The irony of Chinese reform

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The irony of Chinese reform

Let’s look at the numbers 12,808 and 326 first.

The former is the number of times the term “reform” has appeared on official documents from China’s Central Committee over the last 30 years after China began opening and reforming in 1978. The Hong Kong newspaper Ta Kung Pao counted every single one of them. The latter is the number of times the word “reform” has appeared in 12 major Western media outlets, including The Washington Post, in the last 20 days of their coverage of China.

Reform is undoubtedly the keyword in China, and, if anything, emphasis on it has been growing since the Third Plenary Session of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party began, setting the state administration’s direction for the next decade of the Xi Jinping era. Newspapers, broadcasters and state leaders are advocating reform every day. There has been a flood of “reforms” to such a degree that it is tiresome. We need to be more careful in looking at the essence of China’s reform.

First of all, China’s reforms are ambiguous and unclear. There are a lot of reform measures, but they lack detail and substance - at least, many in Korea and the West think so. Maybe not the Chinese. The day after the plenary session, the headline of the party’s People’s Daily read, “The answer is to pursue development in stability.” But the content was even more confusing. For example, it said that China needs to win the trust of the international community and change the system to reconsider its growth model - all just rhetoric. We can only interpret that the plenary session reforms are designed to pursue change gradually to avoid confusion.

Second, they use logic and words that circumvent the hopes of the public. From the Western perspective, the core of China’s reforms should focus on the decentralization of party authority and an introduction of a system of check and balances. However, China has no intention of giving up control. Pursuing reform while leaving the party’s absolute authority intact does not correspond with British political philosopher John Acton’s saying, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

At the 14th National Congress Plenary Session two decades ago, “state-owned corporation reform” was the topic of the day, followed by the establishment of a socialist market economy and the expansion of an open market. But the same three reforms have been proposed once again. China’s leaders surely know that the party’s control of state-run corporations is a major cause of its problems.

Third, China is suffering from reform fatigue. Last month, the People’s Daily lamented and acknowledged that reform plans from the central government have not been implemented in many regions. So the reform in China always focuses on “modification,” but not radical change.

*The author is the Beijing bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

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