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Different China, same risky political system

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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.

The party has evolved over the decades, but has not changed its stripes.

Barely a generation ago, it had few university graduates on its Central Committee or the elite Politburo. Loyalty to a single paramount leader and revolutionary credentials were essential qualifications for senior officials. According to its defenders, the party has now become a model of technocratic efficiency where leaders are chosen on merit.

However, the rules and criteria of selection are vague; claims of a meritocracy are unconvincing as the track record is too brief; expertise is still cloaked in political correctness, and fierce in-fighting among competing personal factions is not the same as checks and balances found in Western governments.

For those hoping for a stable and prosperous China, the picture of a Leninist autocracy presiding over the world’s 2nd largest economy and a burgeoning society presents a bundle of contradictions and frustrations. Many of those contradictions surface in China’s vibrant social media, where criticism of government abounds, along with biting irony and sarcasm.

The coincidence of the American presidential election in the same week that China’s 18th party congress opened was a unique opportunity for displays of popular Chinese wit and wisdom. For instance, a report in China’s state-run news media about the “shame” of Americans waiting in line for many hours to vote drew typically biting responses from readers.

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