Daniel W. Drezner

Wen, Tiananmen, and the democratization football

I think the world of the Financial Times’ Jamil Anderlini.  His China reportage is always fresh and interesting.  But I confess that I approach his latest story with more than a touch of trepidation: Mr Wen’s persistent mentions of the violent chaos unleashed by Mao Zedong were a clear rebuke to populist “princeling” politician Bo ...

I think the world of the Financial Times’ Jamil Anderlini.  His China reportage is always fresh and interesting.  But I confess that I approach his latest story with more than a touch of trepidation:

Mr Wen’s persistent mentions of the violent chaos unleashed by Mao Zedong were a clear rebuke to populist “princeling” politician Bo Xilai, who was purged a few hours later as party chief of Chongqing, one of China’s largest cities….

But for those reading between the pauses in the premier’s painfully deliberate oratory, the speech signalled more than the downfall of the maverick Mr Bo, who may still be charged with unspecified crimes.

According to people close to top-level internal party discussions, Mr Wen was tentatively laying the foundation for a move that would blow apart the established order in China and kick-start the political reform he has agitated for in recent years.

That move would be the rehabilitation and re-evaluation of the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests and the massacre that followed on June 4, when party elders ordered the People’s Liberation Army to open fire on unarmed demonstrators.

To this day the party officially regards the democracy protests as a “counter-revolutionary riot” and the entire episode has been painstakingly scrubbed from the collective consciousness of the nation.

In calling for a re-evaluation of the cultural revolution, Mr Wen was in fact signalling his intention to do the same for Tiananmen in order to finally begin the healing.

Mr Wen has already suggested this on three separate occasions in top-level secret party meetings in recent years, according to people familiar with the matter, but each time has been blocked by his colleagues.

One of the most vehement opponents of this proposal was Bo Xilai….

As Mr Wen prepares to step down at the end of this year as part of a once-in-a-decade political transition, he may be gambling that the time has come to right historical wrongs as a way of launching political reform.

The potential reputational damage to powerful interest groups, particularly within the military, could still easily block such a spectacularly bold manoeuvre.

But in purging Mr Bo the Chinese leadership has cleared away a major impediment and sent a signal to others that spring could be in the air again in Beijing.

Now, a few notes of skepticism.  First, we’ve heard this song-and-dance routine about Wen before.  He’s talked about political reform a lot, and every time he does it gets covered in the foreign press and squelched in the domestic Chinese press. 

Second, while the CCP elite might be in agreement on not wanting to return to the chaos of the Cultural Revolution , it’s quite a stretch to go from that consensus to an agreement to revisit 1989.  I have every confidence that a large swatch of the CCP elite looks at Tiananmen as identical to the Cultural Revolution in terms of instability and chaos. 

So this seems like yet another CCP episode of Lucy yanking away the democratic football from hopeful liberals… and yet. 

Anderlini makes two persuasive points and omits an even more persuasive argument.  He correctly observes that Wen is approaching lame duck status and that his primary political impediment has been removed.  So maybe he is less constrained than in the past. 

The omitted argument is a bit tangential, but bear with me.  It relates to this Keith Bradsher story in the New York Times about China’s relaxation of foreign capital strictures

The Chinese government has begun making it much easier for foreign investors to put money into China’s stock market and other financial investments, in a slight relaxing of more than a decade of tight capital controls.

The move, not publicly announced but disclosed by some private money managers, indicates that Chinese officials are eager to counter a rising flight of capital from the country, a worsening slump in real estate prices, a weak stock market and at least a temporary trade deficit caused by a steep bill for oil imports.

Those concerns have evidently started to offset fears of the potentially inflationary effects of big inflows of foreign cash (emphasis added).

Both the inward rush of capital and the capital flight by affluent Chinese are interesting.  They could force the central government to start making credible commitments with respect to property rights.  Only such commitments will ensure that the locally wealthy Chinese will not immediately have their capital move to the exit whenever possible.  Oddly, Wen deciding to open up Tiananmen might be a way of signaling to investors that Beijing intends to be a bit kinder and gentler than it’s been over the past decade. 

The international diversification of China’s wealthy elite has another effect.  Via Erik Voeten, I see that John Freeman and Dennis Quinn have a new paper in the American Political Science Review that concludes, "financially integrated autocracies, especially those with high levels of inequality, are more likely to democratize than unequal financially closed autocracies."  Why? 

[M]odern portfolio theory recommends that asset holders engage in international  diversification, even in a context in which governments have forsworn confiscatory tax policies or other policies unfavorable to holders of mobile assets. Exit through portfolio diversification is the rational investment strategy, not (only) a response to deleterious government policies. Therefore, autocratic elites who engage in portfolio diversification will hold diminished stakes in their home countries, creating an opening for democratization.

Freeman and Quinn might as well be talking about China right now.  Soo…. maybe the "princelings" are less worried about democratization than they used to be. 

To be honest, I still think the football is going to be yanked.  But it’s worth considering.

What do you think? 

UPDATE:  Mark Mackinnon has an excellent essay in the Toronto Globe & Mail explaining why reporters in China have so little to go on when they need to report on high-level politics or put down coup rumors

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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