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Experts lecture on Chinese politics, economy and future

By Raquel Kallas
On April 24, 2012

Dr. Cheng Li, an expert in Chinese politics, visited Brandeis last Tuesday to discuss the political future of China. Hosted by the International Journal, the panel was dubbed "China in 2012: What's Next" and also included a talk by Prof. Gary Jefferson (ECON), a specialist on China's economy. The event coincided with the release of the International Journal's latest issue and was funded by the Ellen Lasher Kaplan '64 and Robert Kaplan Endowment for Economic Growth.

Li is Director of Research on China at the Brookings Institution, a D.C.-based think tank dedicated to "[securing] a more open, safe, prosperous and cooperative international system," according to its website. He currently teaches at Hamilton College in New York, and has authored several books including China's Leaders: The New Generation and China's Changing Political Landscape: Prospects for Democracy.

Prof. Chandler Rosenberger (IGS) introduced Li, remarking that Li had turned down interviews from three different branches of BBC News in order to be at Brandeis that afternoon.

Li outlined the four major changes presently occurring within the Communist Party of China: one party with two coalitions, new generations with new identities, strong factions and weak leaders and political pluralism with policy deadlock. He noted that two-thirds of China's top leaders will soon be replaced due to mandatory retirement ages. This will result in new, young leaders filling the majority of government positions.

The two coalitions that Li discussed are the Populist (Tunapi officials) and the Elitist (Princeling officials). Together, they make up the CPC, but their ideologies and interests are different. However, they are essentially equal in power.

According to Li, the changes are "potentially the greatest upheaval of the CPC since Tienanmen Square in 1989."

He discussed the ongoing Bo Xilai scandal that is threatening the legitimacy of the current regime. Xilai and his wife are suspected of orchestrating the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, among other wrongdoings. Li called the scandal "a manifestation of the conflict between two factions [of Chinese government]."

Li summarized the current state of China using an airplane metaphor: "The pilot announced to his passengers that he has good news, and bad news. 'The good news,' he said, 'is that we are ahead of time, we are ahead of schedule. The bad news,' he said, 'is that we are lost.'" Connecting this to Chinese politics, he said that China was one of the first countries to recover from the global financial crisis, "but the political system does not accommodate the society and economy."

An additional change that Li mentioned is the dwindling of technocrats in Chinese government. He noted that while technocrats dominated the CPC in the 1990s, today's leaders are mostly specialists in non-scientific fields such as history, law and business.

In his conclusion, Li weighed the different possible political outcomes for China. He does not believe that there will be "resilient authoritarianism," nor "the collapse of China." Rather, he thinks that an "incremental transition to democracy is most likely."

In a follow-up email to the Justice, Rosenberger wrote, "There's no way to know what democratization in China would mean for US foreign policy. Social scientists have enough trouble understanding the present and the past; we should not be in the business of predicting the future."

Jefferson followed Li's political discussion with an interpretation of China's economy. He started off by agreeing with Li that "democracy is the solution." Jefferson then explained how the economic conditions that gave rise to political reform are just as powerful as the political reforms themselves.

Additionally, he noted that a transition in property rights is occurring today. Instead of state-owned, communist style properties across China, individuals are beginning to obtain their own estates. They are also now in position to choose their own jobs and lifestyles. Jefferson finished by reaffirming that the solution for China is a multiparty democratic system.

Audience members asked questions at the conclusion of the panel. Two questions directed at Li pertained to China's one child policy and female leaders. Li asserted that he believes there will be a rise of female leaders in China's future, as well as a relaxation of the one child policy, noting that "China will soon have a labor shortage." 

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