October 25, 2017 / 10:24 AM / a year ago

Breakingviews - China’s autocracy puts end to reform illusions

Military band members react after the closing session of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing, China October 24, 2017. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

BEIJING (Reuters Breakingviews) - As China’s Communist Party tightens its grip, Western hopes that rising incomes would produce more economic and political opening look like wishful thinking. For foreigners this “new era” means more risk emanating from the People’s Republic.

President Xi Jinping further consolidated his personal power during this week’s party congress, as the CCP turns back toward more autocratic government. For Westerners who argued that engagement was preferable to containment, it marks a galling moment. China has not changed politically the way liberals argued it had to, nor has its economy collapsed the way some predicted it would, absent deeper reform. Those left standing are hawks who argue that China’s model works, and is a threat. To them, letting China into the World Trade Organization in 2001 was an historic mistake.

At that time, advocates of inclusion argued it would set off a virtuous cycle of reform and wealth creation. As money trickled into the pockets of the middle class, those citizens would inevitably demand, and receive, more political freedoms. For a while, that was exactly what happened. Society opened up, the private sector revived, and foreign investment poured in. Nearly 300 million Chinese people emerged from poverty in the 1980s and 1990s.

In retrospect there was nothing inevitable about it. Reform depended heavily on the political will of reformist leaders like Premier Zhu Rongji. But the party’s willingness to keep taking tough economic medicine faded over time. China’s list of unmet WTO commitments remains long.

The middle class seems indifferent. Reports on Chinese college students abroad focus on their nationalism, their defence of their government, and their disdain for dissidents. Popular protests focus on local concerns like pollution or fraud, not votes or free speech.

China’s economic imbalances will probably force a future day of reckoning. But as far as Xi is concerned, the current political and economic controls in place are necessary for Party supremacy, even if they hurt competitiveness, or foreign relations. The rest of the world can like this, or not, but whatever the doubts about its viability, a disruptive China looks like part of the new status quo.


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