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    Greater China
     Sep 20, 2012

China's gilded age
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - If you believe China's state media, the 10-year reign of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, soon to come to an end, has produced a "golden decade" of rapid economic growth and social stability as the nation took its rightful place, front and center, on the international stage. Theirs is a legacy of peace, harmony and prosperity.

If you believe the ever-growing group of Chinese critics in exile, however, this has been a lost decade of rampant corruption, political stagnation and backsliding on human rights. Good riddance to the foot-dragging, ineffectual Hu-Wen partnership!

Paradoxically, both parties are right - although the utopian language chosen by state media, as usual, only serves to


undermine the proffered kudos for the outgoing regime. Nevertheless, Hu and Wen do deserve credit for turning China into the world's second-largest economy and for keeping that economic engine churning even through the global financial meltdown of 2008.

Breakneck economic growth under the Hu-Wen administration has seen tens of millions of people climb out of poverty faster than at any other time in human history. When Hu and Wen took office in 2002, annual per capita income in China stood at US$800; it is now more than $4,000.

China is also now the world's biggest exporter of goods, produces and sells more automobiles than any other country, and boasts the most elaborate high-speed rail system on the planet. All of this happened while Hu and Wen were packing away foreign reserves in excess of $3.2 trillion, far more than any other nation.

Let's not forget China's three-week-long international coming-out party four years ago: by most accounts, the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, hosted by Beijing, were a stunning success symbolizing China's meteoric rise as an emerging superpower. Also in 2008, truly a golden year for China's leaders, a Chinese astronaut performed a spacewalk.

More recently, the country has launched its first aircraft carrier and challenged US influence in the Asia-Pacific region while at the same time boasting that no bombs have been dropped nor missiles or shots fired during China's peaceful rise.

As Hu, 69, and Wen, 70, head into the 18th Communist Party Congress - expected to be held next month - that will select a fifth generation of Chinese leaders to replace them, there is indeed a lot to be proud of. The Chinese economic miracle continued under their watch as Beijing further burnished its status internationally.

The problem is, that's only half the story - the "golden" half that state media are so fond of trumpeting. There has also been a dark side to the Hu-Wen years and, in the end, scintillating economic figures aside, the pair may have left the country worse off than they found it.

Some critics even argue that Hu and Wen don't deserve credit for the blistering economic gains of the last decade because the reforms that spurred those gains were implemented by their predecessors - former president Jiang Zemin and premier Zhu Rongji. The 10 years under Jiang and Zhu were the real golden years, according to this school of thought, and Hu and Wen have come along to cherry-pick the credit.

True enough, Hu and Wen were beneficiaries of the far-sighted polices of the previous administration. Zhu, in particular, was a transformational figure in turning China toward market-based economic reforms and also a remarkable statesman possessing the kind of intellect and aplomb not seen in Beijing since the days of Zhou Enlai.

But it would be churlish and unfair to give Hu and Wen no credit for the tremendous economic accomplishments of their era. If they are going to take credit for their achievements, however, then they must also accept blame for their failures - and there have been many.

As China's economic growth soared over the past decade, its wealth gap widened to what economists see as a potentially dangerous tipping point. China may be the country with the fastest growing millionaires' club, but it is also a nation in which nearly 30% of a population of 1.3 billion lives on less than $2 a day.

China's rural-urban income divide is particularly worrisome. Official figures, which undoubtedly underestimate the seriousness of the problem, show that people in the countryside earn only one-third as much as their urban counterparts.

Furthermore, these figures reveal that the top 10% of the country's earners are raking in 23 times more income than the lowest 10%, helping to explain why China's Gini coefficient - a widely used measure of income inequality developed by sociologist Corrado Gini - has risen to nearly 0.5 on a scale ranging from nought to 1 while Hu and Wen have been in power.

Economists regard any measure above 0.4 as an alarm bell for potential social unrest, incidents of which have been rife in China over the last decade, if also often brutally suppressed by security forces across the nation - and this naked brutality amounts to another black stain on the Hu-Wen years.

An administration that, as it began, inspired great hopes for political reform and a more open and transparent government will end with a record of iron-fisted repression - of dissident political voices, of angry citizens who have been cheated out of their land by corrupt local officials and of any other person or group deemed a threat to one-party authoritarian rule.

Of course, the biggest international embarrassment for Hu and Wen came in 2010, when Liu Xiaobo, a scholar and human-rights activist currently serving an 11-year jail sentence for subversion, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. During the powerful award ceremony in Oslo, an empty chair symbolized the absent Liu as Norwegian film legend Liv Ullmann read some of his most famous words: "I have no enemies, and no hatred. None of the police who have monitored, arrested and interrogated me, the prosecutors who prosecuted me, or the judges who sentence me, are my enemies."

The prisoner's magnanimity toward his persecutors stood in stark contrast to Beijing's angry denunciation of his award as "a desecration of the Peace Prize" and, by ceremony's end, one empty chair on a stage in Oslo had come to stand not just for Liu but also for all of the thousands of lesser-known activists wasting away in Chinese prisons.

In apparent response, Wen - who managed to create a far more humane and likeable public image than Hu, a stiff and stoical technocrat - repeatedly spoke out about bringing greater democracy and respect for human rights to China, but the premier was either insincere or powerless to put his words into action.

Despite Wen's occasional pronouncements, political reform was negligible during his time in office and human-rights violations a matter of grisly routine.

The last decade was also characterized by a steady stream of anti-corruption rhetoric - coming both from Hu and Wen. Yet the Communist Party of China - the world's largest political party, with over 80 million members - is among the most corrupt organizations on earth, and it only became more so under Hu and Wen.

It is fitting that the Hu-Wen era should end in the mighty wake of one of the biggest corruption scandals in the 63-year history of the People's Republic of China. This sordid saga resulted in the spectacular downfall of powerful former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, who stands accused of "serious disciplinary violations" - party code for official malfeasance.

Bo, a charismatic populist who had hoped to parlay his successful anti-crime campaign in Chongqing into a seat on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee at the upcoming party congress, was removed from his Chongqing post last March and, soon thereafter, suspended from the ruling Politburo. Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, received a suspended death sentence last month after she was convicted of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood in November 2011.

Bo’s right-hand man in Chongqing - former police chief Wang Lijun - was tried in Chengdu on Tuesday for his alleged part in a failed plot to cover up of Heywood’s murder and for his later attempt to defect at the US consulate in Chengdu. A verdict is expected soon.

The fate of Bo, who hasn't been seen since he was purged six months ago, is also expected to be decided ahead of the party congress so as not to cast a pall over this once-a-decade changing of the guard.

Both Hu and Wen always regarded Bo as a threat, and his dramatic undoing likely stems more from nasty party in-fighting than from the millions of dollars he is alleged to have parked in foreign bank accounts or from the murder of Heywood, in association with which his name was never even mentioned during his wife's perfunctory one-day trial.

Who knows what really happened in Bo's case, which the party is now anxious to sweep under the historical rug so that the new leadership team can have a fresh start when they are formally installed in March.

Current Vice Premier Li Keqiang, 57, is expected to take over from Wen, and Vice President Xi Jinping, 59, is Hu's likely successor.

In another reminder of how slow the Communist Party is to change, however, this month Xi inexplicably disappeared from public life for two weeks, finally turning up for a minor event at China Agricultural University on Saturday morning after missing high-profile appointments with the likes of US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

As Internet rumors spread that Xi had suffered a stroke, heart attack or worse, China's leadership and media maintained a strict silence, as it sometimes does on matters related to the health of high officials, as a raft of questions from foreign media about Xi's condition was pointedly ignored.

It is simply incredible that, in 2012, the man who is almost certainly to be selected as China's next president in a month's time can disappear entirely for 14 days without any official explanation. Anonymous sources were quoted in a number of media outlets as saying the vice president had suffered a back injury while swimming, but that's not good enough in the 21st century in a country with more than 500,000 million Internet users who love to gossip and an army of official censors who are increasingly unable to stop them.

China's political culture needs to change - and not in any small way. It is hopelessly anachronistic and corrupt to the core. For the country truly to experience a golden age, its politics need to transform over the next 30 years as profoundly as its economy did over the past three decades. Otherwise, China's success story will be gilded at best.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at kewing56@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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