hidden all over Mainland Chins containing hundreds of thousands of innocent people. making all kinds of cheap items such as chopsticks and poisonous children's toys  for nothing for the corrupt officials to profit from and put into their already stuffed billion dollar over-seas accounts. The cruel CCP has brainwashed its people and has bought off Western media and Governments from its inception but the truth is beginning to be told. The CCP has forced its people down a despairing road that has no belief in God or goodness, just greed and eternal struggle. Its days are numbered. This is just my understanding, thank you.

Mtqomolangma
Mtqomolangma

@pjmooney Xi also knows no CPC officials are clean, &campaign-style anticorruption can destroy the Party...

Juelz
Juelz like.author.displayName 1 Like

I cannot see any value in this article but someone who's trying to comfort himself from the fact that the chinese are marching 

towards superpowers. It's ok for the chinese government to make mistakes while making its way to the top. There's no point to 

overgeneralize things Jeff, you are like still living in the 50s with your McCarthyism. It's ridiculous how you are talking about civil 

rights after things like "occupy wall street" happened. I'm wondering how are you going to prove to me that human rights would 

be the first consideration from the US government if Edward Snowden was captured. The thing people have to understand is that 

there's no better solution than authoritarianism when the government is not just dealing with 300 million but 1.3 billion people. 

If the chinese were democratic, it wouldn't be as robust as it is now but a country splinted apart and people living in the fear of 

terrorist attacks. DEMOCRACY IS JUST ONE OF THE TOOLS THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT USES TO GAIN THEIR 

INTERESTS. They instigate young generations about how good is democracy and make negative of any other forms of 

governing to countries whose government could not defend themselves, so hands of US politicians stays clean the whole time

and drinking teas while a group innocent people sacrifices their lives and fight for their democracy brainwashed. The US 

sponsored new government then takes over and officially becomes the US-supported legal government. To be honest, I don't 

care weather its the authoritarian or democratic system (because politicians made them up it's just a matter of how you call it) as 

long as people live good lives (sufficient food supplies, clean clothes, fear-free from terrorism etc.) it's always the better one 

because that's what we care about as citizens. So US government, stay your dirty hands out of china as well as other countries 

and stop fooling people around the world about your hypocritical quasi-democracy (if you look at the spying activities revealed recently) 

Note* American people are great, this is exclusive to the US government

thingsasya
thingsasya like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

In reading Mr. Wassertrom's article, the content and comments struck me in quite a different manner.  1) In the west, and even in China, there is a common misconception in labeling national leaders of various countries :  reformist, friendly to the west (or in the case of western countries, the Chinese would say this leader is friendly to China).  Are you kidding me?  All national leaders should have the best interest of the country in mind, whether they are labeled as hardliner, west (or China) friendly, labels from the press and for the uninformed to think this way.  I never believe there is such thing as a "China friendly" U.S. politician, and vice versa.  2) As to whether China will be a superpower in x years, again, I am not hung up on that.  The country is making progress, the leaders are struggling to keep the people happy :  housing, food, education, gasoline etc., all the things people will need in a normal society.  Remember they need to take care all these needs, plus more, for 1.5bn people.  3) and the information about corrupt officials, water melon farmer / seller who got killed.  Yes these are sad things that happened, and shocking news to read.  Yet look at it in another way - that in some ways the country IS making progress, that these bad things are actually being aired, and for your information, the urban council staff who caused the death of the water melon seller are facing criminal charges now.  That is the kind of society I look for in China :  that the people who broke the law, officials or not, will face justice.  Of course I can hear the noises now that for everyone being punished, there are 10 who got away.  To this noise I say yes, it may be but at least the government is doing something.  As the saying goes, Rome was not built in one day.  And I use the same rationale again - that to turn around a country slightly bigger than the continental U.S., with 1.5bn people, it takes time.  

 Progress :  how about young people are free to go overseas to study?  Free to travel to other countries, free to emigrate to other countries?  

 One last comment :  to all the :"China Experts" who write endless articles about China (whether it is negative, neutral, positive), when was the last time they were in China, actually lived there?  And for the people who are living in China, writing about China, how often do they interact with people on the street, to listen to the desire and aspiration of the average people?  And how often do they interact with people from the rural areas, not just talking to city folks?  

We all want China to succeed, but a China no matter its political form, would not be "friendly" nor would it be hostile to other countries.  China and its leadership will look for the ways to best provide for its people.   A China that is "friendly" to the west would only be one that was like in the late 18th century and early 19th century, when the country was weak, divided by powerful outside powers (it is no need for me to mention which of these countries are here).  A reformist national leader in China is to reform the country for the benefit and in the best interest of its people, not to appease and appeal to outside power. 

romano70
romano70

@thingsasya Is your posting approved by the Party? Or typed by it? Also, "dirty
 American hands? REALLY? If it weren't for America's buying power, China would still be a bunch of peasants struggling to feed themselves. We don't care if you make it to superpower or you fail attempting it. You will see how lonely is the top!

monochromeeye
monochromeeye like.author.displayName 1 Like

@TIME 中国停下你前进的脚步,好好思考!在中国,让人心痛的是政府,不是人民!

zhouyl0118
zhouyl0118

@monochromeeye 觉得这些是我们能改变的吗?

ysprefer
ysprefer

@zhouyl0118 @monochromeeye 1. 经济基础决定上层建筑,在经济快速发展、全球化日益加深的今天,中国人思路越来越开阔,越来越多的人走出国门,已非政府能控制的。2. 我觉得这个作者是中国通,对中国问题的思考,采用的是中国人的思路,考虑的是领导人的个人意志,而非时代潮流,中国已经变化了很多,国内高楼耸立,黑水横流,让人怀恋改革开放之前的环境。3. 经济发展了,未必就强,清政府不是还打不过日本和欧美吗,欧美很多国家,只相当于中国一个省。4. 中美体质文化更不不同,不要照套,美国允许私人拥有枪支,宪法规定当政府暴政的时候,人民有权推翻政府;美国的公务员用的是纳税人的钱,选民可以投票将他们不喜欢的候选人选下来,也就是说政府的老板是老百姓,这有决定了为什么美国的公务员一个镇十几个公务员,就全部搞定了。中国的公务员是官,是一层一层领导任命,花的是老百姓的钱,又不是他自己的钱,为什么不做人情,送给自己关系好的人呢,这也就是中国腐败盛行,机构臃肿的原因。寄托于领导人的个人品德和情操而非制度制约,无疑是缘木求鱼,200年后中国还这样,不仅这样,还会越来越烂。2012年几个央企就亏了400亿,全拿老百姓的钱不当回事,这些高管们,还有脸每年拿上千万的年薪。5. Times报中的很多观点,是以老美的价值观为出发点,未必所有人都包藏祸心,但还是不得不防,中国的改革必须稳妥,防止被别人卖了还替别人数钱,前苏联即是明例。5. 中国从唐科举取士之后,思想封化,一代不如一代,尤其是宋朝的重文轻武、明朝的垃圾当权、清朝的钳制思想,所以曾国藩说过,士重在有识,没有识,写两篇文章,自以为文采出众,实际上都是狗屁。6. 坑灰未冷山东乱,刘项原来不读书。(看times报的估计多为书生,估计也没什么吊用,包括我自己)。

ysprefer
ysprefer

兼听则明偏听则暗,不同的意见看看,有助于开拓思路。难道还像明清那样,一嘴的纲常伦理,满肚子的男盗女娼。男盗女娼是符合进化论的,但一脸的伪君子模样,着实让人难受。

hui10105
hui10105

@ysprefer @monochromeeye    今天偶然想看TIME,英语很差。我只想知道一点,为什么我在China版面粗略看,3篇文章和10多个文章的标题,没有一个是说中国好话的,而且评论也基本没说中国好话的?时代周刊只会喷中国吗?