I was in China last week to take part in the Beijing Forum, an annual talkfest sponsored by Peking University and “approved” by the Chinese Education Ministry. The meetings I took part in were off the record, but the participants included the vice minister of education, the executive director of the Institute for China-U.S. People-to-People Exchange and an anchor of China Central TV station. And one thing was abundantly clear after these meetings – although reforms can be expected along with China’s just announced leadership changes, the anticipated changes certainly won’t herald a Western-style democracy.
Only one of the Chinese participants who spoke at the forum expected notable change, arguing that further economic development requires political liberalization that will allow for the free exchange of ideas and thus, innovation. So what change did participants expect to see? The Chinese participants did expect polls at the local level, a potential development made more likely by the fact that much of the frustration felt by the Chinese public appears to be aimed at officials at the local level.
During a break in the forum, I asked other delegates why no one was discussing curbing corruption. The reason, I was told, is that corruption is so endemic that no one has a realistic chance of tackling it anytime soon. Political leaders ritualistically rail against it, as they did during the Congress, but little progress seems to be made.
Whether the new leadership will be able to formulate an effective response to key issues of public concern such as corruption remains to be seen. But in the meantime, those hoping for groundbreaking political reform look destined to be disappointed.