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Wu Guoguang: Xi Jinping’s Reversal of the Course, Will China’s Transition be Peaceful or Marked with Bloodshed?

{Editor’s Note: Wu Guoguang is presently a Senior Research Scholar at Stanford University, affiliated with the Stanford Center on China’s Economy and Institutions (SCCEI). In the 1980’s Wu worked for the Chinese Communist Party’s general secretary, Zhao Ziyang. In a recent interview with Voice of America, Wu discussed how China’s reform and opening-up policies have been reversed under Xi Jinping’s leadership, toward a more rigid and inflexible system making the possibility of a “brittle fracture” a likely outcome. In contrast, he identifies the 2022 white paper movement as a uniquely passive resistance style that may lend an element of resilience, reducing the “brittleness”. The following is the full-text translation of the original Chinese article.[1]}


Wu Guoguang: Xi Jinping’s Reversal of the Course, Will China’s Transition be Peaceful or Marked with Bloodshed?

China’s leadership claims to insist on deepening reforms, vowing that the nation’s door will only open wider to the outside world. Choosing the Chinese market presents an opportunity rather than a risk. However, experts argue that China’s reform and opening up has long since concluded, and that Xi Jinping has reversed the course. The regime now exhibits reduced flexibility for further reforms. Wu Guoguang, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Center on China’s Economy and Institutions, highlights the growing likelihood of a brittle fracture within the rigid ruling system. He suggests that, the question of how to alter China’s political trajectory, should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind, whether actively or passively involved in politics.

Reforms of the 1980s Momentary Political Schisms Are Fleeting

In 1986, Wu Guoguang joined the Political Reform Research Group of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CCP), where he played a pivotal role in researching and formulating political reform policies both before and after the 13th National Congress of the CCP. Working under the leadership of Zhao Ziyang and director Bao Tong, Wu was one of the authors responsible for drafting the political reform section of the report presented at the 13th CCP National Congress. Additionally, he contributed to the drafting of several significant speeches for the then-Premier Zhao Ziyang, including the historic May 13th Speech of 1987.

The political reforms championed by Zhao Ziyang in 1986 and 1987 ushered in a more relaxed political climate, and certain measures from the reform program began to materialize. These included the separation of party and government in enterprises and universities, the establishment of a civil service system, the abolition of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, and the introduction of competitive elections, among others. However, in 1989, students demanded further curbing of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) power and called for the public’s right to participate in the nation’s political decision-making process. Deng Xiaoping, believing that such demands would threaten the CCP’s one-party rule, deemed them unacceptable, leading to the tragic crackdown on the student-led democracy movement in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.

In an exclusive interview with Voice of America, Wu remarked that the Chinese leadership’s neurotic, delusional, and paranoid grip on power forcefully shut down any nascent opportunity for political reform.

Wu recounted a poignant remark made by Zhao Ziyang at the time, one that elicited a sense of irony among those present. Zhao had stated, “We have always claimed that the bourgeoisie practices a facade of democracy, but I now see that their supposed ‘fake democracy’ is quite real, while our purported ‘real democracy’ is highly questionable.”

In the aftermath of the June 4th crackdown, China’s economic development faced a severe downturn. To reinvigorate the nation’s trajectory, Deng Xiaoping hastily embarked on his Southern Tour, deemed the “Second Reform.” During this tour, the Chinese Communist regime encouraged citizens to prioritize wealth accumulation through silence, effectively discouraging dissent. Simultaneously, the importance of opening up to the outside world was underscored, as the regime sought to attract foreign capital and capitalize on the burgeoning trend of globalization.

However, Wu highlighted that after China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, the emphasis shifted towards touting the “China model.” This marked the conclusion of reforms, and the subsequent decade became an era of reaping the dividends of those earlier reforms.

Xi Jinping Reversal

Since Xi Jinping assumed power, he has been emphasizing reform and opening up, including proposing during this year’s National People’s Congress that “we must unwaveringly deepen reform and opening up, and profoundly transform the development mode.” However, Wu contended that after Xi Jinping came to power, the era of reaping the dividends of reform had also ended. That China had entered a period of regression.

Wu stated, “From 2001 to 2012, for about a decade, China reaped the dividends of the reforms implemented in previous decades. After joining the WTO, China did experience rapid economic development. However, did it genuinely undertake new reforms in line with the WTO’s requirements and overhaul its institutions accordingly? The efforts were minor, akin to a small skirmish. As for enacting certain laws, which country doesn’t legislate on a daily basis? That cannot be called reform. Consequently, when Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012, the dividend era had ended, and China entered a phase of regression or reversal.”

Wu Guoguang stated that Xi Jinping intends to revert to Mao’s era because he perceives that the marketization of the economy brings a certain degree of social pluralism, including a certain degree of marketization of ideas and public opinion, which are incompatible with and pose a threat to the Communist Party’s one-party dictatorship and political arrangement. Therefore, he can only resort to Mao’s approach. However, the problem is that Mao’s political approach cannot coexist with a market economy. Consequently, Xi Jinping now faces the challenge of employing Mao’s approach while still utilizing a market economy without strangling it to death and still managing to create some wealth. It’s evident that he is constantly torn between the economy and ideology.

However, Wu Guoguang stated that the interests formed during the reform and opening up period still persist. Whether the powerful and wealthy or the general public, they will instinctively resist and undermine attempts to revert entirely to the Mao era. It is difficult for China to truly go back to that era completely.

The Possibility of A Brittle Fracture in the CCP’s Rigid Rule

In recent years, the Chinese government has further tightened its control over speech and social space. Drawing from the so-called “Fengqiao Experience,” it has utilized the Internet to reinforce information and control of discourse. Additionally, by strengthening stability maintenance mechanisms, it aims to uphold the legitimacy of CCP rule.

Wu Guoguang stated that this formula of legitimacy is unsustainable because it is entirely false legitimacy, ultimately relying on violence. When the economy deteriorates and the government lacks sufficient financial resources to sustain this enormous repressive apparatus, brittle fractures may occur, akin to the bloody revolution sparked by Li Zicheng’s uprising at the end of the Ming Dynasty.

He stated: “We all know that at the end of the Ming Dynasty, Li Zicheng was also part of the government sector, but at the very margins, just like today’s auxiliary police. As there is an insufficient number of police in China, they have hired a large number of auxiliary officers. These auxiliary officers were told to work at any time but could also be fired at any moment. Now, China has begun to enter a stage where it cannot pay salaries for the auxiliary police and is dismissing them. If a figure like Li Zicheng emerges from these dismissed auxiliary officers, the situation may resemble the end of the Ming Dynasty. Of course, this has not happened yet. Overall, I think the problem is that such a monopolization of power by one party, and further by one individual, is unsustainable by common sense.”

So, will a liberal figure akin to Zhao Ziyang once again emerge from within the Chinese system to restart the path of reform? Wu Guoguang emphatically states no!

He stated, “In fact, every CCP politician is also highly adept at learning. Learning what? Learning how to seize power and secure their hold on it. They have witnessed what happened to Gorbachev, and they have seen the fates of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. I don’t think there will be another character like those individuals emerging.”

Wu Guoguang stated that this is not merely a personal issue; there is a profound institutional reason behind it. Whether during the Deng, Jiang, or Hu era, in the transition from the past totalitarian system to an authoritarian system, or the current reversal—a strengthening of the totalitarian system and a weakening of the authoritarian model—the fundamental characteristic of the entire system is the CCP’s absolute monopoly on power. One cannot raise questions or make comments, let alone offer challenges or criticisms. Such a system lacks the flexibility to change course, rendering it rigid and brittle.

If people neither wish to witness a brittle fracture or bloody violence, nor accept this rigid control, the only way to increase resilience is through resistance, as exemplified by the white paper movement that altered Xi Jinping’s dynamic zero-Covid policy. However, Wu added, the mere desire to avoid a bloody revolution does not preclude the possibility of violence. How to change the trajectory of Chinese politics is a question that everyone, whether actively or passively involved in politics, should contemplate.

[1] Voice of America, “Wu Guoguang: Xi Jinping’s Reversal of the Course, Will China’s Transition be Peaceful or Marked with Bloodshed?” March 30, 2024.