Xi's Reforms Face Big Obstacles

The old ways are too entrenched for the new president to uproot.

“[Bureaucrats] are conceited, complacent…truculent and arbitrary; they force orders; they do not care about reality; they maintain blind control….they connive with bad persons and tolerate bad situations; they engage in villainy and violate the law; they are a threat to the Party and the state…”

—Mao Zedong

One reason China’s Chairman Mao launched his destructive Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution 47 years ago was to prevent Communist Party and government bureaucrats from morphing into what he feared would become just another ruling class—exploiting the common man like the “capitalists and landlords” he had defeated en route to seizing power. As with so many of his madder policies, Mao failed.

And that spells trouble for his successor, six times removed, the self-styled reformist and current party general secretary (and Chinese president) Xi Jinping. Today’s China is ruled by exactly the kind of people Mao opposed. To a great extent, they comprise a self-serving combination of officials from the party, government, military and state-owned industry, tied together by family and personal connections (guangxi), endemic corruption and a fierce determination to retain the power and privileges that go with their special positions. They bring the nation more modern education, management skills and technical knowledge, plus greater understanding of the wider world, than Mao ever contemplated. But for the most part, they also lack the revolutionary zeal and desire for the equitable society that Mao, in his sometimes bizarre ways, proclaimed as his national goal—and President Xi himself appears to be quite at home among them.

The central theme of Xi’s tenure is what he calls the “China dream” of national revival, an imprecise pledge to restore the national greatness that it enjoyed long ago. Official versions of Chinese history contend, with some justification, that a century or more of foreign meddling brought division and “humiliation” to the land before the Communists took over. Historical reality is much more complex, of course, but Xi is trying to impose inspirational and popular goals on a nation that abandoned Maoist ideology years ago and has not found a substitute. His “dream” has many parts, but it includes bringing to heel corrupt officials who enrich themselves by devious means and thereby feed widespread public cynicism about those in charge—perhaps someday putting at risk the party’s grip on power.

The president has denounced senior and midlevel bureaucrats who thrive on corruption as “tigers and flies” who must be displaced. He also calls the anticorruption drive essential if the Communist Party’s monopoly on power is to endure. “If we don’t redress unhealthy tendencies and [instead] allow them to develop, it will be like putting up a wall between our party and the people, and we will lose our roots, our lifeblood and our strength,” he has warned. The incoming premier, Li Keqiang, has added that “since we have chosen public office, we should give up all thought of making money.”

But any campaign to rein in wrongdoers inevitably will face obstacles. Nepotism and favoritism, plus assorted payoffs and kickbacks, help hold the ruling system together, cementing loyalty and bringing privileges to those in charge. Overhauling the system in substantial ways would require confronting vested interests that rely on shady dealings to get results, whether to snag lucrative contracts, seize industrial property, evade environmental rules or gain desirable promotions, among other things. Extreme cases can bring retribution: the previous railways minister, for instance, a man who collected many millions and many mistresses over the years, was arrested after a deadly train accident revealed that his agency had long neglected safety standards. But less conspicuous corruption has been an essential glue during China’s economic boom.

Some of it is relatively petty. Police officers can demand bribes for ignoring traffic violations or health regulations in restaurants. Doctors may insist on extra cash up front before treating the sick. Schools can collect payments for admitting students into prestigious programs, or to have grades revised upward. Soldiers sell military license plates to civilians who want to avoid road tolls and traffic tickets. Despite another earthquake disaster in Sichuan Province, many citizens won’t donate to the Red Cross Society of China because they believe its managers are corrupt; that’s why Hong Kong’s legislature recently refused to let its government contribute HK$100 million (US$12.9 million) to the Chinese Red Cross.

But the problem also goes right to the top where connections count; several senior leaders—including Xi—are “princelings,” descendents of former top officials. A remarkable New York Times investigation uncovered proof that the family of the previous premier—known for his public declarations of probity—is worth at least $2.7 billion, thanks partly to its high-powered connections. A similar Bloomberg report found that the relatives of would-be reformer President Xi have accumulated wealth exceeding $300 million, despite his modest official salary. The family of another former premier dominates the electric-power-generating industry. Ousted Politburo member Bo Xilai did not fall for enriching himself in office, which he did on a large scale, but for posing a political challenge to his peers.

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