Is Xi Jinping living up to the spirit of reform and opening up?

December 10, 2018 15:46
In quite a few areas, Xi Jinping appears to be dismantling Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, not implementing them. Photo: Reuters

Forty years ago this month, the Communist Party of China, led by Deng Xiaoping, issued a clarion call for reform. Deng, who had emerged as the country’s strongman two years after the death of Chairman Mao Zedong, warned the party faithful in an iconoclastic speech not to believe blindly but to “emancipate the mind” and “seek truth from facts”.

“Of course Comrade Mao was not infallible or free from shortcomings,” Deng declared days before the opening of the pivotal third plenum of the party’s 11th Central Committee on Dec. 18, 1978. “To demand that of any revolutionary leader would be inconsistent with Marxism.”

Mao himself dominated the People’s Republic of China from its founding in 1949 until his death in 1976 and launched many political campaigns that resulted in millions of deaths while paying little attention to economic development. 

China was one of the poorest countries in the world when Mao died. Today, 40 years after the party decided on the policy of reform and opening up, the country is the world’s second largest economy, already number one according to some measures.

The party’s decision to shift the emphasis of its work to “socialist modernization” in 1979 was made during the third plenum, which closed on Dec. 22. The aim was to transform China into a “great, modern socialist power”.

The party is preparing to celebrate the 40th anniversary in style, and its leader, Xi Jinping, is likely to deliver a major speech to mark the occasion during which he will pledge to continue to press forward with reform and opening up.

But is Xi Jinping really going to persevere on the path of reform and opening up that Deng inaugurated? Or is he instead moving in a different direction, while still holding up the old signboard?

It is clear that, in quite a few areas, Xi has been dismantling Deng’s reforms, not implementing them. Deng, who was repeatedly purged by Mao, saw the calamity that can be unleashed by untrammeled power. As a result, he put a great deal of emphasis on the creation of institutions and procedures to curb the emergence of another dictator like Mao.

Deng instituted such things as retirement ages, term limits and the separation of the party and the state to ensure that one individual would never again be able to gather so much power as to be virtually unaccountable.

In 1982, he oversaw the promulgation of a new state constitution, which explicitly stated that the president and the vice president “shall serve no more than two consecutive terms”.

A new party constitution promulgated the same year contained the provision, “The Party forbids all forms of personality cult.” Mao during his lifetime was worshipped as a god, with Red Guards chanting feverishly “Long live Chairman Mao!” when he reviewed them in Tiananmen Square during the Cultural Revolution. Deng did not wish anything like that to happen again.

But earlier this year, an amendment removed the provision on term limits for president and vice president. As to separation of the party and state, another amendment reads: “The defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics is the leadership of the Communist Party of China.”

But do those things mean that he would no longer push Deng’s reform and opening up policy? 

Not necessarily. But Xi seems to have de-emphasized economic reforms in favor of advocating a “China model” for other countries to emulate as an alternative to the western capitalist model. 

In the “China model”, state guidance rather than the market is responsible for economic growth and emphasis is given to state-owned enterprises rather than private businesses. This is certainly quite different from the thinking behind the original reform and opening up. 

In fact, although the private sector accounts for nearly two-thirds of the country’s growth, the government has favored state-owned enterprises, particularly where financing is concerned.

Recently, a new term has emerged, “competitive neutrality”, to suggest that private business and state-owned enterprises should receive equal treatment. We’ll have to see if that happens. 

In 2013 the party, with Xi presiding, pledged numerous economic reforms, including a “decisive role” for the market in allocation of resources. However, five years later, those pledges have not been fulfilled. 

Perhaps, to mark the 40th anniversary, Xi will make use of the occasion to finally carry out those promises and show that China will hew to the road of reform and opening up. If he doesn’t, he will give the impression that where reform is concerned, he is all talk and little action.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.