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The Year of The Snake; a Potentially Historic Crossroads For China

As the residual fireworks are dying down in celebration of the Year of the Snake, the Communist government can be confident: China enters the new year with as an economic and political powerhouse.  To foreign powers’ dismay, and despite signs of promise since the November inaugurationthe newly appointed Central Committee may not seem as committed to reform as it appears. Before criticizing these political inconsistencies however, readers must take into account China’s great challenge of maintaining social stability in their populous nation, and fulfilling its ideological duties.

Since the government’s inception, there have been conflicting signs as to the kind of era the new Party hopes to usher in.  Indeed, several recent events revealed a widespread movement towards a more liberalized, reformist China. A few weeks ago, pollution problems in China resulted in an impressive political dialogue; never-seen-before data about disparities in Chinese wealth was published; there were talks about ending re-education camps and, over the new-year, the state-owned channel, China Central Television (CCTV), faced competition from local stations for its annual televised “Spring Festival Gala”.

On the other hand, Transparency International recently ranked China’s military as “High Risk” for corruption, the third-highest category after “Critical” and “Very High Risk”.  According to Mark Pyman, director of Transparency International’s Defense and Security Program, “There are many areas where China is weak in its protections against corruption in its defense sector, and it has a very low oversight of defense and armed forces policy, and no effective whistle-blower system.” In fact, in China, the military and the Party have greater power than the executive branch of the government.

In addition, General Secretary Xi Jingping’s himself cast doubt on his seemingly reformist attitudes in his leaked speech. Using the example of the USSR’s collapse, Xi stressed the importance of maintaining state control over the military to avoid a similar fate.

Only socialism can save China. Only [economic] reform and opening-up can develop China, develop socialism, and develop Marxism.

There are things we have not changed, things we cannot change, and things we will not change no matter in how long a time passes. And it cannot be characterized as failure to reform.

As a result, any “reformist” actions by the Chinese government are seen as a disingenuous balancing act to keep tight, illegitimate, control; offsetting one’s faults does not mean they do not exist.  Pyman did however stress that, “What is positive is that the Chinese military has been taking corruption seriously.” Pyman underscored that the armed forces’, whose corruption problems manifest in its military-linked profit-oriented enterprises, have been “making big efforts” to close down or transfer the ownership of said enterprises.

If Pyman is right, and other tangible steps towards improvement are being seen, Western discomfort and continued criticism may indicate yet another East-meets-West ideological confrontation. This is not to discredit Western criticism nor to advocate one ideology over another.  However, criticizing a different political ideal simply because it contrasts the Western, democratic model is unfounded. What dictates the definition of reform is relative and limited to what is appropriate to any given social, economic, and political context. China presently has been juggling two equally great challenges, namely maintaining and improving its international credibility as well as trying to adapt to the changes of its large and diverse population; white-collar or blue-collar, urban or rural, local or expatriate. Thus, both the Chinese government and Western actors must be aware, when voicing criticism, of what makes China’s context so unique, namely, its demographics.

Chinese Communism can see the Year of the Snake as a  historic crossroads, an opportunity for contrasting ideologies to converge in a mutual understanding. This year will be crucial for the new government – people are only getting more educated and more powerful within its borders, and Chinese activism is also becoming more and more visible. In combination with technology and globalization, China’s volatile population will also be a very real threat to the country’s status quo in the coming years.

China will thus need to make changes to appease international onlookers: it can no longer counter dissidence with force; it must take its anti-graft policies seriously. Domestically, it should implement long-term policies that look to stabilize the potential polarizing forces of its country. This year, China will only legitimize its ideology if it respects international laws pertaining to human rights, and if it attempts to reconcile the reality of large demographics with the ideal of Communist principles.

 – Tiffany Lam


(Featured photo: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative WorksMichael Hyman, Creative Commons, Flickr)

About Tiffany Lam

Student of Political Science and History at McGill University. Tiffany’s interest in China stems from spending most of her life living in two very different Chinese cities, Hong Kong and Beijing. She is also interested in writing about international institutions.

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