Tectonic shifts in Chinese society

Dr. Wei Hongxia

China.org.cn, the “authorized government portal site to China” “published under the auspices of the State Council Information Office and the China International Publishing Group (CIPG) in Beijing” is not known for being very fair in its reports. Indeed, I have followed its opinion pieces with the very intention of getting a radically different perspective. However, every once in a while, there comes an opinion piece with some very good observations that are able to stand up to scrutiny.

Here’s Dr. Wei Hongxia, “visiting scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace”, discussing three very relevant changes in China that could well shape how the next 10 years play out under new leadership: Chinese political culture, Chinese civil society and Chinese foreign policy.

Observers have noted that the scale and the scope of the coming changes are likely to be widest in China’s three most important leadership bodies: The Party, the government and the military. It’s believed that the coming changes will see roughly two-thirds of the existing membership replaced by newcomers. These newcomers will largely account for many of the leading positions in China’s political, economic and ideological administrations, and provincial, foreign policy, public security and military operations after the upcoming 18th Party Congress and the 12th National People’s Congress in the Spring of 2013. In general, this new generation of leaders is more diverse in their educational, professional and economic backgrounds. Most are better educated than their predecessors and some even have diplomas from foreign institutions. Some of them have been chosen through competition, some through recommendations and some have gradually risen through the ranks. They are also more cosmopolitan in their worldviews and policy choices than their predecessors. Their backgrounds are more complex, representing different interest groups within China.

With such high levels of both education and professional knowledge, these newcomers are more confident in expressing their opinions and have a greater awareness of people’s rights as well as closer and wider connections with civil society. They are more amenable to new ways of thinking and new values.

I believe that these new factors will bring changes to China’s political life.

The second aspect concerns the role of civil society in China’s political life. Since opening up, dramatic changes have taken place in Chinese society. From the self-employed opening private business to athletes “flying alone” , individuals in China are gradually breaking away from collective and state mechanisms and gaining greater freedom and more rights. Before opening up, individuals had to subordinate to collective and national control.

In recent times, people’s economic independence has been slowly transformed into social rights, a phenomenon which has weakened the authority of central government. Using the Internet as a tool, Chinese youth who were born in the 1980s and 1990s are striving for more civil rights and becoming more involved in political life. Although the current system is not set up to meet their demands, their pronouncements have seized the attention of both the mass media and policy makers at the highest level.

The third aspect concerns foreign policy. As its economy grows, China’s maxim of “keeping a low profile” looks increasingly redundant and even absurd to many Chinese people. Domestically, the government is faced with public complaints that China has been too timid amid increasing public calls for a fundamental overhaul of foreign policy. But the government will have to deal with more foreign pressures to remain modest and prudent. Over the past couple of years, there has been a genuine debate about the direction of Chinese foreign policy, both among scholars and officials. Obviously, China’s growing status and new international reality require a more modern and sophisticated foreign policy. However, in the face of pressing domestic issues, the new team may struggle to balance foreign policy and strategy demands. Perhaps over time the new guard will create a new foreign policy outlook.

Read the full article at http://www.china.org.cn/opinion/2012-09/10/content_26481344.htm