Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era: New Leaders, New Challenges, by Willy Wo-Lap Lam. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 2006. xvi + 359 pp. US$82.95 (hardcover), US$29.95 (paperback).
For the last 20 years, the China-watching community has been deeply indebted to Hong Kong-based journalist Willy Wo-Lap Lam for his detailed accounts of Chinese politics. Few other writers can offer such accessible and well-synthesised views of the totality of Chinese politics. Such grand narratives used to be found in the academy, but for various reasons they have migrated out of there, yet they remain essential not just for teaching but also for thinking about the politics of China. We cannot understand the parts without understanding the whole, and Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era is Lam's latest installment of a holistic view of Chinese politics. As usual, we should be grateful for its appearance.
Lam begs forgiveness in the front matter for feeling "somewhat put off by the sense oî plus ça change" (xv) that the era of Hu Jintao has evoked in him. So, too, readers who have read his earlier books should be forgiven for feeling the same about the book itself. Lam has a certain formulaic approach to Chinese politics that can be constantly refitted to the latest facts-the scourge of regionalism, the resurgence of Maoism, the persistence of factions, the intractability of political reform-all peppered with a steady array of Orientalist terms (perfectly translatable Chinese words rendered instead in their Romanized pinyin original) in order to give the sense of inscrutability. But this approach is perfectly suited, even welcome, for a fast-changing country like China, precisely because it points to persisting issues and modes of thought. There is something comforting about picking up a Willy Lam book, a little like curling up with the latest Harry Potter novel.
So what happens in this one? Hu Jintao's Communist Youth League Faction comes to power by trouncing the Shanghai Faction associated with outgoing party leader Jiang Zemin. It quickly enacts policies to reverse what the regime sees as a slide to a crisis of legitimacy. Premier Wen Jiabao, though not a factionalist, signs up for many of these new changes, which reflect more generational than factional proclivities. Public policy-making is to be more "scientific" (for which read non-ideological) while growth is to be more "sustainable" (for which read regulated). The elitist provisions of Jiang's Three Represents ideology are downplayed in favor of something more populist. In particular, Hu and Wen want to reconcile the majority to party rule by making development serve their interests. Society is to become more "harmonious". However, the model is envisioned in terms of top-down controls, not bottom-up empowerment, so signs of its effectiveness are weak. Hu provides ample material for political reformers inside and outside the party to launch democratizing initiatives, but the Party center does not provide backing for such initiatives, so reformers continue to live in a risky no-man'sland of uncertainty about the center's true intentions. Hu may tinker with the political system but he is no Chiang Ching-kuo. …