The Leadership Learning Curve

Minxin Pei’s article represents the newest and most sophisticated wave of pessimistic thinking about China. To a certain extent, his analysis is well grounded in indisputable facts. However, he misses an important truism in politics: A pessimist’s dark side can be an optimist’s bright opportunity. Most negativity about China rests on three recent events: the ...

Minxin Pei's article represents the newest and most sophisticated wave of pessimistic thinking about China. To a certain extent, his analysis is well grounded in indisputable facts. However, he misses an important truism in politics: A pessimist's dark side can be an optimist’s bright opportunity.

Most negativity about China rests on three recent events: the country's acceptance into the World Trade Organization in 2001, the leadership succession from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao in 2002, and the 2003 SARS epidemic. All three were seen as formidable triggers that could cause chaos within -- or even the collapse of -- the regime. The first, naysayers said, would lead to the breakdown of the country's state-owned enterprises. The second would spark a vicious power struggle. The third would devolve into "China's Chernobyl."

None of these predictions came true. Instead, China's economy has enjoyed fast-paced growth, the Communist Party has experienced its first peaceful political succession, and, in the wake of the SARS crisis, its newly appointed leaders gained legitimacy and popularity by confronting the epidemic head on. Time and again, the Chinese leadership has proven the skeptics wrong.

Minxin Pei’s article represents the newest and most sophisticated wave of pessimistic thinking about China. To a certain extent, his analysis is well grounded in indisputable facts. However, he misses an important truism in politics: A pessimist’s dark side can be an optimist’s bright opportunity.

Most negativity about China rests on three recent events: the country’s acceptance into the World Trade Organization in 2001, the leadership succession from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao in 2002, and the 2003 SARS epidemic. All three were seen as formidable triggers that could cause chaos within — or even the collapse of — the regime. The first, naysayers said, would lead to the breakdown of the country’s state-owned enterprises. The second would spark a vicious power struggle. The third would devolve into "China’s Chernobyl."

None of these predictions came true. Instead, China’s economy has enjoyed fast-paced growth, the Communist Party has experienced its first peaceful political succession, and, in the wake of the SARS crisis, its newly appointed leaders gained legitimacy and popularity by confronting the epidemic head on. Time and again, the Chinese leadership has proven the skeptics wrong.

Although Pei sees China’s problems in dynamic terms, he doesn’t give Chinese officials the same due. He appears to assume the country’s leadership is static and stuck in its ways. That assessment is particularly problematic inasmuch as it downplays the recent policy changes made by China’s leaders. President Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao have done more than any of their predecessors to draw public attention to the country’s pressing social and economic challenges. The problems that Pei highlights — economic disparity, corruption, industrial overheating, environmental degradation, and rural education and healthcare — are real — and continuously highlighted in China’s official media. Under Hu, China has started publishing information about social protests, mass petitions, and the number of deaths caused by industrial accidents. By doing so, Hu is showing China’s public, and signaling to its political elites, that a policy shift is needed.

Some elements of this shift have already begun. China’s development goals have moved away from an obsession with economic growth, to encompass social concerns. The single-minded emphasis on coastal development has given way to a more balanced regional strategy. (For example, in the next five years, the government will invest $43.5 billion in industrial renovation projects in Chongqing, the largest inland city.) Perhaps most important, Hu has embraced a populist approach that better protects the interests of farmers, migrant workers, the urban unemployed, and other vulnerable social groups. The importance China’s leaders attach to this approach is clear from the high-profile way in which they have unveiled these new efforts. It is no longer unheard of for Hu or Wen to pay a visit to inland farmers, AIDS patients, or the victims of industrial accidents.

Pei considers these to be just "modest" steps to correct a deeply flawed political system. But these decisions are having a profound impact on the country. For instance, the plan to abolish urban household permits — which for decades limited people’s ability to travel in search of jobs — is helping end a century-long segregation between the cities and countryside, the so-called "peasant apartheid." Such changes have far-reaching political implications, and they suggest that China’s leaders neither deny nor overlook the country’s problems.

It is true that China’s political system is not about to give way to a multiparty democracy. There is no organized political opposition in the People’s Republic. Nor has the regime scored particularly well when it comes to press freedom. In recent months, editors of newspapers and magazines have been fired, or their publications banned, simply because they veered too far from the party’s political line. But it is also true that China’s leadership is moving aggressively to confront the challenges of governance. Moreover, where the government may not succeed, China’s civil society may fill the gap. According to China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs, there were 280,000 officially registered NGOs in the country in 2005; observers say the real number is probably closer to 3 million, including some 6,000 foreign NGOs. A decade ago, such figures would have been almost unimaginable.

China’s journey into modernity is a paradox of fear and hope. The problems that Pei highlights are real. Some will become increasingly acute as China’s natural resources are strained and its population ages. Future Chinese leaders may become complacent about the country’s problems. But that is not the case today. Acknowledging the country’s socioeconomic problems is a monumental development. Even more extraordinary is the realization, supported by China’s leaders, that political reform is needed. China’s future has rarely looked so bright.

<p> Cheng Li is an expert on Chinese elite politics and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. </p>

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