Thursday, May 5, 2016, 4:28 PM CST – China


Successful reform requires the leadership to interact with society

As the economy has developed and become more complex, the interests of the elite and those of the public have become increasingly contradictory.

With the conclusion of the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has unveiled an ambitious roadmap for a comprehensive program of reform across a wide range of issues.

The proposed reform has been said to mirror that implemented in the 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping pressed forward with the policy of Reform and Opening-up that kicked off three decades of rapid economic growth.

While the proposal has inspired hope among its advocates and the public, the authorities must be aware that today’s social context is very different from that of the 1980s, and poses great challenges to reform.

Over the last three decades, China’s rapid economic growth has led to an increasingly stratified society, causing the formation of social groups with various different interests embedded in the existing system. These contradicting interests have become a major obstacle to China’s reform, and one that will require both strong political will and shrewd political wisdom to tackle.

Another obstacle to the proposed reform is rising tension between the general public and the political elite. To a large extent, the success of the reforms in the 1980s was due to the fact that the political elite and the public shared many of the same interests, and there existed various channels for dialog between the two.

However, as the economy has rapidly developed and become more complex, the interests of the elite and those of the public have become increasingly contradictory.

With a widened income gap, the public has become estranged from those in power, and dialog and interaction between the two have been replaced by mutual antagonism.

While the general public resents the social injustice and unfairness that result from the elite monopoly on political power, the authorities are anxious about social instability and their own weakening political legitimacy.

To a large extent, the proposed reform is born out of a desire to maintain and strengthen the Party’s legitimacy by improving general welfare. To achieve this, the authorities must take an open and inclusive approach in moving forward.

One lesson the government should learn from the past is to consult with society when trying to solve social problems. Failure to do this has meant that decisions have often served only to intensify social conflicts rather than solving them. For example, rather than conducting dialog and addressing basic public concerns when trying to deal with social instability, the authorities have tended to resort to force, which has led to violent confrontations.

Ronald Coase, the renowned economist and Nobel laureate, who passed away recently, described China’s reform in the 1980s as a “marginal revolution,” in which the leadership acquiesced and eventually endorsed reform initiatives launched by different social groups. In pushing forward the new program of reform, the authorities need to take a similar approach, actively communicating with different social groups to find the optimal path to implement reform.

Only this way can the Chinese people have confidence in their leadership. By sharing power and interests with the public and by improving their welfare, the political elite can regain its legitimacy – a win-win situation.


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