Monday, November 17, 2003

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Jenny thinks that reform in China will come from external or grassroots forces, and at one point I may have agreed. Since I've been here at Michigan, however, a very different picture has been developing in my head regarding Chinese political reform. I would agree that reform will not come from the top, at least not from the Hu level. Hu Jintao is in too precarious a position, balancing reformers and Jiang cohorts through symbolic gestures and speeches lauding the Three Represents. But political reform will not come from the grassroots either—rural areas, although holding succesful limited elections, have little sway with the more imporant urban areas; urban areas are behind in democratization, and still under tight government control. Anyhow, the likelihood of succesful reform in one province spreading to other provinces is low because of the regionally fragmented control structures that govern China. Horizontal relationships are more about economic competition and regional protectionism than about sharing ideas that would benefit each other socially.

Instead, look for political reform to come from the mid-level national government. In fact, we've already seen an expansion in the power of the National People's Congress starting in the early 1980s and continuing until today. The NPC now has a significant voice in creating and approving legislation, and is populated with competent representatives and knowledable, consultative experts who support, for now, limited reform. I think if reform happens, it will happen in a top-down fashion from that strata of the government.

That's where reform would come from. As to whether it will actually materialize, I think it's too close to predict anything concrete. Hu is showing political competence, but not brilliance, and the SARS episode really cut back any chances he had to run the show his own way. Look for the Jiang group to muster efforts against any overt reform, but also look for mid-level legislators to work their own quiet "subversion" as they pursue an agenda of reform that is best served subtly.

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