By Amitai Etzioni, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Amitai Etzioni is professor of international relations and director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University. The views expressed are his own.
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.
But while others attending the forum were more wary of change, they still noted the large number of sometimes violent street protests that have been taking place in China (officials and analysts estimate that between 200 and 500 protests occur every day) and suggested that unless such demonstration could be absorbed by new political channels, including voting, they could ultimately undermine the government.
It’s true, some argued, that a number of these demonstrations expressed nationalist or anti-Japanese sentiment, and that they have been tolerated or even encouraged by the government as a way of allowing the people to let off steam and provide those opposed to the regime with an alternative target. However, most protests have been aimed at land grabs by officials, corruption, and appalling working conditions. The consensus at the forum was that the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s apex decision making body, understands this and can no longer delay developing a response – especially with Chinese having greater access to information through the internet and social media.
Interestingly, though, a recent Pew Global Attitudes poll suggests Chinese are broadly satisfied with their person circumstances, with 70 percent surveyed saying they were better off financially than they were five years ago. However, about half also said they were concerned about issues such as corruption and food safety.
So what change did participants expect to see? No one expected Western-style elections for national government. However, 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.
What counts as “local”? This question sparked some debate, with one participant suggesting local elections would only be allowed at the very lowest level – the village level – or perhaps groups of villages and towns.
Of course, the prospects for any change depend on the now seven-member Politburo Standing Committee. Xi Jinping may have been selected as president, but he can neither choose nor fire members, and membership of the committee changes according to the relative power of various factions. For example, the “populists” – those generally from less privileged families in the in-land provinces – have been gaining at the expense of the “princelings,” namely the well-off and high-ranking veterans of the revolution.
Another pertinent question is whether the new Standing Committee will have the authority, in the eyes of the public, to continue to steer the country. One American scholar I spoke with suggests such legitimacy could be based around traditional “Chinese values,” such as the celebration of achievement. He pointed out that it is increasingly difficult to become a member of the Communist Party (only an estimated one in every 3,900 applicants, by one estimate, now makes it in). Admission and promotion within the party, he said, are increasingly based on passing exams as well as evaluation by superiors and underlings. This development, he believes, encourages a meritocracy that by its nature has its own legitimacy.
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.