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The illusion of change in China


At the NY Review Daily, Ian Johnson examines the highly touted “reforms”—economic, political, legal—of Chinese president Xi Jinping, which many in the West believed would lead to liberalization in China. Instead, Johnson suggests that these reforms are just “technocratic tinkering” that serves to consolidate the power of the Communist Party over most spheres of Chinese life. Here’s an excerpt:

Xi Jinping is often described as China’s most powerful leader in decades, perhaps even since Mao. He has been credited—if sometimes grudgingly—with pursuing a vigorous foreign policy, economic reforms, and a historic crackdown on corruption.

But as Xi completes his third year in office this month, this judgment seems increasingly mistaken, with China trapped by the same taboos that limited Xi’s predecessors. At heart this means a one-party state unwilling to retreat from the commanding heights of the country’s economic, political, and social life. The only area where the government has shown real creativity has been in coming up with new ways of legitimizing its rule—diversions from the real issues facing the country…

But rather than significant innovation, Xi’s overriding goal seems to be preserving the ossified system he inherited when he came to power in 2012. Fundamentally this means state control over most of the economy and society. The state dominates the most important industrial sectors, especially heavy industry and natural resources. The state controls political life and permits no meaningful dissent. The state guides social life. It allows non-governmental organizations but only as providers of services, not as advocates of social change. The idea of a vibrant, critical civil society is unacceptable. As technological innovations arise, for example in social media, free zones may appear, but the state will do everything in its power to close these down.