Change will be carefully calibrated under Hu Jintao's successor, Xi Jinping, to ensure everything stays basically the same, writes Jamie Kenny. Part of our series of short contributions from figures on the left looking to the year ahead.
From Beijing’s point of view the question of reform has always been a simple one: what has to change for everything to stay basically the same?
Under Hu Jintao, the answer was ‘not much’. Hu was once described by a European politician as ‘the most boring man he ever met’ and his pronouncements about where China should be headed had an appropriately soporific quality: ‘a harmonious society’, ‘a moderately overall prosperous society’ guided by the principles of ‘scientific development’.
His successor Xi Jinping wants his people to have a more elevated perspective. Indeed, he has a ‘China Dream’, as state media relentlessly tell us. He also wants a ‘great renewal of the Chinese nation.’
Xi’s speech at his inauguration included an analysis of the causes of the Arab Spring revolts, which he put down, broadly, to stagnation; a problem which he then implied was also beginning to affect the Communist Party of China – he referred to it as a ‘calcium deficiency’. The Party had abandoned the substance of its ideology to drive thirty years of relentless economic growth. That job done, it shows signs of getting a bit too fat and happy, of luxuriating in its own privileges and becoming too obviously and grossly corrupt.
Part of Xi’s response ticked the standard modernising autocrat checklist: fewer, shorter meetings, less official banqueting, less pomp and circumstance all round.
Some of this seems to have stuck. But what really excited the public was the purge of the ‘mistress-industrial complex’ that followed hard on his coronation, when accounts, sometimes involving excruciating live video, of the sexual life of CPC cadres began surfacing across the Sinosphere.
It was a porn-reform double whammy, and an excellent choice of target: the combination of official corruption and mistresses (ernai in Chinese) is a classic ‘everything that’s wrong with China’ issue, a toxic stew of illicit money grabbing, gross exploitation and official impunity. Moreover, it had all come to light in the closely monitored environment of the Chinese internet.
This is a form of renewal: Xi’s people have the wit to grasp where the canker really gnaws for the public and the daring to use social media in a way that exposes the issue with the greatest impact. But that in no way means that the system is opening up.
Censorship in China – or more properly information management – has been described sometimes as a kind of hydraulic control. If water - ie information – is let into the system at one point, to maintain equilibrium, it has to be forced out elsewhere. So the use of social media to expose corrupt officials is entirely consistent with a number of other developments, including a strengthening of the Great Firewall separating the Sinosphere from the rest of the internet, aggressive censorship of liberal and reformist media, a compulsory real name system for all internet users and an influx of officials into China’s internet space, eager to offer bright and breezy accounts of how they are serving the people.
The Xi Jinping administration has apparently decided that it needs to occupy liberal and reforming space as a means of cutting out the dead wood from the Party. To control that space, it also needs to expel the independent skirmishers and sharpshooters who currently occupy it. This is the change that is needed to ensure that everything stays basically the same.
(Note: for a real time understanding of exactly what is censored and how in China, follow the @Mini _Truth twitterfeed).