Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

'China Model' Loses Some of Its Luster

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

'China Model' Loses Some of Its Luster

Article excerpt

Chinese leaders are grappling with a range of uncertainties, from the leadership transition this year that has been marred by a seismic political scandal, to a slowdown of growth in the economy.

After the economies of Western nations unraveled in late 2008, Chinese leaders began boasting of their nation's supremacy. Talk spread, not just in China but also across the West, of the advantages of the so-called China model -- a vaguely defined combination of authoritarian politics and state-guided capitalism -- that was to be the guiding light for this century.

But now, with the political upheavals this year, and a growing number of influential voices demanding a resurrection of freer economic policies, it appears that the sense of triumphalism was, at best, premature, and perhaps seriously misguided. Chinese leaders are grappling with a range of uncertainties, from the once-a-decade leadership transition this year that has been marred by a seismic political scandal, to a slowdown of growth in an economy where deeply entrenched state-owned enterprises and their political patrons have hobbled market forces and private entrepreneurship.

"Many economic problems that we face are actually political problems in disguise, such as the nature of the economy, the nature of the ownership system in the country and groups of vested interests," said Zhang Ming, a political scientist at Renmin University in Beijing. "The problems are so serious that they have to be solved now and can no longer be put off."

That will not be easy. With fresh evidence emerging on Thursday that the Chinese economy is weakening, many economists argue that the government should loosen controls over the financial system, support lending to private businesses while reining in state-owned enterprises, allow more movement in exchange rates and interest rates, and improve social benefits. The rebalancing would curb the state's role, lessen corruption and encourage more competition. But executives of Chinese conglomerates, army generals, Politburo members, local officials and the "princeling" children of Communist Party elders have little incentive to refashion a system that fills their coffers.

Another significant aspect of the China model is the burgeoning security apparatus, whose heavy-handed tactics in pursuit of social stability have been called into question amid, among other things, more than 30 self-immolations by disaffected Tibetans and a diplomatic crisis between China and the United States precipitated by the plight of the persecuted dissident, Chen Guangcheng. A well- documented uprising last winter against corrupt officials in the southern village of Wukan ignited a debate about how protests should be addressed: by the sword of the security forces, or through mediation by senior officials.

But it is the scandal over Bo Xilai, a member of the party's elite Politburo, that has most humbled those who previously praised the well-oiled nature of China's political system and its appearance of unity.

Many political observers say that well before the charismatic Mr. Bo was sacked from his party chief post in Chongqing, he had already been viewed as an increasingly intolerable maverick by other leaders. After arriving in Chongqing in late 2007, Mr. Bo very publicly began an anti-crime crackdown and a revival of Mao-era sing- alongs, aimed at generating populist backing and winning political support from the "new left," or hard-core socialists, for his bid to join the top level Politburo Standing Committee, which is scheduled to turn over this year.

Mr. Bo's bid veered sharply from the traditional route of ascension, which, since the era of Deng Xiaoping has been one of backroom patronage and shadowy negotiations among party elders. The problem now in China is that the powers of those elders have diminished with each generation -- the current president and party chief, Hu Jintao, is weaker than his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who was much weaker than Mr. …

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