BEIJING: In March 2018, China’s constitutional amendments made headlines around the world.
Among other things, the amendments removed the two-term limit on China’s presidency. By and large, the mood outside of China is one of serious questioning.
How did the West get China so wrong in expecting the Chinese political system to progress Western-style, with term limits being a norm?
One explanation for the pessimism about Chinese governance is the recent return to polemics reminiscent of the earlier years of political reform.
For example, the notion of a "core leader" — de-emphasised during the years of Hu Jintao’s presidency — implies a reduced stress on consultation among different levels of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a mechanism for decision-making.
Another example is the inclusion of a leader’s personal name in a political doctrine ("Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era"), enshrined in the party charter and the state constitution. It is only the second time (after Mao Zedong Thought) that this has happened.
EFFECTIVE, COLLECTIVE LEADERSHIP
Xi seized political advantage because of sentiment for change. The country needs collective leadership that functions effectively and authoritatively to restrain the parochial interest groups within the state, military and Party that over the past decade have been hijacking policy to feather their own nests.
In November 2017, during the Party Congress, he pledged to shift the party’s mission from delivering high-speed — but costly — economic growth to meeting the people’s demands for a "better life".
The new agenda encompasses a broad array of goals including better public services, stronger social welfare, a cleaner environment, eradication of poverty, closing regional gaps in development and greater global influence. The vision closely tracks the aspirations of China’s growing middle class.
RENAMED, NEW MINISTRIES
To these ends, a set of institutional reforms are being implemented by the decisions of the 13th National People’s Congress. The move to improve efficiency and reduce overlap in government led to a reduction of the number of ministries from 34 to 26, and elimination of seven non-ministerial agencies.
The changes included setting up new departments, such as the Ministry of Emergency Management, tasked to improve response to disasters such as floods, fires and earthquakes by bringing together the response units in different agencies.
The State Grains and Reserves Administration will be set up to manage strategic and emergency-aid goods such as grain, cotton and sugar. A Veterans Affairs Ministry will be established to take care of retired soldiers.
The National Health and Family Planning Commission was renamed the National Health Commission — indicative of the pursuit of a "better life".
China has allowed two-child families since 2016.
As the country rapidly ages, with a quarter of its population estimated to be 60 years or older by 2030, more change is needed on this front.
READ: Ending China’s one child policy will not end its problem, but create more issues as its population ages, a commentary.
To better manage China’s natural resources and tackle serious environmental problems arising from its rapid economic growth, two new ministries are being set up: The Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment.
Another major institutional change is the merging of the banking and insurance regulators to reduce financial risk.
Financial risks have been identified by the government as one of its three "critical battles" — together with poverty and pollution. Because the Chinese economy today is far more intertwined with the rest of the world economy, mismanagement of China’s finance could trigger a financial crisis on a global scale.
READ: Vision of a new era for China reflects domestic priorities, not global ambitions, a commentary
ACTING IN PUBLIC INTEREST
The new line-up of government agencies does seem to lend credibility to Party instructions that the ultimate goal of governance is not just to make China wealthier and stronger but also allow the populace to "benefit from the fruits of opening up and reform and get a share of the dividends".
Along with the creation of the National Supervision Commission, which will administer party discipline over all public servants (including non-party members) to ensure they act in the public interest, the message for loyalty is loud and clear.
Still, it will be essential for Xi to hear challenges and get feedback from the leadership circle when ideas are flawed and policies produce poor results. Absence of disagreements could mean that he becomes more insulated and prone to mistakes.
In addition, the pursuit of a "better life" in China requires making difficult trade-offs between economic growth and environmental protection, and among social classes and regions with diverse and contradictory interests.
Making such decisions requires more debate and consultation, not less. Communicating the logic behind specific policies to the people will be as significant as the policies themselves, and in many cases, more so.
KEEPING COMMUNICATIONS OPEN
In the past few years, China has drawn its foreign policy confidence from its achievements over the past 40 years.
Yet, as former US president Barack Obama indicated when he set the philosophical basis for the US pivot to Asia, declaring that "prosperity without freedom is just another form of poverty", most of the Western world is far from ready to appreciate development input from China, much less leadership.
A case in point is that even at the divisive G7 summit of 2018, China came up as a topic for possible joint push-back in terms of trade.
Still, China thrived by being open to the rest of the world, and the world is much better off today to have the challenge of competition from China rather than the humanitarian challenge it had 40 years ago.
Keeping the lines of communication open — in all weather, domestic and diplomatic, and at the levels of both governments and societies — is the bare minimum approach for managing differences and preventing misjudgements.
Competition rather than confrontation is by far the preferable future.
Zha Daojiong is Professor of International Political Economy at Peking University. This commentary first appeared on East Asia Forum. Read it here.