John Simpson is a damned good journalist. He dodged bullets while reporting on the Tiananmen Square massacre, was one of the first western journalists to enter Afghanistan in 2001, and despite being in his mid-60s reported from the ground during the 2011 Libyan civil war. That being said, ‘New leader Xi Jinping opens door to reform in China‘ is a lousy op-ed.
Published in the Observer (sister paper of the Guardian) to promote an upcoming Radio 5 Live documentary on China, Simpson seems to accept at face value pretty much anything anyone says to him about this country.
Every leadership in the past two decades has altered and developed China’s direction. Over the past 10 years Hu Jintao, the outgoing president, introduced a sterner, more conservative tone. The changes that had been the work of the witty, liberal-minded Zhu Rongji, premier from 1998 to 2003, were set aside. Hu clamped down on criticism and alternative approaches to government.
Now, Zhu’s ideas are back in fashion.
Zhu may have been mildly more liberal than Jiang Zemin, under whom he served as premier, but he also oversaw the government’s brutal crackdown on Falun Gong practitioners and the complete suppression of that movement. Additionally, like his successor Wen Jiabao, any liberal tendencies he may have expressed publicly weren’t reflected in government policy.
One dissident figure I interviewed for my Radio 5 Live documentary, to be broadcast on Monday, believes the next five to seven years will change everything. “I would expect to see a popularly elected parliament in that time,” he said.
A popularly elected parliament in five to seven years. Five to seven years.
After getting excited about being able to interview Hong Lei – whose job as Foreign Ministry spokesperson and ability to always, always follow the Party line make him perhaps the least interesting government official to speak to – Simpson then goes into an extended anecdote about watching Hu Jintao’s interminably long and boring speech at the National People’s Congress, in which the veteran journalist gets excited because Zhu Rongji doesn’t dye his hair and wore a blue tie. Then comes the inevitable comparison to the Soviet Union:
So I wandered out to the lobby of the hall and sat on a step of the splendid marble staircase to jot down my impressions. It was a minute or two before I remembered when and where I had done this before: in the Kremlin, during the Soviet Communist party conference of June 1988. Similarly bored with the predictability of it all, I had wandered out and sat on the steps to write my report for that evening’s news.
The 1988 conference was the key moment in Mikhail Gorbachev’s effort to wrench Soviet communism away from the old conservative Brezhnevite norms and open it to new political and economic thinking.
The day after Hu’s keynote speech, I went to Zone 798, an area of Beijing that was once a closed suburb of weapons factories and has now been handed over to, of all things, the arts. In the halls where heavy guns were once produced, artists are free to show their work.
Perhaps Simpson should have spoken to Ai Weiwei, or Feng Xiaogang, or Wu Hongfei about freedom in China. Or, speaking of artists, maybe he could break through the cordon around Liu Xia and interview a woman illegally detained for years because of who her husband is.
In the Soviet bloc in 1988, most intellectuals felt divorced from the processes of formal Marxist-Leninist politics. And very soon the old, brittle system had cracked because of its utter lack of relevance to the lives of real people.
Can Xi reform the system, without – like Gorbachev – destroying it? He has advantages that Gorbachev lacked, so it’s not absolutely impossible. But I suspect things have gone too far for traditional Marxism-Leninism to survive. The dissidents who talk enthusiastically about wholesale change during Xi’s tenure may yet turn out to be right.
Except those dissidents, especially the ones based abroad, have been talking enthusiastically about wholesale change for decades now. Like Gordon Chang, they may eventually turn out to be right, but as the proverb goes, even a stopped clock is right sometimes.
There are many things to be positive about regarding China and Xi Jinping as the country’s leader, but both John Simpson and the Observer (and the BBC) should know better than to make the same tired comparisons to the Soviet Union or to trust the same wild predictions China’s dissident community have been making since the death of Mao.