Chinese politics is fun again. The Palace—or Zhongnanhai in this case—hasn’t been rife with this much intrigue since Mao Zedong’s time. The apparent attempted defection and subsequent flight to Beijing of Chongqing deputy mayor Wang Lijun has China historians reminiscing about one-time Mao successor Lin Biao. The analogy isn’t really that precise of course. Lin reportedly died in 1971 in a mysterious plane crash over Mongolia after purportedly leading a failed coup attempt against Mao. At most the mystery surrounding Wang has to do with whether he will be the downfall of his boss Bo Xilai, the powerful Chongqing Party Secretary and Politburo Standing Committee wannabe. But like the Lin Biao drama, the Wang saga is unfolding in a dark and secretive manner that has all the makings of a le Carré novel.
Politics is perhaps not as much fun, but is ever more potent at the grassroots level. There are almost 500 protests every day, and courtesy of the Internet, many of them now are visible to Chinese throughout the rest of the county as well as to the rest of the world. There is no single issue that unites these protests except perhaps poor governance. But everyone—farmers, workers, the middle class, Tibetans, and Uighurs—has something he or she wants changed, and their faces say it all.
While intrigue and unrest claim the headlines, politics is perhaps most interesting where it is least visible. As scholars and thinkers anticipate this year’s leadership transition, they are churning out ideas for the fifth generation in the hopes that real change may be just a leader away. In January, Tsinghua University professor Sun Liping released a report claiming that gradual reform was encouraging institutions to harden and powerful vested interests to take hold. He called for China to take four steps, including “moving in the direction of the mainstream world civilization, which has as its core values: freedom, rationality, individual rights, market economics, democratic politics and rule of law.” A commentary in People’s Daily that followed in late February, appeared to pick up on Sun’s points, arguing, “Reform is risk, but not reforming is risky for the Party… A party that has governed for a long time will be very cautious of anything that might hurt its political base in the short term and so resist change that could affect the development of some special interests.” Quoting Hu Jintao, the article stated: “Don’t miss the opportunity to make reforms in key areas and key links, continue to pursue reforms and innovations in the economic system, the political system, the cultural system, and the social system.” Meanwhile, on the economic front, the State Council’s Development Research Center joined forces with the World Bank to push for reform of the country’s massive system of state-owned enterprises in order to open the economy to real competition and entrepreneurship. Now all Beijing needs is a twenty-first century Zhu Rongji to ram such a reform through.
The fifth generation of Chinese leaders has offered little indication of its policy preferences, and for the first year, the new leaders will likely be consumed simply with consolidating power and ensuring that all the high-speed trains run on time and without mishap. Still, few Chinese appear to believe that their country can thrive or even survive if it remains as Pei Minxin described in 2006, “trapped in transition.” The drumbeat for change is loud and only going to get louder as China’s next generation of leaders take their place behind the walls of Zhongnanhai.