The Challenge for Beijing's New Leaders: Chinese No Longer Bow to Autocratic Rule

By Bernhard Zand in Beijing

The time of autocratic rule has passed for China's Communist Party. At one time it was understood that the people would obey, and everyone would get rich in return. But economic success will no longer suffice. Now the Chinese are demanding freedom and security too.

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There wasn't a word to be found in China last week about the story that had splashed across headlines for several days everywhere else in the world. Not a single mention was afforded the $2.7 billion (€2 billion) that the New York Times reported has been amassed by the family of outgoing Prime Minister Wen Jiabao during his time in office.

But there was a brief blurb in the "Quotable" section on page two of the state-run China Daily News that quoted Ma Yun, chairman of the China's largest e-commerce company, the Alibaba Group, saying: "A person should never try to possess both money and political power. ... The two things, when brought together, are like detonating dynamite."

Ma was reportedly commenting on a book named after a 19th century business tycoon, if anyone wants to believe that. In reality, the quotation highlights how even journalists bullied by the state are finding ways to skirt censorship and speak the truth -- and get the last word in on a prime minister they have had to praise for 10 long years before he retires.

It also shows how difficult it will be for the new leadership to continue ruling China as its predecessors have done. On Nov. 8, two days after the United States presidential election, the 18th national congress of the Communist Party begins. The fourth generation, to which Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao belong, will be succeeded by the fifth generation of new Prime Minister Li Keqiang and President Xi Jinping.

According to the party's plan, the change of power will remain within the unspoken contract that Mao Zedong made with the people over 60 years ago, and his successor Deng Xiaoping rewrote 20 years ago: We rule, you obey -- and we'll all get rich together, some sooner than others. In 10 years the sixth generation will take over, and in 20 years, the seventh generation will do the same.

Chinese People Demand More

But the course of history is unlikely to take such a direct route. The tasks ahead of the new leadership are different than those that Wen and Hu faced. China's economic growth, though still impressive at 7 percent, is slowly plateauing, while the demands of the Chinese have increased with prosperity. But above all, the once clear-cut balance of power between the leadership and the people has changed. For decades it was the people who feared the government, but now it is increasingly the case that the government fears the people.

Last week, thousands protested construction on a petrochemical plant with suspect filtering facilities for four days in Ningbo, one of China's richest cities. It was just one of countless "mass incidents" that have taken place in recent years. But the local government did something that would not have happened 10 years ago -- they stopped construction and promised to reconsider the factory. The time of unfettered autocratic rule -- which inspired wonder among foreign investors and was silently envied by Western politicians -- is over. Ecologically questionable projects, in particular, have become more difficult today than in some democratic countries, Western businesses are now beginning to admit.

Policy of Prosperity

In their growing confidence, the Chinese who are out protesting on the streets or making use of microblogs aren't leaving out any of the problems their swiftly developing nation suffers: the questionable food safety, the poor working conditions in many companies, violence and abuse in day care centers, the oppression of ethnic minorities and even the corruption and arrogance of their leadership.

When Vice President and designated new President Xi Jinping disappeared from the public eye without explanation for two weeks in September, China's bloggers commented on his silence with the same sarcasm they had used to address Wen Jiabao's rich clan last week. The subtext of many posts is that China's leaders are insulting the intelligence of their people with their Kremlin-like attitude. When the new autocrats take their posts next week, they will face an environment that isn't nearly as accommodating as it once was.

There is much to suggest that they will stick to the principle that their predecessors have since reformist leader Deng Xiaoping began the biggest economic boom of all time: In the last 10 years alone, the gross domestic product (GDP) of the nation quintupled, while the number of those who exist on less than $2 a day has gone down by 20 percent -- that's more than 250 million people. Fighting poverty is an instrument of human rights policy, they argue, and it's difficult to disagree, at least according to this scale.

Suffering From a Lack of Rights

But in the next 10 years, China can no longer be ruled according to the primacy of economic growth that strangles all resistance. "Many Chinese have become rich in recent years," explains economist Hu Xingdou. "But those that are still poor suffer mainly from a lack of rights." While the fourth generation was preoccupied with ensuring stability, he points out, the fifth generation needs to address social justice, including the rights of farmers and unions, the freedom of assembly and freedom of expression, and the establishing of the rule of law.

Powered by exports and the extension of the national infrastructure, China's growth might be impressive, says Hu, but what matters now is individual consumer clout. This can only be boosted by supporting individuals rather than once again raising state quotas and printing yet more money.

"Even problems that appear to have purely economic roots can in reality only be solved by political means," says writer Zhang Yihe, whose father -- like China's designated new leader Xi -- was one of the founders of the People's Republic of China. This also applies to the ever-widening prosperity gap as well as rural expropriation conflicts and the corruption that reaches from provincial authorities all the way to the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the party's leading body.

'What's the Point of the Wealth We've Amassed?'

But economic progress was not just the goal of China's leadership -- it was the goal of the entire world. And as the apprehensive attitude of Europe and the US to Beijing's growth figures goes to show, it still is. But these days, some in China are now less concerned about further growth and more interested in its political dividends.

Writer Zhang says she's hoping to see the new leadership make some bold moves. The first would be to relax press censorship, she says, pointing to the example of Burma. It should also beef up the rights of minorities and then take a cue from Taiwan and give elections some careful consideration, she adds. But what she really hopes to see it do is take the unprecedented risk of admitting that the Tiananmen Square massacre was a mistake and compensating victims.

"That shouldn't be hard!" she says. "What's the point of the wealth we've amassed?"

As Bill Clinton liked to say: "It's the economy, stupid." It's a mantra that seems to hold universally true, but not necessarily in China, where perhaps people have started to tire of it.

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