For more than two decades, western observers have been predicting the collapse of communist China, an event that seemed inevitable in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and the demise of the Soviet Union.
But here we are, in 2012, with China looking more powerful than at any time in the past two centuries and the party seemingly in full control of what is now the world’s second-largest economy.
To the casual observer, the party’s internal contradictions and the rising corruption in its ranks appear likely to bring it down eventually.
China’s political evolution has certainly forced Marxist theorists in Beijing to practice some conceptual and linguistic contortions – think “the great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics” (ie, capitalism) and “the important thought of Three Represents” (ie: allowing capitalists to join the party).
But this willingness to adopt new and formerly taboo ideologies while calling them something else is at the heart of the party’s resilience and the main reason it has managed to stop its citizens from rising up in a repeat of the Tiananmen protests.
As the country’s top leaders gathered in Beijing this week for the annual session of their rubber-stamp parliament, the party’s pragmatism and responsiveness was on full display.
Listening to premier Wen Jiabao deliver the annual government work report to 3,000 delegates in the Great Hall of the People was like listening to a round-up of the country’s most pressing problems, including a number of issues that have only hit the headlines in recent months.
The premier vowed to “enhance school bus safety”, a reference to a series of school bus crashes in poor rural areas last year, and also promised to improve air quality monitoring in key urban centres, following an outcry late last year.
Widespread violent land requisitions, corruption in hospitals, courts and schools and terrible pollution were all on Mr Wen’s list of issues the government intends to tackle in the coming months.
By the end of his two-hour speech it was hard to think of a problem facing modern China that Mr Wen was not prepared to deal with and the impression was of a party that listens carefully to its subjects’ complaints and acts at a speed no democracy can match.
But if the people seated in the Great Hall were to pull out a copy of Mr Wen’s speech at the same event last year they would have noticed some striking similarities.
In fact, there was barely an issue that Mr Wen did not promise to address last year, or the year before, or the year before.
Indeed, as Mr Wen and most of his contemporaries prepare to step down next year from the most senior jobs in government, the biggest complaint about their decade in power is that most of the problems they promised to confront have actually got worse.
Perhaps it is unfair to expect a government to make quick progress on challenges as huge as economic imbalances and official corruption but when it comes to specific policies the current administration’s record is also rather patchy.
China has some of the best environmental laws in the world but one look outside the window in Beijing tells you how poorly those are enforced.
Another instructive example is the blanket ban on golf courses introduced in 2004 to preserve dwindling farmland, save water and reduce the huge number of peasant farmers displaced by a “rich man’s sport”. At that time there were about 170 golf courses across the country. Today there are more than 600.
This is what admirers of the Chinese system miss when they laud its decisiveness and the ability of officials to act without the constraints of democracy.
Under party rule, enforcement of well-meaning policies and laws is patchy at best and without oversight from below, officials at all levels tend to hide their mistakes, play up their achievements and pander to their superiors.
Real political reform that allows China’s citizens to have more say over how, and by whom, they are ruled is something else Mr Wen has been promising for most of a decade but has been unwilling or unable to deliver.
If his successors cannot follow through with actions that match Mr Wen’s words then it may not be too long before the long-suffering forecasters of political collapse are proved right.
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