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Different China, same risky political system

At China's Communist Party congress, outgoing President Hu Jintao made a frank appraisal of challenges faced by the party. But he ruled out any evolution toward a more open and accountable political system. China has yet to learn from South Korea and Taiwan.

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Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, right, and outgoing President Hu Jintao attend the closing ceremony of the 18th Communist Party Congress held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing Nov. 14. Op-ed contributor Julian Baum writes: 'The party has evolved over the decades, but has not changed its stripes.' Faltering economic growth, and reports of corruption at high levels and of extreme wealth amassed by families of party leaders 'pose existential threats to the regime.'

Vincent Yu/AP

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What would an orderly political transformation of China look like, one that matches the remarkable economic achievements of the past three decades?

In searching for clues, there’s no need to spend much time pouring over the proceedings of the 18th congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which concludes in Beijing this week. The ceremonial conclave of several thousand delegates, convened once every five years, is a well set stage for the unveiling of a new generation of leaders who are expected to rule China in similar fashion for the next decade.

True, in a lengthy and heavily staffed report to the assembled faithful in the Great Hall of the People, outgoing party secretary Hu Jintao last week made a detailed and frank appraisal of the many challenges faced by the party leadership.

But he was firm in ruling out any evolution toward a more open and publicly accountable political system. Western-style democracy was nowhere in sight, and those who see China learning political lessons from South Korea, Taiwan, or even Singapore had better reconsider this view.

Instead, Mr. Hu doubled down on the ideological underpinnings of the party-state with its supremacy of a single, unchallengeable party and mysterious procedures for political succession. His references to the party’s basic principles, including “Marxism-Leninism, Mao Tse-tung Thought” and “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” were intended to leave little room for his successor, Xi Jinping, to tinker with the fundamentals of the system.

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