One hundred years of revolution, bookended by the 1911 Republican revolution that overthrew China’s imperial system and the 2011 Jasmine Revolution rocking the Middle East, provided the backdrop to this panel’s discussion of the remarkable social transformation in today’s China and the prospects for future political and economic reform.
|Joseph Kahn||Yu Keping|
Yu, who wrote Democracy is a Good Thing, added that the 1911 revolutionary leader, Sun Yat-sen, was right when he said that “the global wave of democracy is inevitable.” Political participation is increasing, said Yu, citing online microblogs, direct elections at the grassroots level, and great progress in rule of law and transparency over the past thirty years.
Brookings Institution Thornton China Center Director of Research Cheng Li agreed that political reform is a necessity not a choice, in part because the “innovation economy requires freedom; the service sector requires trust and rule of law; and America’s soft power is largely based on civil society. In all these three areas, China needs fundamental change.”
However, Li noted that Premier Wen Jiabao is the only top Chinese leader talking about the need for political reform and more democracy: “Two premiers, Premier Wen and Premier Sun—one hundred years apart—that tells us the serious challenge that China faces on the political front.” He added that if political change within the party leadership is too slow, it will be “a real disaster.” But until China completes its leadership transition in the party, government and military over the next two years, Li doesn’t expect much change. He said that reform progress has halted, stability is the priority, and China is now undergoing a crackdown on free expression. Although other panelists suggested that Chinese citizens should be patient about the pace of change, Li said, “One hundred years—how can you talk about patience?”
Li had one message for the Chinese leaders facing an uncertain future: “I think they should be more hopeful rather than too fearful. Certain kinds of crisis may not be necessarily bad if we can avoid a revolution, because crisis gives us an incentive for change and helps us reach a new consensus.”
A major reason that the Chinese government should be less nervous about public opinion in China getting out of control, said Li, is that unlike the Jasmine Revolution countries in the Middle East, “China is on the rise from a historical perspective.”
China’s rise and the social changes have been experienced directly by Dazhong Wang, President of Beijing Automotive Industry Co., who grew up in China and came to Cornell University in 1981. He remembers the shocked reaction of a friend who proudly showed Wang a photograph taken with President Kennedy but which drew a blank from Wang. “As an educated Masters student, I had never seen JFK’s picture. This is how isolated China was.” Yet now, Wang marveled, the Rolling Stones had just performed in a six-hour concert at Beijing’s Bird’s Nest to an audience of 100,000. When Wang left China, only 7,000 automobiles were manufactured every year; now his company alone produces more than 7,000 cars every day. In 1995, he and Shirley Young had helped General Motors open its business in China. Last year, GM sold 2.3 million vehicles in China, more than in the U.S. Yet even with these changes, Wang said that China still lags far behind the U.S. in the level of innovation, management and talent.
Clarence Kwan, Senior Partner for Deloitte’s U.S. Chinese Services Group, discussed political change in China from the viewpoint of Western multinationals: “We love change because it creates opportunity, and opportunity means we can increase value. But we hate change at the same time when we have value to protect and want to enjoy the fruits of our labor. It’s better not to change too fast; we don’t want revolution—we want a stable yet growing environment so we can balance value creation with value protection.”
Kwan has noticed increased openness and more dialogue between Western executives and the Chinese government about problems they encounter doing business in China. “Five years ago nobody dared to say anything negative about the government in fear of retaliation. Now they believe that the Chinese government will respond in a more rational manner.” However, Kwan worried that American and Chinese differences over how quickly China should revalue the yuan and institute democratic reforms will come to the forefront as the 2012 election nears.
When Kahn asked, “What is China’s timetable for political reform?” Yu, who is close to the Beijing leadership, replied, “It depends.” Although there is a plan for establishing a legal system and direct elections at the grassroots level and a goal to establish a “harmonious society” by 2020, Yu said that the political situation “makes it quite difficult to make a timetable. Even Chairman Mao couldn’t predict the result of the Cultural Revolution.” But, Yu insisted that the next step for reforms is to “gradually shift the focus of our reform from the economic to the political fields.”
Begin viewing the 8-segment roundtable video here.