How U.S. ‘Pivot’ Could Hurt Reform in China

Posted on November 23, 2012


U.S. President Barack Obama visited Myanmar on Monday in an historic trip many hope will hasten political and economic reforms already under way there.

>> U.S. pivot bumps Asian economic reality

What role does the U.S. have to play in promoting political reform in Myanmar’s big neighbor to the north? According to some Chinese with ties to influential party leaders, Washington’s best bet is to the stay out of the way.

That argument featured prominently during a lunch not long ago at a Mao Zedong-themed restaurant near the Ministry of Education. Over a plate of Chairman Mao’s favorite dish – red-braised pork, or hongshaorou in Mandarin – a foreign reporter listened as a young and well-connected Communist Party member laid out three conditions for China to pursue bolder political reforms under the leadership of newly anointed party chief Xi Jinping:

First, leaders themselves must support it. Second, domestic circumstances must allow for it. Finally, China needed a benign international environment to give leaders the confidence to pursue the most sensitive of reforms.

As he spoke, Mao stared down along with revolutionaries Zhou Enlai and Lin Biao from a photo hanging above the table. Zhou had been instrumental in crafting Chinese foreign policy during the Mao era, while Lin served as Mao’s military chief and designated successor prior to a failed 1971 coup. Both were well aware of the impact external circumstances could have on domestic politics in China.

Deep suspicion in Beijing toward the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” has resulted in hawkish Chinese generals finding a renewed voice over the past couple of years. Meanwhile, the administration’s efforts to strengthen ties to China’s neighbors like Vietnam, Japan and most recently long-isolated Myanmar, is viewed by many here as a bid by Washington to surround China with its influence.

Party leaders are deeply knowledgeable of the country’s history, which is one reason some in China argue perceived aggressiveness by the U.S. or others could stall internal political reforms. The story of Wang Anshi, a controversial official during the Northern Song period (960-1127AD), serves as a reminder for the party of the potential dangers of aggressively pushing through reforms.

Wang came to prominence during the second half of the 11th century, a time when the imperial government was struggling with falling state revenues, budget deficits and a variety of other problems. Appointed councilor by the Shenzong emperor, Wang over a number of years pushed through reforms that provided a greater role for the state in managing the economy, including adjusting the tax code and providing government loans to farmers. These moves would bitterly divide parts of the leadership, and internal political struggles weakened the state and contributed to its downfall at the hands of invaders in the coming years.

Such stories are a reminder of why party leaders today pursue a decision-making process driven by consensus, fearful a divided and weaker leadership could make it susceptible to foreign incursions. Pressure from the outside reinforces that fear and bolsters the consensus model – considered by some analysts to be a major roadblock on the path to substantive reform.

China perceives a particularly hostile foreign environment today. Along with the U.S. “pivot,” Beijing faces growing territorial spats with Japan in the East China Sea as well as similar disputes with neighbors such as Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea.

Tens of thousands of Chinese took part in anti-Japanese protests in September, where Japanese-owned businesses were attacked and shuttered and Japanese-brand cars were smashed. They called on Beijing to take a harder line against the Japanese, action the Chinese leadership appears hesitant to embrace, mindful of damaging critical trade ties with Japan in the long run.

As lunch finished, the desire for U.S. patience was clear: The party must reform over time, but the greater the pressure exuded by the U.S. and other powers, the less prepared party leaders will be to embrace it.

Brian Spegele