Where materialism now rules, ‘Marxist morality’ might not find a place

As Americans go to the poll today, China is going through its own transition, but by any impartial assessment, democracy remains a long way off

Share

As Americans go to the polls today to elect a new president, the rulers of the rising superpower in the east are preparing for a once-in-a-decade change of leadership.

The contrast between the United States and China could hardly be starker and tells us something about the much-heralded contest between the two countries for the leading global role.

Whatever one thinks of the electoral process across the Atlantic, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have debated policies openly and at length, and have met crowds of voters across the country. The outcome remains in doubt even as polling begins. In contrast, the leadership transition in the last major country ruled by a Communist Party has been secretive and opaque, but the identity of the man who will lead the nation is a foregone conclusion.

For all its economic and social progress, China’s political system remains in the top-down autocracy dating back more than 2,000 years. Admirers of this way of governing argue that the country’s history and civilisation render it unfit for competitive democracy. Since this has never been tried on the Chinese mainland (in contrast to the vibrant system in Taiwan), this self-justifying argument lacks objective proof. But what the absence of open democracy means is demonstrated by China’s transition to the Fifth Generation of Communist leaders at a Party Congress opening on Thursday.

The Congress, held every five years, will see a major shake-up of China’s supreme political group, the Politburo Standing Committee, as the men (they are all male) who have run the People’s Republic for the past 10 years, during which it became the world’s second-biggest economy, step down because of age or term limits.

Taxi drivers in Beijing have been told to lock their back windows in case passengers hand out subversive leaflets, and to keep a special watch for ping-pong balls and balloons on which incorrect messages might be written. The persecution of human rights lawyers and petitioners seeking justice continues apace; the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo remains in jail on an 11-year sentence for organising a petition advocating democracy. By any assessment except from those who prize authoritarian stability above freedom, China faces major political questions as its social development, accelerated by the spread of mobile phones and social media, boosts individual freedoms within the Party pressure cooker.

At the last Congress, in 2007, Central Committee voting elevated a chubby-faced, highly experienced Party bureaucrat, Xi Jinping, to the Standing Committee as the senior member of the Fifth Generation. That makes him virtually certain to succeed the present leader, Hu Jintao, as Party Secretary, the top job, at the coming meeting. He will then take over from Hu as State President before adding the third big post, Chair of the Commission overseeing the armed forces.

Xi, 59, is the leading “princeling” – the children of first-generation Communist chiefs. His father, a Vice Premier under Mao Zedong, was purged in the Cultural Revolution while his son was “sent down” to the countryside, living in a cave and looking after pigs. His early attempts to join the Party were rejected. He has written of his bitterness and the lessons he learned.

As his father was rehabilitated after Deng Xiaoping won the power struggle that followed Mao’s death, the son worked his way up through Party and state provincial posts before being elevated to the Standing Committee. When one asks sources how he got to the top, the answer is that the power and interest groups which dominate the country feel comfortable with him.

He is a more open personality than Hu. He smiles quite a lot. He exercises by swimming. His wife was famous as a star singer with the army entertainment corps, but has given up performing. Their daughter is studying at Harvard. He has travelled quite widely abroad.

Xi speaks of the need to impose “Marxist morality” and inveighs against corruption. His career in rich, coastal provinces suggests he will continue the growth mantra launched by Deng Xiaoping at the end of the 1970s. The spectacular fall of the populist politician Bo Xilai when he got too big for his boots makes Party unity the main priority, which fits with Xi’s style.

But there are problems. Marxist morality has little appeal in a country where materialism is a major driving force. Though Xi has warned the families of officials not to profit from their connections, an investigative report by Bloomberg showed how his relatives have built up fortunes from business. (The news service has been blocked ever since.)

For all his affability on foreign trips, Xi went off-message when in Mexico by inveighing against foreigners sticking their noses into China’s affairs, presumably meaning critics of human rights and Tibet. As for the crucial element in today’s China – the economy – the model launched by Deng of cheap labour, cheap capital and welcoming export markets no longer works so well. China is slowing down and needs rebalancing and modernisation.

This means going up against powerful vested interests. Is this the job for the comfortable Xi? Or will he compromise, risking a logjam of growth and growing social and political tension?

The closed nature of the political system means nobody knows the answer. Probably not even the new leader himself. Despite the façade of unity, factions vie for power.  A crucial question is whether the main proponent of reform, Wang Yang, the Party Secretary of the richest province of Guangdong – who is the only senior official to have been an industrial worker – is elevated to the Standing Committee or if conservatives are promoted instead.

By choosing a man of compromise in Xi, the Party is opting for a steady-as-it-goes course. The danger is that China operates at the level of the lowest common denominator instead of grappling with the tough decisions that are needed.

The Xi riddle remains wrapped in the Chinese enigma. One thing is certain. Like his predecessors, he will do all he can to preserve the regime. How he does this is as important as who wins the White House.

Jonathan Fenby’s new book on China is ‘Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today’. He blogs on China at http://www.trustedsources.co.uk/blog/china

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Assessor

£26000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: SAP Assessor Job T...

HR Advisor (Employee Relations) - Kentish Town, NW London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor (Employee Rela...

Derivatives Risk Commodities Business Analyst /Market Risk

£600 - £800 per day: Harrington Starr: Derivatives Risk Commodities Business A...

Power & Gas Business Analyst / Subject Matter Expert - Contract

£600 - £800 per day: Harrington Starr: Power & Gas Business Analyst/Subject Ma...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: eurogloom, Ed in Red and Cameron's Wilsonian U-turn on control orders

John Rentoul
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering