Since Xi Jinping took over as head of the Chinese Communist Party, observers have expressed their hopes and expectations that the state of human rights will improve for the Chinese people. I like to think of it as cautious optimism. There are certainly many signs of improvement: the abolishment of forced-labor prisons; changes to the one-child policy; the fact that disgraced politician Bo Xilai and his police chief Wang Lijun’s violent crackdown on private entrepreneurs in Chongqing has been stopped; and reforms to the citizen petition system, for instance.
On the other hand, some things have gotten worse. Renewed human rights issues have drawn concerns and are at times even seen as moving the country backward. Human rights activists, lawyers, entrepreneurs and journalists that advocate for the financial transparency of party officials have been arrested, and many activists have been stripped of their ability to visit or live in another country.
As someone who suffered from human rights violations at the hands of previous political regimes and has dealt in depth with party officials from all levels of government, I understand why Xi’s stance is unpredictable right now. This is normal within the current political structure. The fear comes only from those who expect too much of a centralized government and thought a new generation of leaders would immediately usher in changes on all fronts. The reality of this autocratic political train is that its inertia makes any abrupt change nearly impossible, and improvements can only be introduced in slow increments.
Political figures that had a firm grasp on power may have exited the stage, but their influence remains strong in the form of their political descendants. The Chinese ideal of attaining order in the state as one would bring order to a family still looms large in the political mentality.
New party leaders thus take party elders into consideration. The ideologies that the Communist Party holds dear – Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the “Three Represents” thought and the scientific development view – were mentioned in the official communique accompanying the recent Third Plenary Session of the 18th Chinese Communist Party Central Committee. This signals that Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang have replaced “strongman politics” with “normal man politics,” pushing closer to the execution of intraparty democracy.
Since the Chinese Communist Party is a political interest group, Xi and Li, who were elected as representatives of its members, must protect the interests of the group ahead of other interests. This means that the single-party reality will not change in the short term – only small changes will be tolerated. Issues pertaining to human rights and freedom of speech will likely remain the same as before.
Xi and Li also must rely on the lower levels of government to implement any decisions they make. Long-standing corruption in the government unfortunately means that the relative openness and determination of Xi and Li will not necessarily result in the desired reforms. There are simply too many obstacles to weed through and too many conflicts to resolve.
China’s fractured system always seeks to protect contradicting forces: It wants to satisfy its citizens’ cry for human rights, but it is afraid of social unrest. It wants to regulate and make transparent the activities of the lower levels of government, but it has to protect their interests in order to win their support. It wishes to expose and punish more corrupt officials such as Bo Xilai but has a responsibility to keep the political system stable. In short, there is no reform without touching on some form of conflict, making indecision and hesitation the reasonable approach in politics.
China is staggering forth with cautious optimism. The country will be fortunate if Xi utilizes the advantages of a centralized government and leads it through this transition, giving human rights and freedom of speech back to the people. I believe in the progress of society, and I believe that Xi – with his personal experience as a victim of political oppression and work in the province of Fujian – and his right-hand man, Li, will make the right move when the people’s cry for reform gives him enough reason to fundamentally change how the system works and break away from unwanted ties to former interests.
Jiang Weiping is a Chinese dissident who has been jailed for exposing government corruption in China. He was given the International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2001. This commentary originally appeared at The Mark News (www.themarknews.com).