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Friday, March 23, 2012

Bowing out with a farewell of great expectation


LOS ANGELES — What was most amazing to Westerners at least -and perhaps, especially, to the Chinese people — was that his comments were broadcast live on official China TV. After all, his official observations weren't exactly pretty. Here is the back-story.

In every historical movement and moment, there are good guys and bad. But they often come to us in shades of gray, making it difficult to sort them out. That is precisely the case with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

After all, for years he has been nothing less than the No. 2 (behind impassive-faced President Hu Jintao) of a regime rated, certainly by the West, as relentlessly repressive and suspiciously corrupt. And he has been in office long enough to speak out forcefully long before this parting shot as he was stepping down.

Even so, in many places — including Hong Kong and on the mainland as well — they tend to call him Uncle Wen, often with genuine affection. Misplaced or not, that is the political image he has carefully and successfully cultivated.

And there is good reason for his public relations successes: No one at the top of either the Communist Party or the government of China has seemed more in tune than Uncle Wen with the anxieties of the Chinese people — especially their need for reassurance that top leaders really do know (and care) about what is happening in the lives of regular folk down below.

Uncle Wen's latest star-turn in the caring department came in his farewell address, as it were, to the National People's Congress.

China's legislature meets only a few days every year and is routinely dismissed by the Western media as "a rubber stamp parliament." That characterization is simplistic. At the very least, the NPC offers — like some huge annual U.S. corporate retreat — invaluable moments for group reflection and significant consensus building (though perhaps the gigantic get-together is not a whole lot of fun).

Uncle Wen used the NPC occasion to raise the issue of the pressing need to continue political reform. He even evoked fears of a return to a new dark "Cultural Revolution" if reform should slow down.

"Without successful political structural reform, it is impossible for us to fully institute economic structural reform and the gains we have made in this area may be lost," he said in the address that was on TV live to the nation. "New problems that have cropped up in Chinese society will not be fundamentally resolved and such a historical tragedy as the Cultural Revolution may happen again."

What he meant in invoking memories of that dark and horrible period (1966-76) in history — when then-leader Mao Zedong unleashed a torrent of internal finger-pointing and self-destruction — was that the current social stability cannot be taken for granted. For all the immensely impressive economic achievements, the development of China's polity has not kept pace in levels of effectiveness. As a result, China struggles with elemental contemporary issues and challenges, such as Internet access and web communication. Notably, other Chinese societies (Singapore comes to mind, Taiwan, too) have more or less successfully resolved them.

China's current leadership has begun the process of handing over the reins of power to the next generational level of ambitious and accomplished leaders. But lurking in the wings are conservatives who would turn the clock back to extreme central rule, in opposition to modernizers who insist China requires a more nuanced political system.

Just as in America, the changing of the guard takes time. There will be a lot of closed-door mystery meetings, though there are no political primaries, fundraising events and god-awful candidate "debates" to have to endure. And it may get messy.

Certainly the sacking of Bo Xilai, the prominent and charismatic party chief of Chongqing (a big city in southwestern China) was as dramatic as it can get. It looks like a classic purge, clearly in sequence with Wen's farewell warning.

China's political system features only one political party. It surely has internal and differing factions — how could a party in charge of 1.3 billion people not? But it is not quite yet the second coming of, say, Japan's octopus-like Liberal Democratic Party. There will be a changing of the top guard this fall. Uncle Wen's point is that unless the Communist Party of China reforms itself so that the government can reform itself — modernize, accept new ways, break with the past — the country will not be able to continue to move forward, and indeed might even slide backward.

There was no reason for Wen Jiabao to over-dramatize China's dilemma. Clearly he was not just crying uncle. His speech, whether cynical or sincere, may just prove the most important ever broadcast on China TV.

Professor Tom Plate, author of the "Giants of Asia" series, is the distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific studies at Loyola Marymount University and a visiting professor at United Arab Emirates University for the 2012 spring semester.


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