Chinese Reform is Doomed to Fail

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Friday January 16, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Xi Jinping's anticorruption campaign in China has been going full swing since 2012; and it certainly is not a case of killing chickens to scare the monkeys. Many are pleased to see that Xi is swatting tigers as well as flies, but despite that, and despite Xi's promise that this is not temporary, it will fail. This is not what most citizens in China wish to hear and it is also not what many outside China wish to hear, but the campaign will nonetheless fail.

Some will suggest that China is a country where show is what mainly counts. True, but what Xi is doing goes far beyond acting just for show. He has also made it a point to repeat that the party and the country's fate have been put in the hands of the current government. What he says is true, but this is precisely where the conflict and contradiction revolve, and it will not change the outcome.

Others will counter that Xi has posted significant moves including expelling former Guangzhouparty head Wan Qinliang, jailing former Chiese National Development and Reform Commission deputy head Liu Tienan, and deposing former Central Military Commission vice chairman Xu Caihou. Likewise statistics show that many other figures, local and national, have been brought down, but the fact remains that this will only be temporary.

Leave aside for the moment human nature and other potential accusations such as that Xi is doing this as a ploy to eliminate his competitors and enemies, a tactic that Mao Zedong had often used. Leave aside also the difficulty in explaining that many of Xi's entourage on his trip to Tanzania, last year used the diplomatic privilege of that trip to smuggle back a large amount of illegal ivory. The reasons that Xi's reforms will fail, go deeper and are more basic to China. And it is here that Taiwan ironically demonstrates the counterpoint.

Start with the fact that China is a one-party state and one-party states by nature lack the needed checks and balances that guard against corruption regardless of who is in charge. China does not have rule of law, transparency or the freedom of the press, all of which are crucial in any fight against corruption. Can a one-party state reform itself? Philosophically yes perhaps, but psychologically and realistically no!

Size compounds this problem; the larger a one-party state is, the greater its chances of corruption increase and proportionately the chances of any lasting reform decrease. China has all that in spades. One is staggered by the example of how even a Kimren Group representative specializing in gambling tours to Macau was able to make off with over US$ 1 billion dollars, an amount larger than any executive of Enron was ever able to pocket.

In addition, China is a one-party state with a dynastic history, tradition and identity. In 1911, China technically threw off dynastic rule and quickly descended into the period of warlords and civil war. This ended in 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) claimed to have created a single party socialist state.

In this state, to remain the leader of the parade, Mao jockeyed with experiments and threw out many of the "olds." These were quickly brought back after his death when both the capitalist cat proved to be a better mouse catcher and the dynastic bent CCP needed the Confucian "worship of an unchanging hierarchy" to legitimize and maintain its position. It is amazing how many Confucius Institutes have been opened worldwide in the past decade.

In the end, China has returned to a revamped dynastic rule with its new "Bling Dynasty," where outcast landlords have been simply replaced by business and manufacturing tycoons. This supposed socialist state now ranks second among all of the countries of the world with the largest number both of millionaires and of billionaires. Yet in contrast the 2012 average annual income of urban families was US$2,600 and US$1,300 for rural families. This wealth gap has not significantly and proportionately changed from Qing Dynasty days.

Now as China's GDP continues to slow down and unemployment rises, instead of being socialism with Chinese characteristics, the Middle Kingdom is Animal Farm with Chinese characteristics.

Xi no doubt recognizes this but he is caught. How can he change things if Mao could not? Does anyone remember when Mao set about rooting out prostitution - that decadent western vice - from China?

This is not to deny that there might be more than a million idealistic reformers and others in China bent on change, but what are they in the face of a billion people who live in a one-party state that cannot come to terms with its past? This is a country that still needs to selectively talk about the past and its unequal treaties of the 19th Century while it ignores its own unequal treaties with Tibet and its impositions on Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang. Germany has come to terms with Hitler, Russia with Stalin, Japan with its militarists but China still does not dare touch Mao.

A revolution the size of the Cultural Revolution is needed but who will lead it in this one-party state and who could stomach going through that again? The final problem of this conflict is that lacking revisionist historians, the country and its people remain bound to the classic Myth of the Eternal Return. They long for a glorious mythic past age, in which all countries around China desire to be vassal states to a benevolent Middle Kingdom.

Unable to come to terms with its past, China and Xi will not be able to come to terms with the present and so sacrifice the privileged entitlement of the Bling dynasty. Even the world would hope China can reform because corporations have grown tired of paying bribes to do business there while they still seek the cheap manufacturing China provides.

Taiwan remains the ironic counterpoint, a beacon that China could look to but ignores. This does not mean that Taiwan is corruption free, but as a prosperous mid-sized nation, it has been able to cast off a Leninist based one-party state to more adequately get at the roots of its problems. Further, the nation cast off a one-party state that came from China and had tried to Sinicize Taiwan.

China could learn from Taiwan but it won't. That is near impossible. It is near impossible for many reasons including the psychological fact that in China's eyes Taiwan should instead graciously accept its role as part of the Middle Kingdom if not being a vassal state. To learn from Taiwan would also mean that China would have to give up the myth of the eternal return - a myth that Taiwan by the way does not share. That alone is asking too much; it would be easier for China to accept that Xi's reforms will fail.