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China isn't the monolith it's made out to be

By Lao Zi - posted Wednesday, 17 November 2010

In 2012, the Chinese government will undergo renewal. Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao will make way for new blood, most probably in the form of Li Keqiang and Xi Jinping, respectively. With Xi Jinping's recent elevation to the vice-chairman position in China's powerful Central Military Commission, his position is assured.

Few in the west are aware that Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao represent a more liberal side of Chinese politics. During the recent furore over the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, many western commentators were quick to point out that on the 3rd of October, Wen Jiabao went on record to state: "I believe freedom of speech is indispensible to any country".

On the face of it, this would appear to be quite hypocritical, but in reality it's no more hypocritical than a Democrat or Republican outlining different ideals.


China isn't the monolith it is made out to be. Within the vast sprawling arms of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) many factions exist. Since the awarding of the Nobel Prize, Wen Jiabao has made a number of somewhat risky comments stating that he will never give up advocating a reform to the Chinese system, and that the will of the people can't be resisted.

These comments have been reported in some more liberal Chinese newspapers, and been blacked out in others. To understand the reasons why, one must consider the fact that the Hu-Wen alliance is just one faction within the CCP. There remains a significant number of senior figures within the party who were closely aligned with the former President Jiang Zemin.

Jiang Zemin first arose to power in the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests, because he was seen as having a harder edge. He was, simply put, a strongman, however he was the one who presided over a great deal of China's transformation into a capitalist economy. This gives a fair description of the Shanghai faction's tendencies - more enthusiasm for allowing market forces free reign, albeit significantly less devotion to increasing human rights in China. Insofar as such limited terms can be applied to China, one can imagine the Shanghai faction as being more "right wing". They are the "hawks" of China, and you can see their hand in the draw-no-quarter reactions to recent international disputes.

However, the idea of "market forces" in China remains quite different to the west. Those who envision that the Shanghai Faction would embrace the economic reforms the west desires (such as revaluing the renminbi) would most probably be disappointed. This will happen, but not at the pace the west desires and you can be sure that China will only do so when it is in their best interests. That time may well come soon, but not as soon as President Obama would like.

That however, remains academic, as Li Keqiang and Xi Jinping are more likely to follow in the footsteps of the Hu-Wen faction. It may well be that Wen Jiabao's recent comments have been made in the knowledge that his successors share similar views, which would explain his unusually strident commentary.

So what does this mean for the west?


In recent commentary in The Australian, Greg Rudd put the case very well, when he said that the West should give up trying to "change" China, with the caveat that the West also should be suspicious of Chinese business deals, because the Chinese are also suspicious of each other. That's how business is done there.

Provided that Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang take the place of the Hu-Wen faction, not a lot is going to change in the short term. This outcome is to be hoped for. In the event that the Shanghai Faction gains ascendancy, we are more likely to see stricter controls placed on the Chinese people which would lead to further insecurity on behalf of the governing party. Insecurity breeds the kinds of hostile reactions that China has displayed to foreign commentary on matters regarding China.

Interestingly, during the recent stoush with Japan over the fishing trawler incident in the Diaoyu islands, the government did not attempt to stir up nationalist, anti-Japanese sentiment. One wonders whether the hawks in the Shanghai Faction would have shown the same restraint.

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About the Author

Lao Zi is a semi-mythical Chinese philosopher who lived sometime between the 4th and 6th century BC. He's widely regarded as a counterweight to Confucian ideals and his work has been embraced by libertarian and anti-authoritarian movements worldwide. It's also the nom-de-plume of a former Australian journalist, currently residing in China who blogs at

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