New China leader Li warns world
By Brendan O'Reilly
Li Keqiang, the newly appointed premier of the People's Republic of China, hosted an impressive coming-out party at the weekend. His first press conference as premier was broadcast live throughout China. In his televised remarks, Premier Li hinted at important changes to China's political environment.
In between the lines of standard political oratory Li suggested the beginnings of a new era in the Chinese Communist Party's rule, and gave a veiled warning to world powers that might seek to hinder China's territorial ambitions.
Premier Li's debut in front of domestic and international media
lasted over 100 minutes, and was translated live from Chinese to English. Li was particularly animated when answering questions pitched by invited media outlets. Many Chinese viewers contrasted Li Keqiang's energy and enthusiasm with the more sedate public persona of China's previous leadership.
During his inaugural press conference, Premier Li hit all the right notes, promising governmental reforms, continued economic growth, and increased environmental protections. Li called for a "self-imposed revolution" that "will require real sacrifice and will be painful''. Although he was largely lacking on detailed strategies for how to achieve his goals, several specific promises were made, including a plan to cut administrative approval items by a third, and proposals to "redevelop" more than ten million urban shanty dwellings.
Interestingly enough, Li also made a special appeal to the rule of law: "The law has a sacred place in society. No matter who he or she is and what he or she does, the boundaries of the law should not be breached." Perhaps the greatest political grievance of the Chinese people is the extralegal nature of many facets of the Chinese political system. Those with excellent connections are largely seen as above the law - although the recent dramatic downfall and imprisonment of the once-ascendant Bo Xilai has been hailed by the Party as proof of increased impartiality in the legal system.
At the same time, noted dissidents, protesters, and peasant activists are usually not threatened by uniformed police, but rather by plainclothes thugs. Furthermore, the extralegal violence and corruption of many land deals has led to serious rioting and localized political revolts in recent years. A violent standoff over a corrupt land deal is unfolding in Shangpu village, Guangdong province at this very moment. A sincere push for respect of the rule of law by local and central government would be injurious for many entrenched interests, but it would also be a significant boon for popular legitimacy and long-term stability.
Wade in the water
Perhaps the most politically significant remark Premier Li made during his questioning was an aquatic metaphor. Regarding economic and political reforms in China, Li said "However deep the water may be, we will wade into it because we have no alternative.''
This sentence was a direct reference to the words of Deng Xiaoping, the father of China's post-Mao economic boom. Deng famously described the uncertain process of reform in China as "crossing the river by feeling for the stones".
Li Keqiang expanded on Deng's metaphor to describe the current state in China. There is no way back to the old systems and methods - and the path forward is murky and potentially dangerous.
Indeed, the People's Republic of China is facing an unprecedented stage in its political and economic development. Premier Li and President Xi Jinping are the first generation of Chinese leaders to be born after the founding of the Peoples' Republic of China. They came of age during the heady and volatile era of the Cultural Revolution, and they saw firsthand both the chaos and deprivation of the old days and the rapid economic successes of Deng Xiaoping's reforms.
Meanwhile, China's age of double-digit economic growth seems to have come to an end; the low-hanging fruit has largely been picked. Wages are rising and some labor-intensive industries are headed to less-developed nations. China is in real danger of falling into the so-called "middle income trap", at the same time as the general world economic situation is particularly unstable.
China is overly reliant on exports - China now does more international trade than any other country in the world. Furthermore, there are worries of potential housing and credit problems in China. The Chinese economy must rely more on domestic spending, innovation, and increased efficiency if the economy is to continue to expand at a rate that keeps the populace pacified.
Li Keqiang outlined the three main tasks of the CCP over the next five years: maintaining economic growth, improving the people's livelihood, and safeguarding social justice. The most important of these goals was no surprise. Li told reporters "The most important one, I think, is to facilitate the continuous growth of the economy." He announced a specific goal of doubling China's 2010 GDP and personal income by 2020. This target could be achievable if China maintains its current growth rate of around 7% a year.
Premier Li is under no illusions as to the CCP's source of continued legitimacy. The Chinese people have been largely patient regarding political reforms only so long as their economic situation continues to rapidly improve. By publicly announcing a goal of doubling GDP and personal incomes within a decade, Li Keqiang has set a concrete benchmark that the Chinese people can use to assess their rulers. Developments over the next seven years will see whether setting this target was politically astute.
Li addresses the world
On the international front, Li Keqiang struck a note that was at once conciliatory and forceful. At the end of his press conference Li took a few minutes to speak directly to foreign media:
Recently I have been following very closely news reports about China, including the issues discussed by foreign media organizations. I think there are two main concerns: first, whether the Chinese economy will continue to grow, sustainably, and secondly, whether a stronger China will become more assertive, and even seek hegemony.
I think these concerns are really unnecessary. China is capable of achieving sustainable and healthy economic development and pursuing social progress. There are 1.3 billion people in this country, so we are on a long journey to modernization. For that we would require an international environment of lasting peace. Even if China becomes stronger we will not seek hegemony because we have learnt from our own bitter experience in the modern period that one should not impose on others he himself does not desire. It is an article of faith for us.
Premier Li was particularly candid in addressing the general perceptions of international media regarding modern China. Especially in the last year, as tensions have risen between China and its neighbors over maritime territorial disputes, there has been an increasingly frequent international narrative of a more "aggressive" or "assertive" China. By directly addressing these concerns and forswearing domination, Li has revealed a significant degree of media savvy. Indeed, his assertion that China should avoid violent confrontation at this juncture in order to develop economically in at atmosphere of regional stability is strategically sound.
However, Li Keqiang also hinted at the danger of directly challenging China's territorial claims:
Let me underscore here that China has an unwavering commitment to peaceful development. We also have unshakable commitment to safeguard our country's sovereignty and territorial integrity. These two are not contradictory to each other. In fact they are essential for regional stability and world peace.
The Chinese political class - and indeed, the popular perception of the Chinese masses - sees no contradiction in calling for a lasting peace while at the same time taking a hard line in ongoing territorial disputes. This is because, from their perspective, the South China Sea and the Diaoyu Islands are merely another part of China itself. While other countries may oppose these claims and view them as a push for regional hegemony, China sees a forceful assertion of sovereignty in these disputed regions as an essentially defensive posture. There exists, of course, an implied right to the use of force when defending one's territory.
In his first meeting with foreign media as Premier, Li Keqiang served notice to the world: Any militarized threats to China's territorial claims are threats not only to regional stability, but also to world peace. As Beijing wades into the "deep waters" of internal reforms, relevant powers must also be careful of their footing in the turbulent seas of East Asia.
Brendan P O'Reilly is a China-based writer and educator from Seattle. He is author of The Transcendent Harmony.
He may be reached at email@example.com
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