When Xi Jinping took over as the President of China 12 months ago, he was billed as a moderniser, a marked contrast to his stick-in-the-mud predecessor, Hu Jintao. So far, such expectations have not been met. Indeed, what little can be discerned from the congenitally opaque Chinese Communist Party suggests that the new leader has primarily spent his first year consolidating his position.
He has clamped down on local cadres with a “four dishes and a soup” campaign against excess and graft. Equally, although the downfall of Bo Xilai began before the new President took office, the sentence of life imprisonment for corruption handed down in September sends out a powerful message that the former high-flyer’s brand of rabble-rousing Maoist revivalism will not be tolerated. Meanwhile, extra restrictions on the bloggers who constitute the nearest China comes to public debate are squeezing the space for political criticism still further.
Mr Xi’s reforming zeal may be about to come to the fore, however. He has promised that the high-level party meeting which starts in Beijing today presages a “profound revolution”. There have even been hints that the so-called “Third Plenum” might be as momentous as the one in 1978 when Deng Xiaoping set in train the “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” that turned the country from a vast rural backwater to what will soon be the world’s largest economy.
There is no question that China is crying out for further reform. For all that its economic growth rate would still cause whoops of delight in the developed world, the 30-year boom initiated by Mr Deng is running out of steam. The reliance on infrastructure-building has left the Chinese economy over-indebted and dominated by exports, but restrictive rules are inhibiting the rise in domestic demand that is needed to take the place of state investment. Meanwhile, rampant corruption, dizzying disparities of wealth and growing outrage over everything from environmental pollution to food safety are adding to already dangerous social strains.
Much must change. Banking rules need to be rewritten to encourage consumer spending; the economy must be liberalised so that the renminbi can, ultimately, become fully convertible; the supremacy of sclerotic state-owned enterprises must be challenged. Perhaps most important of all, the hukou registration system – which restricts the rights of those born in the country but living in the town – is now as economically indefensible as it has always been politically. So, too, are the land laws forbidding rural dwellers from selling their property.
Among the innumerable difficulties attendant upon such radical changes, there are two that stand out. One is the array of powerful vested interests poised to fight their multitudinous corners. The second is trickier still. All the reforms that China needs require the Community Party to loosen its grip, but that grip is central to its existence. The contradiction is an irreconcilable one. Yet to retain the status quo promises only slowing economic growth, and the social unrest it will precipitate.
For all the hype, it might be unwise to expect too much this weekend; both the complexity of the challenge and the character of the CCP betoken the softest of softly-softly approaches. That said, the full significance of the 1978 Third Plenum became apparent long afterwards. For all who would see a richer, freer China, we can only hope the same is true of this one.