POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, May 11, 2012
CHONGQING, China » After the economies of Western nations imploded in late 2008, Chinese leaders began boasting of their nation's supremacy. Talk spread, not just in China but also across the West, of the advantages of the so-called China model — a vaguely defined combination of authoritarian politics and state-guided capitalism — that was to be the guiding light for this century.
But now, with the recent political upheavals, and a growing number of influential voices demanding a resurrection of freer economic policies, it appears that the sense of triumphalism was, at best, premature, and perhaps seriously misguided. Chinese leaders are grappling with a range of uncertainties, from the once-a-decade leadership transition this year that has been marred by a seismic political scandal, to a slowdown of growth in an economy in which deeply entrenched state-owned enterprises and their political patrons have hobbled market forces and private entrepreneurship.
"Many economic problems that we face are actually political problems in disguise, such as the nature of the economy, the nature of the ownership system in the country and groups of vested interests," said Zhang Ming, a political scientist at Renmin University in Beijing. "The problems are so serious that they have to be solved now and can no longer be put off."
On Thursday, China released data that showed its economy was continuing to weaken. Many economists have been urging the government to loosen controls over the financial system, to support lending to private businesses while reining in state-owned enterprises, to allow more movement in exchange rates and interest rates, and to improve social benefits.
Such changes would curb the state's role, lessen corruption and encourage competition. But making them would involve a titanic power struggle. Executives of Chinese conglomerates, army generals, Politburo members, local officials and the "princeling" children of Communist Party elders have little incentive to refashion a system that fills their coffers.
Another significant aspect of the China model is the growing security apparatus. Its heavy-handed tactics in pursuit of social stability have been called into question by, among other things, more than 30 self-immolations by disaffected Tibetans and a diplomatic crisis between China and the United States precipitated by the plight of a persecuted dissident, Chen Guangcheng.
A well-documented uprising last winter against corrupt officials in the southern village of Wukan ignited a debate about how protests should be addressed: by the sword of the security forces, or through mediation by senior officials.
But it is the scandal over Bo Xilai, until recently a member of the party's elite Politburo, that has most humbled those who previously praised the well-oiled nature of China's political system and its appearance of unity.
Before the charismatic Bo lost his party chief post in Chongqing, other leaders were already starting to view him as an increasingly intolerable maverick. After arriving in Chongqing in late 2007, Bo very publicly began a crackdown on crime and a revival of Mao-era singalongs, aimed at generating populist backing and winning political support from the "new left," or hard-core socialists, for his bid to join the top-level Politburo Standing Committee, which is scheduled to turn over this year.
Bo's bid veered sharply from the traditional route of ascension, which since the era of Deng Xiaoping has been one of back-room patronage and shadowy negotiations among party elders. The problem now in China is that the powers of those elders have diminished with each generation — the current president and party chief, Hu Jintao, is weaker than his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who was much weaker than Deng.
With the dissolution of power, a multitude of factions and alliances are emerging under one-party rule, with no one voice able to impose order.
"China needs a system in place more than ever," said Wang Kang, a liberal writer from Chongqing. "Only a system can guarantee stability."
Some say that the purge of Bo was a correction in the political system, and that the system has returned to normal. But many others argue that given the growing incoherence at the top, and the diversity and reach of mass media in China, it is inevitable that more politicians will adopt Bo's populist methods. Cheng Li, a scholar of Chinese politics, noted that at the annual National People's Congress in March, several rising sixth-generation leaders gave prominent news media interviews, a form of self-promotion that was a break from tradition.
"There are no clear and steadfast rules," said Wu Si, chief editor of Yanhuang Chunqiu, a journal of politics and history. "In this confused state, there is bound to be someone like Bo Xilai who deploys various methods to compete to enter the standing committee."
Bo's policies also helped expose another fault line in the China model, which is the priority placed on economic growth through investment projects carried out by state-owned enterprises, with generous loans from state banks. This is the framework propping up the Chinese economy.
Flush with infrastructure projects, Chongqing, with a population of 31 million, had an economic growth rate of 16.4 percent last year, the highest of any municipality. But the municipal government and local state-owned companies have accumulated $160 billion in debt, according to an estimate by Victor Shih, who studies China's political economy. Many of those loans might never be repaid.
Policymakers pushing for a different model across China, one that relies more on consumer spending and encourages private enterprise, insist that long-stalled structural overhauls must be restarted. Some see an opening in the coming leadership transition. But the biggest hurdle may be the fact that both departing and incoming leaders have close ties to state-owned enterprises, which are keen to preserve the status quo.
The hesitancy over the next step is heightened by China's cooling economy. The growth rate slowed to 8.1 percent in the first quarter of this year, and Premier Wen Jiabao in March cut the forecast for the year to 7.5 percent. The property market is deflating. The data released on Thursday showed that domestic demand is weakening and exports are flagging.
China warded off the global financial crisis with a $580 billion stimulus package and a loosening of bank lending. Its leaders could fall back on that government-led, investment-driven approach if the economy cools too much.
One thing keeping them in check, however, is fear of rampant inflation, which could increase social unrest. Discontent among the poor and middle class is a major source of anxiety for Chinese leaders, yet there are no easy solutions to the widening wealth gap, as long as rapid growth is the priority.
The surging number of protests arising from this gap is another stress point in the China model. Officials rely heavily on domestic security forces to quell what they call "mass incidents," which one sociologist, Sun Liping, estimated at 180,000 in 2010. In March, the government announced it planned to spend $111 billion on domestic security this year, a 12 percent increase over 2011, $5 billion more than this year's military budget.
During the uprising in Wukan last winter, which began because of what villagers called illegal land seizures by local officials, police units surrounded the village, but backed off after Guangdong province officials negotiated with the residents. Wang Yang, the provincial party chief, took credit for the peaceful settlement and has proposed that strategy be more widely adopted, in an implicit criticism of the militant tactics used in "stability maintenance."
The weakness of those tactics was exposed once again when Chen, the long-suffering activist put under house arrest in 2010, made his nighttime escape from village guards who had beaten him and his wife. Chen, who is blind, fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. That such brutality could trigger a diplomatic crisis between the world's superpower and its rising rival is as obvious a sign as any of the deep flaws in China's security methods.
"From the few times I've engaged with them," Chen said, "I know they have the intention of reforming, of slowly initiating the rule of law. But I don't know how soon."