TCS Daily

Old Suits, New Style

By Alexander Monro - December 8, 2003 12:00 AM

The Chinese government has in recent years chosen to fight for legitimacy by ensuring economic growth. While few within the administration would privately profess truly Communist leanings, none openly advocates multi-party democracy, the rule of law or the separation of powers. It is their hope that illiberal politics will be forgiven in the face of rising wealth.

With this in mind the style of China's new wave of leaders appears well-calculated. Both President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are men who have opted for a low-profile approach. Xinhua news continues to prescribe coverage-time according to political rank, yet the new leaders seem positively camera-shy compared with the showy ex-President Jiang Zemin, who retains his position as head of the Central Military Commission but seems nevertheless to be gradually losing a grip on power.


In a recent trip Hu met with doctors and nurses in Inner Mongolia to talk to them about SARS. While there he also sat down for tea in a herdsman's tent despite freezing conditions. More impressive still was his frugality -- he spent only 30 yuan (about $2.50) on two days of meals.


This new populism sits in stark contrast to the lavish showmanship of Jiang. For all the novelty, though, it could simply be a question of style. Hu himself was formerly governor of the "Tibetan Autonomous Region." In 1986 he imposed martial law in reply to demonstrations against the government. The success of his campaign has been viewed by analysts as a model for the infamous 1989 impasse, referred to by government officials simply as "the incident". Moreover, Hu's CCP-loyalty in 1986 was viewed in government circles as proof of his party credentials and doubtless contributed to the popularity of his candidacy with party bigwigs.


Yet such a reading ignores the importance of style. Both Wen and Hu prefer subtle manipulation to open conflict. Wen was in tow when the "dissident" Premier Zhao Ziyang spoke to the students massed in Tiananmen in 1989. Zhao has been under house-arrest ever since but Wen's political career has now landed him the premiership.


Wen has also dealt adroitly with a number of crises and half-crises, including the Hong Kong demonstrations, tensions with North Korea, the SARS epidemic (eventually) and the recent trans-Pacific quibbles over the level of the Dollar-RMB fixed exchange rate. The thorny issue of Taiwan and the level of government debt may be his greatest tests yet.


But combine his diplomatic aptitude with Wen's unpretentious populism and you have a highly dynamic political operation.


Wen's mandate as premier includes trade relations and it is likely that this will be the real acid-test of his ability. Whereas predecessors had to offer lucrative deals to encourage investment, Wen finds himself with a strong hand. Chinese FDI recently overtook that of the US and the combination of cheap production costs and a cheap currency is bringing a boom in exports. Tourism is also benefiting, with China forecast to overtake France as the number-one tourist destination worldwide.


Companies report that Wen is not welcoming them unconditionally, although he is listening. The West wants to see tougher laws on intellectual property, for example, and Wen is reportedly receptive to its pleas.


The new style is a far more effective means for China to realize the status and power that so many view as her eventual destiny. It is likely that Wen is a greater public asset that Hu, who can appear a little stony-faced at the best of times. Wen's flair for diplomacy should see China emerge as a more reasonable global player.


But she is likely to leave major world disputes well alone. Aware that her own political ideology is viewed abroad as, in the words of Bill Clinton, "on the wrong side of history," Beijing fears too much attention focusing in on its own system. For the West it will be key to capitalize on this fear, as few want to see a Chinese approach to international affairs, least of all to the rights of government.


Waning Popularity


Sitting in Mongol tents and spending less on dinner than the global poverty indicator may be sending the right signals to the Chinese people, but the lower profile also reflects government awareness of its own waning popularity. Beijing taxi drivers, as talkative and opinionated as their profession is noted for the world over, are philosophical about Chinese politics.


"They are all the same. They just love power. But the new ones are better," one tells me. Another expresses nostalgic admiration for the much-beloved Zhou Enlai (described by one driver to a friend of mine as "the closest there is to God") Wen Jiabao is also liked, though most dislike Jiang Zemin, both for his style and for his focus on the US. Jiang and his hardline Premier, Li Peng, are the butt of most of the topical jokes in Beijing universities.


All of which means that whilst Beijing continues to capitalize on the strong patriotism felt by the majority of its 1.3 billion people, it must also seek to prove it is truly people-focused.


Again, Wen is the man for the job. He has spent very little time abroad and has avoided the endless diplomatic round that characterized the Jiang administration. His 20s and 30s were spent in rural Gansu province before he was promoted to positions in Beijing. He has seen China's poverty first-hand, having visited 118 of the country's counties. In a recent interview with the Washington Post he emphasized the importance of "coordinated development" in dealing with the wealth imbalance between the country's East and West. He then gave the analogy of a man with legs of different length being unable to make fast progress.


There can be little doubt that with the new style comes a very modern agenda. In the same interview Wen also stressed the need to deal with the issue of non-performing loans. He went on to comment that "We are definitely going to accelerate reform of the financial and banking sector and while we do so we'll explore how to form a rational mechanism in which the value of the Renminbi will fluctuate on the basis of market conditions." He talked of increasing democracy (albeit within the one-party system), so as to increase checks on government, and of legal reform. He seemed to even hint at the rule of law, though that must be some way off yet.


The new style is good news for the West. The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party may still have terrible taste in suits, and especially ties, but their public images and public statements are less ideological and more pragmatic than ever. They are in every sense the natural heirs of Deng Xiaoping and his well-worn formula that the government must "seek truth from facts." The new style means more common ground between the Chinese regime and those Western countries who engage it.


But the new style should also set alarm bells chiming. Whereas the Jiang approach seemed to accept US global hegemony as a given, the new wave of leaders have already shown themselves to be far more confident of China's rising status.


What is clear is that, for the Chinese administration, the new style is symptomatic of a sea change. China continues to seek recognition in the world. The difference now is that she also expects it.


Alexander Monro is a TCS contributor based in China.

TCS Daily Archives