China's Budding Politicians

Communists acting like they're running for office?

Something strange has been going on in the Middle Kingdom of late: Politicians have been behaving like, well, like politicians.

China has had quite the year of it; as the ancient Oriental curse has it, "May you live in interesting times."  And 2008 is only half over.

It started with more of a whimper than a bang, as hundreds of thousands of would-be vacationers were stranded in freezing train stations and city streets by an unprecedented blizzard.  This took place just in time for the Spring Festival, roughly the equivalent of America's Thanksgiving weekend, when pretty much the whole nation is on the road.

Wires snapped; roads closed; trains stopped, and the suffering began.  And went on, and on, for weeks and weeks, as the Chinese government demonstrated itself as utterly unprepared for a weather disaster as New Orleans was for Katrina.

Then something unexpected took place, as the International Herald Tribune reported:

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, the figure who excels at putting a human face on Chinese politics like none other these days, took the extraordinary step of flying to the southern city of Guangzhou to address a crowd of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who were desperate for seats on trains that weren't coming... He voiced an apology for the difficulties the stormy weather has imposed on so many. He actually said, "I apologize."

Nobody was surprised to see President Bush turn up in darkened Jackson Square promising better efforts and a full recovery from the Louisiana devastation.  After all, he is an elected president who answers to the voters, both personally and as the leader of the Republican party.  Wen Jiabao, however, is not: practically speaking, he answers only to the Communist party hierarchy, and more realistically, they answer to him.  He's not running for office in any democratic sense, he never has in his life, and he never will.

This is fast becoming a habit for Mr. Jiabao.  This week's massive earthquake finds him on the scene just as surely as any Western leader, as the Guardian reports:

The Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, flew to the scene, while thousands of troops and paramilitary police headed there after the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, ordered an "all out" rescue effort. State TV showed a clearly emotional Wen vowing not to waste a moment. At one point he was shown shouting into a hole: "Everyone hang in there. We're rescuing you."

We might almost expect to see him shaking hands and passing out "Jiabao for President!" buttons.  This sort of attention to the people is not exactly what Communist countries are famous for; generally quite the contrary.

But then, China is hardly a Communist country in the customary sense.  By definition, Communism calls for state control of the means of production.  However, as far back as Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s, the Chinese leadership has realized that "It doesn't matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice."  In other words, it's better to have a rich, growing, dynamic economy based at least somewhat on private enterprise than to be a true-blue Communist country like North Korea where everyone and everything is owned by the government, but there's nothing worth owning.

Particularly after Reagan spent the USSR into bankruptcy and failure at the end of the Cold War, China's communist leaders have decided that Job #1 is making sure the same fate doesn't befall them; ideology is a distant second at best.  Things have changed so much that entrepreneurs and independent businessmen - those devils of the bourgeoisie - are now allowed to be Communist Party members, and many have become so.

In yet more startling contrasts to standard Communist practice, the government is beginning to hold high officials accountable for corruption.  The Soviet Union was famous for churning out substandard products to ensure that the totally artificial quotas were reached - even if nobody wanted, or could use, whatever was produced.  In China, though, following scandals involving bribes to approve bogus drugs, the head of China's food and drug regulatory agency was executed.

Sure, Communist countries execute people all the time - but high party leaders?  For corruption?  In other words, execute a thieving, murderous bureaucrat who actually deserves a harsh punishment?

The protesters all around the world feel that China's government is oppressing the people of Tibet - and they're right, of course.  It will be a long time before China is recognized as a truly free country, if indeed that ever happens; but there's no doubt that China is changing.  For once a people gets a taste of freedom - economic, political, or social - and certainly once they see their leaders actually responding to their needs, they tend to want more.

China's masters have thus far steered an amazingly skillful path, allowing tremendous, world-changing economic growth while retaining most of their power.  In effect, they are settling for a somewhat smaller piece of a much, much larger and fast-growing pie.  Keep an eye on Wen Jiabao.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
Looks like the Economist, yet again, has a similar take to Scragged.
June 15, 2008 2:11 PM
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