As Xi Jinping nears the two-year mark of his tenure as president of China, he might want to take stock of what is working on the political front and what is not. Here are some early wins and losses.
Certainly, his anti-corruption campaign has hit its target—hundreds of thousands of them to be exact—and shows little sign of slowing down. He has cast a wide net, leaving little doubt that no sector of society—party, military, business, or other—is completely safe. Still, Xi remains vulnerable to accusations that the campaign is at least partially politically motivated, given that almost half of the senior-most officials arrested are tied in some way to his political opponents, and none of his Fujian or Zhejiang associates have been detained. He might want to bring some transparency to the process: uncertainty and fear of running afoul of some regulation or another are driving many officials to avoid making decisions or taking action.
Xi’s ideological war has also taken hold far more rapidly than anyone might have imagined. The Internet as a forum for lively political discourse has virtually closed down, and his crack team of propagandists are constantly coming up with new ideas to turn back the information age for the average Chinese citizen. Banning foreign textbooks, blocking Gmail and VPNs, and putting cameras in classrooms to report on professors are just some of the initiatives underway. It is hard to reconcile Xi’s desire to support China’s most creative and innovative thinkers—much less attract back those who have made their lives abroad—to jumpstart the economy with policies designed to block communication and access to information. If he doesn’t reign in the Liu Yunshan’s and Lu Wei’s soon, he should probably expect a wave of China’s best and brightest to get their passports in order.
Xi has had less success in his efforts to reform social policy. Perhaps nothing is as surprising as the failure of the relaxation of the one-child policy to encourage young Chinese couples to have more children. In late 2013, Beijing issued new rules that permitted couples to have a second child if either parent was an only child. The government saw relaxation of the policy as a win-win—addressing both a significant source of societal discontent as well as the challenge posed by an aging population and shrinking labor force. Initially, the government estimated that with the reform, approximately eleven million additional couples would be eligible to have a second child. They anticipated that roughly two million new babies would be born each year. Instead, only one million couples applied, and as one Chinese expert estimates, there have been only 600,000 to 700,000 newborn second babies—roughly one-third of what the Family Planning Commission had anticipated. Analysts suggest that there are a number of reasons for the baby shortfall: no preschool for children under three, toxic environmental conditions, economic concerns, and even too much success in inculcating the value of a one-child policy.
Reform of the hukou, or residency permit, system is struggling as well. Launched in July 2014, hukou reform technically allows migrant workers to establish residency and receive benefits, such as education for their children, in the cities in which they work. Yet restrictions in the plan mean that only a small percentage of the more than 200 million migrant workers will likely benefit from the policy. Cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, and Guangzhou, which are home to the largest numbers of migrant workers, are excluded from the policy. Indeed, the new regulations only permit migrants to receive full urban residency benefits if they move to towns and cities of less than 500,000. Cities in between 500,000 and the most popular megalopolises have a range of restrictions on their residency requirements. As Chinese demography expert Kam Wing Chan has noted, it makes no sense to exclude the largest cities or set the barriers too high in other large second-tier cities—that is where most migrant workers currently live and, most importantly, where work is available. Given current restrictions in the policy, Chan estimates that to bring the migrant population to zero—the objective of the reforms—will require three to four more decades.
Policy reform is challenging under any circumstance, but all of Xi’s reforms share a common problem: a fundamental misunderstanding of social dynamics. The lack of restraint in the anti-corruption campaign and ideological war create a climate of fear that will undermine success in achieving other policy objectives over the long term, while a failure to recognize the actual needs of young Chinese couples and migrant workers means that the one-child policy and hukou system reform will continue to deliver sub-optimal results. For Xi Jinping it may well be time to reform his reforms.
This piece first appeared in CFR’s blog Asia Unbound here.