BEIJING – The week before the visit of United States President Barack Obama, the Chinese media were full of hope and expectations: Obama’s meeting with China‘s leaders would lead to new and higher-level bilateral relations, newspapers wrote. But it was already clear that, contrary to the ideas of the foreign press, this would not mean that China was to become a second America.
In fact, on November 14, less than 48 hours before Obama’s arrival in Beijing, the official Xinhua News Agency released a long statement in Chinese only explaining that Xi Jinping, vice president of the state and president of the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (Central Party School), had held a conference about the necessity to “actively encourage the building of a ruling party study model of Marxism“.
Xi, in his speech at the Party School, which was chaired by Li Jingtian, the executive vice president of the same school, recommended studying socialist theory with Chinese characteristics and applying the “core values of socialism”
The school is the highest institution in the country to train officials of the Communist Party of China.
It sounds like a trip back in time, light years away from the wave of freshness and optimism that seems to blow in the West and in the US around Obama, with his liberal, charismatic aura.
But it is not an isolated gesture. The strong emphasis on Marxism has been echoed by headlines in recent months. The current economic crisis places in question the faith, previously almost blind in China, in the capitalist system.
On November 11, the Chinese edition of Global Times, China’s best-selling national newspaper, led the front page with a report that a BBC survey in 21 countries had found that a majority of people no longer had confidence in capitalism. (More than 29,000 people in 27 countries were questioned. In only two countries, the United States and Pakistan, did more than one in five people feel that capitalism works well as it stands.)
In a sense, China is emerging from decades of reticence about its political system. On November 13 and 14, immediately before Obama arrived in Beijing, Zheng Bijian, credited as a political adviser to President Hu Jintao, flew to Taiwan to take part for the first time in a seminar on political systems. Zheng was executive vice president of the Party School in the 1990s when Hu was its president.
t was the first time that a very senior Beijing official had agreed to discuss the differences between the political systems in China and Taiwan, which have been a major stumbling block in any potential process of reunification of the island with the mainland. Taiwan is a parliamentary democracy, and China isn’t.
The message appears to be that with the current crisis – which is economic, but to a certain extent systemic in the US – China is having renewed doubts about the value of the US and Western system, and is growing cautious.
This does not mean that Beijing will turn back or stop, although it is willing to explore different directions.
In his speech, Xi coined a new term in China’s ultra-coded political rhetoric: “The ruling party study model of Marxism.” The definition is cryptic for people in the West, but it is still clearly miles away from the days when the party called itself “Communist Marxist-Leninist“.
The indications are that the Chinese are no longer inclined to define their party as “communist”, although they acknowledge a real, not simply rhetorical, value in the study of Marxism and the “core values of socialism”. China is becoming more convinced and self-confident in its trial reforms of the political system.
This greater confidence was evidenced in Zheng Bijian’s trip to Taiwan. In essence, the message to the Taiwanese, who might still one day unite with the mainland, was, “We will certainly change our political system, but your parliamentary democracy also must reform; otherwise, it risks being derailed and overwhelmed by demagoguery and populism.”
Zheng’s position is not without support on the island, where many entrepreneurs and tycoons are beginning to admire the efficiency and economic success in mainland China.
China’s leaders stress they do not want to export their political model, and they even ask others not to imitate them but to look for their own development paths. Still, China’s politicians are becoming unwilling to endure lectures on politics or ethics, given the fact that their system is working today, while others falter.
In the run-up to Obama’s visit, all this meant that the message to the visitor was to keep domestic politics out of big-policy discussions. But it was also a statement: China is reforming its political system, although it might not be totally along the lines Washington or the West wants to see.
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