Mail & Guardian

China is a tough act to follow

23 Nov 2012 00:00 | Richard Calland

The closing ceremony of the Chinese Communist Party congress last week. (AFP)

The closing ceremony of the Chinese Communist Party congress last week. (AFP)

There were two versions. One had it that the authorities had ordered the taxi drivers to remove the window winder from the back-seat doors to stop protesters from dispensing unwelcome leaflets or unsavoury commentary on the Communist Party of China as it went about the business of its 18th congress last week.

The other version was that the taxi drivers had adopted the measure as a precautionary, voluntary step to pre-empt such Samizdat conduct, lest it cost them their precious licences.

Either way, the message was clear: don't mess with our leadership transition process. The party likes to remain in control as it continues its dual policy of opening up economically while remaining largely authoritarian politically – "market authoritarian" is the academic term of art.

The congress was not only about the leadership transition, although the identity of the new leader and, just as much, those of his eight colleagues on the standing committee of the politburo, is of great importance to the way in which China will govern itself over the next 10 years and how it relates to the rest of the international community – a decade in which it will inevitably overtake the United States as the world's largest economy.

There are numerous concerns about what lies ahead. The power of China fails to mask a sense of insecurity – about its future energy and food needs, for sure, but even more so about social cohesion. One government official put it to me crisply: "I am worried about the future. I am worried about how we are going to keep 1.5-billion people happy."

It is an understandable concern and so is the growing frequency of environmental disasters, leading the communist party congress to add "ecological civilisation" to the existing four pillars of socialist progress: political, economic, cultural and social.

Social management
Furthermore, inequality and corruption dominated the debates at the congress, probably the one thing that it will share with the ANC in Mangaung next month – or ought to.

According to the central translation bureau (which, despite its anodyne name, is the main think-tank for the communist party), the notion of "social management" has gained traction in the most recent phase of governance reform because of a recognition that "social stability has become a more prominent problem and a crisis in social governance is ever more likely. Strengthening social governance has become a pressing priority for China's government."

In this didactic assessment of social needs and interests, social governance seeks to find a balance between social management and "social autonomy". The latter encourages "self-management of public affairs" and has thereby permitted the growth of non-governmental organisations in recent years, contributing in turn to greater political pluralism in China – and social management.

In this context, social management encompasses a diverse range of considerations, including social justice, food safety, emergency management and community governance. It has led to governance reform that includes greater public participation and, for example, the 2008 Open Government Information Regulation.

Nonetheless, the quest for an equilibrium point that mitigates the "threat of social conflict, safeguards social order and stability" may sound altogether a bit too Orwellian for many people's tastes – although when this translates to building decent housing settlements for 60000 mining households, as in the case of the Datong Coal Mine Group, South Africa may care to follow suit.

In any case, it is hard to imagine how China's unravelling would be in anyone's interests. With a firm hand at the tiller, China can play an increasingly prominent leadership role in key international forums such as the annual Conference of the Parties climate change negotiations.

Monitoring how it deploys its growing power, especially in sub-Saharan Africa where its voracious appetite for natural resource accumulation means that it deserves to be carefully watched, will be an essential undertaking – something that is very high up on newly re-elected US President Barack Obama's agenda.

Complex relationship
Forging a constructive relationship with China will be perhaps the most valuable contribution Obama can make to global affairs, assuming that he is no more willing or able to exert real pressure on the ruthless Israelis in his second term than he was in his first.

In more modest fashion, South Africa must resolve its own ambivalence towards China – a complex relationship in which respect, fear and distrust jostle for ascendency, probably with good reason.

In just two weeks the world has witnessed two very different forms of leadership election from the world's two great powers. One was all hot air and absurdly promiscuous expenditure; the other a carefully manicured behind-closed-doors transition.

South Africa's own form, in which a ruling party that has a dominant electoral position chooses its own leader, is a hybrid. Money pays its part, for sure, although not admittedly at quite the $1-billion a candidate scale of the US. So do the secret machinations of the organisation, although Messrs Jacob Zuma, Gwede Mantashe and Blade Nzimande no doubt wish it could be as neatly, orderly and ordered as the communist party model.

Soon, Motlanthe will face the decision of a lifetime: to stand or not to stand. It would be presumptuous to go anywhere near the shoes of such a distinguished and dignified political leader, but I imagine the thought process – the political calculus – will be something like this: How do the numbers look? Probably not great. Do I have a reasonable chance of winning? Maybe, but probably not.

If not, do I withdraw to (a) preserve my dignity; and (b) keep alive the hope that I can hold on to the deputy presidency of the ANC and the country? There will be voices from supporters and advisers arguing, in each ear, for fighting – as a matter of principle – and for withdrawing. And, last, if I withdraw, can I get back on to JZ's ticket, assuming I want to be on it? (It may no longer be an option.)

Much depends on the Eastern Cape. It has become the Ohio of the ANC election. Like the Republican presidential challenger, Mitt Romney, who had to win the mid-west US state, so Motlanthe has to win the Eastern Cape, otherwise he stands no chance. Zuma, on the other hand, like Obama can lose it and still win. Incumbents often have built-in advantages and Zuma has been exploiting his to the fullest, which is why Motlanthe can be forgiven for feeling that he is caught between a rock and a hard place.

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