Reform in China and the 18th Party Congress

Joseph Fewsmith
March 22, 2012
Chinese leaders assemble in Beijing's Great Hall of the People for the opening ceremony of China's National People's Congress in this March 5, 2004 photo. (AP Photo/Greg Baker)

This autumn, the international community will watch as China undergoes what has been described as its biggest leadership transition in a decade.  To shed light on what has been occurring in China and the implications of the 18th Party Congress, we speak to Joseph Fewsmith, a widely renowned expert on China, who was recently at the Balsillie School of International Affairs to give a lecture. He is director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Asia and professor of international relations and political science.

CIGI: Your forthcoming book, The Logic and Limits of Political Reform in China (Cambridge University Press), is bound to make waves among those who study China. Can you tell us what motivated you to write this book?

Joseph Fewsmith: Over the last five or six years, I’ve been looking at what’s been going on in terms of political reform at the local level in China. This is sort of an empirical question of just trying to understand what’s going on, but it also raises some interesting theoretical issues. For instance, usually in social science we think that when something new happens, when there’s an innovation, it’s because interests have come together in a certain way, and if the interests have come together then they should continue — there should be increasing returns on a certain innovation and what we call path dependence, and you would probably see some significant political reform.  What I’ve observed is that there have been a lot of innovations in China in various places but there’s been very little institutionalization. That is to say, reforms get introduced in certain places but they never take root. Sometimes it’s because they were introduced by a strong political leader who is then transferred to another position.  Sometimes it’s because they were never that well institutionalized in the first place, and so the picture that you come up with at the bottom line, if you will, is that despite a lot of political innovation, it really hasn’t gone very far. This incremental path of gradual political reform that we thought we were seeing in China is not likely going to work.

CIGI: In a recent report examining the possible reasons behind Bo Xilai’s ouster from his post as party secretary in the Chongqing municipality, you commented that China may be going through its most critical political issue since 1989. What can you tell us about this situation?

Fewsmith: First of all, there is an awful lot that we don’t know about what happened in the Bo Xilai case, and so all of us are dealing with very partial information at this point. One of the things that has been surprising is the timing. Nobody expected this whole matter, including Bo Xilai’s former chief of police Wang Lijun’s visit to the United States consulate, to blow up on the eve of Vice President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States; so obviously things got out of hand very quickly. We don’t quite know why that happened. One would have normally expected conflicts in the party to be settled quietly in the backrooms on the way to the 18th Party Congress, and either Bo Xilai would have been elevated to the Standing Committee of the Politburo or he quietly would not have been elevated, and no one would have understood the dynamics and we’d be guessing with our theories. What happened makes it quite clear that there were some serious tensions within the party over the figure of Bo Xilai and the model of governance that he was introducing in Chongqing, which stressed populism and nostalgia, especially about the Cultural Revolution. This made other leaders obviously very nervous, and these seem to be the tensions that caused this to blow up.

CIGI: After the 18th Party Congress, do you foresee a change in China’s international behaviour?

Fewsmith: Not really. I think that there have been some significant leadership tensions in China but I expect that these will get worked out one way or another at the 18th Party Congress. China has deep involvement in the world through many phases; there are a lot of reasons for that, and I think those will continue. If anything, Bo Xilai represented a sort of new left model that was very skeptical of globalization and privatization. These sorts of trends won’t go away — they will be a continuing part of the Chinese scene — but China’s involvement in the world is likely to continue smoothly and evolve.

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