Bill Hurst on China 2007-2008: A Year in Review

Thu, September 25, 2008

While the Party Conference addressed some broad party issues and their ideological direction, the leadership primarily focused on who will succeed Hu Jintao. Starting with a description of the leadership succession, which is within its sixth generation, Dr. Hurst detailed the background of the nine party leaders in order while naming their factional allegiances. Though Hu Jintao wished for Li Kequiang to succeed him, the other factions disagreed and promoted another candidate. Eventually they reached a compromise with Xi Jinping, a member of the "Princeling" faction, which are known generally more for their corruption scandals and self-enrichment than political strength. Dr. Hurst believes this to be a sign of the Princeling rise within the party. In analysis, he concludes that the elite politics is not likely to produce major breakthroughs in policy, and there are no signals of a liberalization of mass politics or agenda. Interestingly, these developments created little attention internationally, which reflects a lack of attention and experience with foreign affairs of the newly appointed successors.

Dr. Hurst followed his discussion of party politics by examining the impact of the May 12th earthquake in Sichuan province, which killed over 70,000 including many children attending school. The reaction from the elites Dr. Hurst described as "shameful dithering" and caused them to look poorly publically, similar to the Republican lack of response to Hurricane Katrina. Victim's parents responded to the shoddy school construction through demonstrations calling for proper building codes, which could be a sign of civil society development that often occurs in the aftermath of tragedy. While many Chinese criticized the government's response, most foreign media were impressed by the Party's reaction, which Dr. Hurst believes is a sign that the foreign media are not paying close attention to Chinese politics.

The Olympic torch relay protests in London and Paris that almost brought the ceremony to an end and curtailed many routes through developing countries caused embarrassment and serious anger within the elites of China. Many felt surprised over their reaction or felt they might be engineered by complacent governments hostile to Chinese interests. However, few people in China were aware of these events or they felt similar outrage as the elites. Prior to the relay debacle, violent ethnic protests raged in Tibet, but they were quickly and firmly suppressed with little visible carnage. While most foreign countries felt sympathy for Tibet and did not approve of China's reaction, they reacted mildly probably due to the lack of bloodshed. This contributed to a sense of security within the elite and their ability preserve order. The repetition of ethnic protests prior to the opening of the Olympics and similar response only emboldened the elite more as well as increasing the anger and distrust the majority of Han Chinese already felt toward ethnic disturbances.

Dr. Hurst concluded with the Olympics, which he felt was mainly a positive event for China. It bolstered the confidence of the elite and increased the prestige of China in developing countries. Though he felt that the effect upon the majority of Chinese was probably less enthusiastic than expected from all the hype, overall the Olympics were a success. In conclusion, Dr. Hurst believes that the events of this year will not lead to significant changes within the Chinese government in the short term, but the ability for the party to sustain its power will start to weaken as China develops and more is expected from the government party by the Chinese people.

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