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Can Xi Cross the River by Feeling the Stones?

China’s most notable “change” in recent history dates back to 1978 when Deng Xiaoping ascended to power and initiated the “reform and opening up” policy. Deng, unsure of how to proceed, used an experiment famously known as "crossing the river by feeling the stones" (“摸着石头过河): partial reform composed of economic liberalization and political conservatism. Since then, China has been “feeling the stones” for more than 30 years.

In November 2012, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held its 18th Congress, China’s once-a-decade transition of leadership, culminating in the long-anticipated rise of Xi Jinping to the center stage of the CCP’s authoritarian hierarchy.

Ten years ago, people hyped “Hu-Wen’s New Deal,” hoping that Hu and Wen would lead the country out of the CCP’s political doldrums of relentless suppression and ever-tightening control epitomized by Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin. They were only disappointed. Today people are again talking about Xi Jinping’s “Political Reform.” However, in his farewell speech to the 18th Congress, Hu Jintao poured a heavy dose of cold water on Xi’s “Political Reform,” stressing that reforming the CCP “is neither to walk the old path that is closed and rigid, nor the evil way [the West’s capitalism and democracy] of changing the communist flag and banner.” Obviously, before leaving office, Hu decided to put a straitjacket on Xi to ensure he continued the CCP’s dominion.

The new Chinese Communist leaders, with each generational makeover, have been perceived as having not only better educational backgrounds but also broader international horizons. Due to this perception, the outside world has developed an illusion that the political system in China is getting more open-minded and will gradually gain the momentum needed to embrace democracy.

Sadly, be it the already past “Hu-Wen’s New Deal” or the future “Xi’s Political Reform,” they remain illusions generated by wishful thinking. The outside world may come to a different conclusion if it takes a closer look at how the transfer of power actually takes place within China and how the elderly Party bigwigs intervene in the political struggle within the CCP.

Deng Xiaoping, stained with the blood of the infamous Tiananmen Square Massacre, handed power over to Jiang Zemin. To protect their personal interests, Deng and the elderly comrades responsible for the tragedy made sure they held the CCP’s reins in their own hands. At all costs, they prohibited any attempt to reverse the verdict on the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Of course, as the direct beneficiary of the massacre, Jiang would not deviate from the will of the elderly comrades either. Jiang’s intense desire for supreme power only made him a worse tyrant.

Ten years after assuming the CCP crown, Jiang used the resources of the entire country to launch the brutal persecution of Falun Gong, a spiritual mind and body practice. Jiang was so jealous of Falun Gong’s popularity that he couldn’t even bear to see the words “Truthfulness-Compassion-Forbearance” – Falun Gong’s guiding principles. One time as he toured a temple, he saw the three characters inscribed on the temple’s brick wall. His temper erupted and he completely lost his composure. Jiang ordered the characters to be erased immediately.

When it was time to hand power over to his successor, Hu Jintao, Jiang deliberately increased the number of Politburo Standing Committee members from 7 to 9 to guarantee not only that his own faction would hold the majority, but also that the heads of both the Propaganda Department as well as the Politics and Law Committee, whose hands were similarly stained with the blood of tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners, would be included. Jiang had a single purpose in mind: to stymie any efforts that might lead to possible Falun Gong vindication and the exposure of his own guilt.

After Hu Jintao took office as the Party head in 2002, Jiang did not turn over the position of Chairman of the Central Military Commission to Hu until 2004. With the Jiang faction in control, Hu Jintao could do nothing to remedy the debt of the Tiananmen Square Massacre or stop Jiang’s persecution of Falun Gong. During his term, Hu further suppressed free speech, and blocked the Internet. He also remained silent when the judicial and law enforcement system, still under the control of Jiang’s faction, in the name of maintaining stability, intensified the repression of those people who were only defending their personal rights. For the 10 years under Hu, no “New Deal” materialized; instead, we witnessed a setback in the political system and a resurgence of the communist doctrine.

Now that the time has come for Hu Jintao to relinquish power to Xi Jinping, Hu won’t allow Xi to bring down the communist flag either. The reason is simple: Hu does not want to be labeled as the last dictator of Chinese communist tyranny and be held accountable for the blood debt that the CCP owes to the Chinese people.

As long as China’s leaders are still clinging to the communist system, they have to bear the burden of all of the blood debts the Party has accumulated. Moreover, new debts are being added before the old debts can be paid off. This is the tragic nature of the transfer of power under communist rule. It is as if misery loves company: everyone feels safer when everyone’s hands are similarly stained with innocent people’s blood. It does not matter if the new leader has a better educational background or a broader vision of the world; communism will still be communism.

Where will Xi lead China? Hu passed along to him Deng’s tactic of “crossing the river by feeling the stones.” The difference is, after three decades, China has entered deep waters. Can Xi feel the stones? Are there any stones to feel or is he just in over his head?