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Hu's in Charge?

By Kyoko Altman

It’s not about who leads China. Whether the top man is Hu Jintao , Li Keqiang or Xi Jinping makes little difference. As long as China chooses leaders through an ossified, secretive process that draws on candidates from a small pool of like-minded elites, all from the same party, it will only face more of the same.

China’s Communist Party has succeeded in engineering rapid growth, transforming the nation into the world’s fourth largest economy. But as that economy matures, the limitations of its authoritarian political system are becoming ever more apparent.

Communist leaders talk about tackling the overheated economy and narrowing the gap between rich and poor. They hold meetings about controlling the country’s voracious energy consumption. They make pledges to clean up rampant pollution. They call press conferences to talk about product safety. But too often, it’s all just talk.

Solving these problems will require tearing apart economic and political incentives that are by now deeply rooted in China’s developmental model. The key drivers of China’s rapid rise are runaway public spending, cheap exports and dirty, fuel-guzzling industries. Shifting to new sources of growth would threaten entrenched local interests, whether they be plant managers or town officials dependent on taxes from factories. And any drop in the pace of growth poses high risks to a party that has shed its ideology and staked its legitimacy on a higher standard of living.

So as they talk of protecting the environment or the poor, authorities promote heavy industry and arrest those who expose the polluters. Fearful of criticism, the party continues to suppress dissent, jailing more journalists than any other country since 1999. Without the checks and balances of a free press, an independent judiciary and multi-party competition, the government is incapable of anything more than cosmetic reform.

The temporary measures planned for the Olympics attest to the government’s inability to carry out real reform. The government has moved the poor to the city’s outskirts. It is considering keeping cars off the capital’s road and limiting the operations of factories for two months in order to reduce air pollution. It has a program to raise pigs specifically to feed the Olympic athletes to ensure food safety during the games.

But then it’s back to business as usual. China has become the world’s biggest polluter and one of its largest oil guzzlers. It seems incapable of policing its own goods. In this “harmonious society,” wealth is less equitably distributed than in that capitalist bastion, the U.S. None of this bodes well for China – or for the rest of the world.

Kyoko Altman has worked as a correspondent and anchor for CNN and CNBC, and as a news-magazine reporter for Japan's top-ranked news program 'News Station' on TV Asahi. She has covered more than twenty countries.

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Comments (33)


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"Democracy all hold to the same fundamental principles: the freedom of the individual from undue government control, equal treatment under an impartial legal system, and a representative governments elected through a popular electoral mechanism."

I like these things as much as the next guy. The problem is that I understand that these principles are not possible in a developing economy pushing against its Malthusian limits.

India is a good counterpoint. On paper it practices all those principles, but in practice, it's hindered by poverty, tribalism, and remnants of feudalism and the caste system, of which "democracy" has had limited success in alleviating.

I also accept a very ungly truth the denial of which causes all kinds of cognitive dissonance among Americans (I am one too). American democracy as we now enjoy it would not be possible without ethnic cleansing perpetrated over a few hundred years. This is the truth. If the native population were still a political and numeric force, the North American political landscape would resemble the South American political landscape.

I am not accusing present day Americans of genocide. After all, nobody chooses to be born. I am accusing present day Americans of a willful blindness to the source of their good fortune and having a pernicious habit of flattering themselves for virtues that are imagined.


And for those who are wondering, I am a full-blooded Democrat who is avidly opposed to the majority of President Bush's domestic and foreign policies. So, please spare the predictable polemical argument that I "must be a Republican."


It is true that there are variations in democratic regimes. American presidentialism is, in many ways, an exception to the general model of Westminster parliamentarism which originated in the UK. But, at the same time, these varieties of democracy all hold to the same fundamental principles: the freedom of the individual from undue government control, equal treatment under an impartial legal system, and a representative governments elected through a popular electoral mechanism. These concepts, although greatly molded through the messy Western experience, are not solely "Western." How do you define "Western"? Is it all white people? For the person who did not approve of those making sweeping generalizations about China, shouldn't this principle be equally applied to those who are not Chinese? If China is not a monolithic country, how can one say that the "West" is monolithic, when it so clearly is not. I am of Asian heritage and I value democracy just as much as an Irish-American, Italian-American, or even a CHinese-American. Asserting that I should not value democracy because I am not of Anglo-Saxon heritage is the first symptom of the worst sort of authoritarianism.

Jon (from Chicago, not Beijing):

It's refreshing to read so many educated & well formulated comments - the Post would be well served to link to these comments instead of the original article. I've calmed down a bit since my first post and will try to be more coherent in my thoughts as I assure you I do not think that China is perfect and I'm not a CCP worker hiding behind a Western name. Although my comments directly compared China and the US governments, my point was intended to highlight the rediculous oversimplification of complex issues by the author. I also find it natural to compare the US & China as I live in the US but I am very interested in China and am fortunate to be able to travel there. I also am very interested in global affairs and feel that China and the US will be at or near the forefront of many of international/global issues for the next 15-20 years. I don't mean that as offense to other countries, but quite simply I'm interested in the US & China's impact on the world.

Democracy, freedom of the press, communism, environmentalism, & poverty are not absolutes with a pass/fail grade. It's foolish to post an article that speaks of China (or any other country) and attemps to define the country, its leaders, its issues, and predictions for future expectations in 7 paragraphs. I feel that increasingly here in the US the media oversimplifies complex issues and states an often one sides simplistic views as if it is an accepted consensus. The great thing about the internet is that it gives me the ability to respond & have others consider my opinion in response to this article.

I'm tired of China-bashing articles that are written as if they have data backing them or a concrete understanding of China's issues, policies, & future but only manage to regurgitate negative stereotypes without presenting any short term or long term solutions or options for change or improvement. Simply saying 'China should be a democracy instead of communist', 'China needs to stop pollution', or 'China needs a free press' doesn't accomplish anything. These are very complex issues and should be treated as such instead of simple absolutes that present China as some sort of backwards nation that needs to be coddled & brought out of its misguided ways.


I did a paper a few years back on the changing nature of health care in Guangzhou, and how the CCP semi-privatized the field. It gave me deep insight into how the political system in China works and I've come to, what I initially viewed as, some startling conclusions.

I think in America the term "Democracy" is used in reference to something very specific that is not in spirit with the original definition of the word. "Democracy" means something closer to "American Democracy" or "Western Democracy."

From what I have read, I can't find a way in which China couldn't be considered a democracy, specifically at the local level. There are free elections all over the country all the time. There is only one strict rule: all candidates must be CCP members. That doesn't mean they are robots and that they all think alike. I view it as similar to rules of citizenship and voting rights. You have to be 35 or older to run for president in the U.S. You also have to be a citizen. Right there we have two restricting rules. I see no difference between that and required CCP membership. Nowhere in the general definition of democracy is it explicit that there have to be political parties.

I also want to clarify that we should draw a distinction between Chinese democracy in terms of government and the central planning socialism of the economy. Just because a country is socialist/communist doesn't mean it's not democratic. This is the skewed American view where all communist countries have to be exactly opposite of America. It's just not true.


Re: Aaron L

As a Canadian who lived in both the US and Guangzhou recently, I can assure you, the citizens of Guangzhou have as much freedom as the average guy in Kansas. Anyone with half a brain in China have access to all the media in the world with diverse view that most US citizen can't obtain on FOX. He or she can move to Shanghai without any restriction. (There are 100 million migrant workers!) As for the whole Orwellian Overlord, Mr. Vice President seems to match the description just as well, don't you think?

No one is arguing that CCP is democratic or the best option for China. It is just that those who have not experience the complexity of modern China should not make grand sweeping condemnation that are neither helpful nor meaningful.


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I wish the Manhattan Indians the best of luck freeing themselves from their foreign invaders.

Oh wait. They're all dead.

Aaron L:

" In many ways the average citizen in GuangZhou, with the exception of voting, has more freedom than the average American citizen in that there are less laws to govern every day behaviors."

Laughing my head off. The average American citizen in say Kentucky, can go visit and heck can move to Oregon without having to have the permission of the communist party. The chinese citizen in GuangZhou cannot move to Shanghai without permission and cannot visit the country side without permission.

And of course the average American citizen can read Google, Yahoo, Wiki and the BBC on the internet. The average Chinese citizen in Guangzhou can't. I don't have anything against the Chinese people, just their communist overlords. I wish them the best of luck freeing themselves from their Orwellian government - foisted upon them in 1949 by an armed minority.


I'd think that the Chinese are cautiously learning to pick up democracy. But apparently they are afraid of the strong and negative power of democracy in a sense. Remember the Cultural Revolution: the "people" in power, the country in mess. The Chinese people are kind of scared by it. That's the problem for a lot transitional economies.

And peaceful power transfer is getting into Chinese politics and that's not too easy. I mean, its easy to talk, not easy to do. At least a lot more difficult compared with posting an article on Washingtonpost.


Just thought I'd mention that the U.S. is no the the only nation founded upon mass killings. China did not spring up from the weeds of pacifism.


"Pointing out a fault in the Chinese system is not neutralize by pointing out a similar or worse fault in America's."

I disagree. Pointing out that Ted Haggard likes drug fueled orgies with mimbos neutralizes his anti-gay criticisms.

Pointing out that America was born of genocide neutralizes ... well just about any human rights criticism Americans like to level at others.


The point people on this thread was trying to make wasn't that China is without fault. They were commenting on how superficial, empty and air-headed this article was at analyzing the issues facing China. Kyoko spews these condemnations, "But often times, its just talk" or "the government is incapable of anything more than cosmetic reform." But then she doesn't explain why?! This is just an opinion piece, a bad one. Why is it even on Washington Post!

It would also be nice to at least be a bit more fair and balanced (stealing from Fox).

CNN had a good article on how China was able to have no deaths when the most recent typhoon hit. They moved millions of people, placed them in temporary shelters, and provided aid - rapidly and effectively. Contrast that with Katrina and what is going on in California.

Life is rarely ever right vs. wrong, capitalism vs. communism, good vs. evil the way this article makes it out to be. We in the west say we uphold the value of diversity. Yet, we ram down our style of democracy to every country we interact with without any regards to culture, history, which then inevitably leads to situations like Iraq.

Please stop labeling everyone who shows a different perspective than the "China-bashing" mantra of this article as being a CCP PR person. That is the same argument used by the Burmese junta against the monks, saying that they were foreign supporters. You are no better.


China is a mini-continent. There is nothing anyone can say about "China" that can be "accurate". In many ways the average citizen in GuangZhou, with the exception of voting, has more freedom than the average American citizen in that there are less laws to govern every day behaviors. While CCP is corrupt and generally ineffectual in representing the masses, it has helped to lift hundreds of millions out of dire poverty, a feat that it has received little credit. What is true is that 1.3 billion people are not pissed off enough at the CCP to get rid of them; because on the balance it is not terrible. Most Chinese knows there is a price to change a long standing political system. At this point most would agree the general direction of the country is good enough so the old boys still get to play in the game.


When did the word "Japanese" become derogatory or disrespectful?
"Trashing Japanese cars", are you talking about Detroit autoworkers?

Seriously, yes, every country has problems, but don't demonize them just because they have problems (Re: the author say: None of this bodes well for China – or for the rest of the world.")


Richard makes a good point.Comparing the US to China is useless.And constructive criticism does not negate the problems in China.But if you are American, your comments will always be from an American perspective.

Still,I cannot see the comments as propaganda. The common thread seems to be that these observations are made by people who live in China or have spent some considerable time there.

This also applies to Kyoko. Yes, his article may be skewed but for the most part it is factual. From a journalistic point, articles are generally slanted to evoke discussion and yes to stir up some emotion.

But Richard says: " I love China and live there by choice". I wonder why. Is it possible that he is actually comfortable there and sees an emerging country trying to solve huge problems and just maybe doing a good job at it.


How convenient just label anyone Chinese government employees when they voice different views than yours. I'd venture to say I dislike communist government more than you do because I have personally experienced it.

Putin may not fit the taste of typical WoPo readers, and I am sure he is no saint (because there is none), but he is beloved by people who matter to him and whom he is responsible to. In any U.S. election, wining 55% is a landslide; can Putin's 80% approval rating in Russia be just a scam? Are Russian people plain stupid in supporting him? Or maybe because they have experienced the governance of The "Democrat " Yeltsin (who coincidently was a darling in the West) and do not like rulers who impoverish them. Everyone loves equality, open and fair election, human rights and free press; but when your life savings evaporate overnight, you don't care as much. The reason you can be so adamant and absolute about the values you advocate is that, just to bet, you have not lived in abject poverty and been humiliated by it. I embrace democratic values just as you do, but I refuse to accept their abstractness and any claim of their universality.

In China, where people were suffocated for centuries by wars, turmoil and poverty, who can blame people if their first choice, when opportunities arise, is to find a job, send the kids to school, or make a few bucks--instead of a multi-party system and free press? Again, the CCP is indeed evil in many aspects, and I believe eventually it will be in the dust pin of history. But the Chinese government, of this moment, is by and large effective in providing a stable environment for people to pursue many (not all, given that) of their dreams. Political changes will come when enough people feel the imperative. As for Hu Jintao, being the head of CCP, he can't avoid carrying the dictator blame, but I see no less mercy in him toward his countrymen (and the humanity) than George W. to his.


Amazing. I live in China, and it looks like this entire comment thread, from the very first entry, has been taken over by the fenqing who haunt the bowels of the China Daily forums.

This reporter is exactly right. Pointing out a fault in the Chinese system is not neutralize by pointing out a similar or worse fault in America's. Deng didn't make it to the top by some excellent process we should all ency; he made it there because the country was right on the brink of self-immolation and he grabbed the reins and imprisoned the Gang of Four, thank God.

Oh, and we do have a relatively free press in America nad it does make a difference. Our free press can take down Enron and Nixon and put Blackwater on the defensive. Not perfect, especially at a time when we have a poresident who is disresptectful of our Constitution. But having lived in both countries, I can assure you it's better to have a free press like America's; no reporters in America are imprisoned for reportin gon water pollution, or thrown into jail for 10 years for posting an article on the Internet on democracy.

Last comment: funny, the reference to the reporter's being Japanese. It says a lot about the mentality of the comments here. It looks to me like someone at China Daily flagged this post and sent the legions of CCP apologists over here to trash it, just like they trashed Japanese cars in Shanghai last year. Some things never change. And for the record, I love China and live there by choice. But it has vast room for improvement, like most other countries.

Laban :

"Guys, democracy, freedom of the press and basic civil rights are pretty important."

This is tired tripe that Americans flatter themselves with.

Democracy, freedom of the press and basic civil rights are luxuries enjoyed after all the Indians are killed and a modern economy is built through hundreds of years of slave labor.

China threatens American sensibilities because it is building a modern economy - the process of which is often ugly - but nothing close to what America had to perpatrate.


David makes a good point. "Jon," "Mary," "Phillip," and "Horsham" make comments that truly sound like propaganda written by Chinese government employees using westernized names.

Guys, democracy, freedom of the press and basic civil rights are pretty important. There is not much disagreement about this in the educated world. USA-bashing is a red herring -- saying Bush/Cheney are bad is not a valid or meaningful response to the author's legitimate concerns about China's trajectory. China will have to modernize and liberalize its political system as its middle class grows. China is an improving country, but it is still very clearly not a free country.

And Horsham, are you really trying to say Putin and his authoritarian takeover of Russia is a good thing? That man has set Russia back decades in democracy, civil rights, free press and even economically given his crony, oligarchic policies. In 50 years will be remembered in both western and Russian history books as one of the worst actors of his generation. He is certainly the most dangerous man alive -- I can't stand Bush, but if someone is going to start WWIII, the list of likely suspects goes: (1) Putin, (2) Kim Jong Il, (3) Iranian Mullahs (pick a leader).

This chat list so far is worrysome. I will feel better chalking these opinions up to propaganda from China/Russia PR employees.

Joe Bu:

"With the exception of James, I'd say you guys are all on the payroll of the CCP!"

And so? For all their faults, the CCP has formulated the most brilliant set of economic policies for the past 30 years.

Makes IMF, World Bank, Treasury Department look like a bunch of buffoons.

And they have been continuously "misunderestimated" 30 years running.

Good luck with the latest call for "The Coming Collapse"

Joe Bu:

"With the exception of James, I'd say you guys are all on the payroll of the CCP!"

And so? For all their faults, the CCP has formulated the most brilliant set of economic policies for the past 30 years.

Makes IMF, World Bank, Treasury Department look like a bunch of buffoons.


I think the discussion is centered a bit too much in comparing George W. Bush with the Chinese leadership. Sure, W. may be slow, dim-witted, even incompetent, but, remember, he is term-limited by the rules of our political system (through the 22nd Amendment). We are assured that no president would likely ever have the legitimacy to rule beyond eight years.

There is no such guarantee in China. Though the CCP leadership enshrined informal term limits following Jiang Zemin's second term, it is subject to negotiation amongst discrete factions within the CCP - as opposed to ratification by the public. This creates huge risk and uncertainty as accountability is not to the public at large, but rather based on back-room deals made between small groups of elites. If the public does not like a decision that the leadership makes, they do not have the option to vote them out of office.

Second, China's economic miracle has benefited millions. But it has also created huge problems for millions. Simply because many people have benefited from economic growth does not mean that there aren't millions who are equally victimized, marginalized, or otherwise left in distress by the roaring Chinese economy. More importantly, there is no effective channel for public input on economic decisions made by the leadership and no way to keep the leadership accountable. The result is a 700% increase in large-scale protests all over China over the past 15 years. Few people outside of the academic and policymaking communities hears of these protests because the Chinese government has successfully censored widespread dissemination of information on these protests.

This brings me to my third point. How can a society truly make informed decisions and keep their leaders accountable without a free press? If the U.S. is taken as an example, it is true that major corporations seem to dominate the media landscape. But, if you look more closely, the U.S. boasts the largest number of independent media outlets in radio, television, and print media than anywhere else in the world, reflecting all segments of the political spectrum. All are accessible for every American. Fox and CNN may be the loudest of these, but Americans have the choice to change the channel or read something else. The internet only increases the myriad perspectives that one can access.

In China, nearly all official media is controlled by a very powerful CCP Propaganda Department. Xinhua, Renmin Ribao, and other similar newspapers are the main source of news in the country. The CCP Propaganda Department employs thousands of censors to sift through blogs, alternative media portals, and foreign media websites to block material that it deems "inappropriate." Who is the CCP to decide what is and is not appropriate to discuss? If citizens of a society are deprived of the ability to access various perspectives and sources of information, how can they have any certainty that their leaders are doing what's in the society's best interests instead of their own?

Fourth, and finally, asymmetric access to information and the lack of accountability and the rule of law encourages rampant corruption. A recent Carnegie Endowment report estimates that corruption costs China up to 10% of its annual GDP, not accounting for the indirect costs (including efficiency loss, waste, environmental damage, public health, education, and credibility). Without the freedom to create organizations and associations that can monitor and evaluate the performance of the government, and that are independent of government control, little stands in the way of government officials to use the state to increase their own personal wealth. Although corruption exists everywhere, it is especially endemic in the most authoritarian states, including China.


With the exception of James, I'd say you guys are all on the payroll of the CCP! Way to go, gang!


Interesting comments.
Today Treasury Secretary Paulson sounded like he was blaming China for the problems with the US economy.

Let Bush play his war games while China focuses on economic issues


"As long as China chooses leaders through an ossified, secretive process that draws on candidates from a small pool of like-minded elites, all from the same party, it will only face more of the same."

And yet China got Deng Xiaoping, and real change in the country happened.

Based on the above introduction, I am not reading the rest of the article.

James Buchanan:

Frank, before you give up the ghost and shred the Constitution in favor of a five year plan, keep in mind the constant evolution that the US economy has undergone since the 50s. We've changed at the core more often than China has since day one of the Revolution overthrowing the Emperor.

Right now, because of the polemic games being played in DC, the US is so polarized, its paralyzed by intense two party hatred. The problem is, we, the American people, instead of telling the instigators to go frag themselves, we are buying into the spite and venom and letting them have their way with us.

The US is capable of dramatic change. We, the People, need to regain control of the country from the politicians who've become ever more authortarian since the September 11th attacks scared the common sense out of us.

It doesn't matter how many parties you have in a country, be it one or twenty, if the people don't look at the people behind the party structure and empower or DISempower the right people, it doesn't matter who you chose, you lose.

The US is in desperate need of abandoning both of its current party structures for its own good. They look more today like the old Tammany style political machines than they do anything resembling a representative government.


I regret to say that this Japanese writer displayed an an attitude of contempt toward China. It can only stemmed from either ignorance or hatred. I'll called it ignorance, giving you the benefit of doubt. What you know about "development model"? Russia adopted a Western multi-party democracy and free press, under the advisement of high-thinking professors from places no-less than Harvard, Princeton, etc. How far did it go? It was only under Putin, who understand and defend the interests of his country, that Russia is again on a growth path.

China is in a gigantic economic, cultural, and political transition today, and I trust that the Chinese know the best what their priorities are and how to handle their problems. One party system is a bad form of government, except that everything else would be probably worse for today's China. Many from the Western hold a culture supremacist view that any thing that dose not conform to their political values and sense of moral is deviant in nature and must be condemned, controlled and corrected. This view is fundamentally bankrupt, as shown in so many parts of the world, from Africa, Middle East to Asia.

China has many problems, many are serious, even critical (although, contrary to the author's assertion, China still has not inherited the World's-Largest-Polluter hat from the U.S, not yet), but the solutions can only be developed in a stable environment. I for one will not blame the Chinese populace in choosing economic growth over idealistic political reform. Political changes will come in time, but they will be in forms that the Chinese people can accept and embrace--not withstanding what ignorant foreigners reporters have or have not said.


"Without the checks and balances of a free press, an independent judiciary and multi-party competition, the government is incapable of anything more than cosmetic reform."

What are you saying, that by having a free press, an independent judiciary, and a multi-party political structure then fundamental reforms are ensured? None of what you've presented here are true solutions for reform in and of themselves. The key to true reform is accountability, which free press, independent judiciary, or multi-party systems do not necessarily guarantee. Just think about what true reform the US government, operating in a society which enshrines the three items you listed, has achieved in the last few years; I can think of none. Immigration reform? Busted. Social security reform? Forgotten. Education reform? Little to no real result. Just because you have these three things you listed does not mean reform is possible. Likewise, just because you don't have these things also does not imply that reform is impossible. Deng Xiaoping's economic liberalization of China is a huge structural reform, and that was a single-party state. I doubt that the US federal government today can produce a reform of equal magnitude to benefit Americans.

Or, since you also report for TV Asahi in Japan, let's look at the Japanese system. What reform have they accomplished? Few. They can't even effectively get their economy out of a decade long slump, and even worse completely screwed up the pension records of millions of their citizens despite all the talk of reforming the system. Quite effective was their press, judiciary, and multi-party system in ensuring reforms, don't you think?

So please, don't simplify things down to the elementary level. You're writing for a respected journalistic enterprise, not grade school.


Funny isn't it? An 'experienced China reporter' reporting about China and manages to sound like dick Cheney on a bad day.

The Chinese leadership have bigger fish to fry than to worry about indulging themselves in the fruitless exercise of flaunting themselves at every opportunity to the public. After all hundreds of millions of Chinese are enjoying the fruits of their own efforts and hopefully the leaders, 'democratically elected or not' can provide the same opportunity and environment to the 700 million currently still left behind to do the same and to live more comfortably than they have done thus far.


Chineses are fortunate not to have leaders like W. Bush to mess around their country. Thank goodness, their leaders must be proven competent before being selected not just being good in sound bytes.

What is the point of having democracy when the leader elected is the lowest denominator in competence, getting into a wrong war, and constantly running off huge deficits?

The writer is devoid of clear thinking required in a democratic society. Instead, the article reads like a communist-style propaganda, except it is from the anti-communist side.


You've got to be kidding me. You've "covered more than twenty countries" and yet open your piece with the comment that China "draws on candidates from a small pool of like-minded elites, all from the same party". Do you feel that this is any different from the United States?

When was a minority last elected president in the U.S.? How about a woman? When was the last pro-labor party elected? Or an individual from the green party?

You clearly do not know what you are talking about in your reporting on China. China has brought up hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Is it due to wonderful governing? Of course not, just as continued problems are not solely the governements fault.

Honestly it's hard to make an argument in response to your drivel. I'd expect this from an MSNBC "expert" but I have no idea why the Washington Post would put up this drabble even if you are just a panelist.

PostGlobal is an interactive conversation on global issues moderated by Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria and David Ignatius of The Washington Post. It is produced jointly by Newsweek and washingtonpost.com, as is On Faith, a conversation on religion. Please send us your comments, questions and suggestions.