Why Real Reform In China Can No Longer Wait

Tiananmen Square at sunset
Tiananmen Square at sunset
Zhou Qiren

BEIJING- Not long ago, I raised the question of why 35 years after China began to open up its political and economic system, the task of reform seems harder than ever. Why, in other words, is it so difficult to change a system? Wouldn't it be better to just proclaim that China has built a brand new system so reform is no longer needed?

After much deliberation, the answer is a clear "No", because without true reform, even bigger trouble will be waiting.

First, reforms must be made in certain key areas such as the orientation of a socialist market economy and progress in the functioning of a social democratic political system. Without tangible signs of advancement on these fronts, conflicts are bound to erupt.

Browsing China's news lately, the following stories have made headlines: Liu Tienan, the Deputy Director of National Development and Reform Commission was accused of misdeeds and removed from his office; Liu Zhijun, former Railway Minister, is being tried on corruption charges; three major fires broke out in a four-day span in the northeast provinces including one in a poultry factory that killed 120 people; and we witnessed the brutal display of an urban management agent stepping on a man's head in public.

It's true that in a country as big as China there will always be bad news and bad people. Still, the news coverage reflects that woven into the social fabric of a rising China lies a certain disturbing institutional disease.

Take the corruption cases as an example. The sums of bribes involved are astronomical. But even more crucial is that it all seems to be the by-product of these high officials' "normal work". The loopholes that allow for institutional abuse of power are unending.

As for the Jilin poultry factory fire, though economic development should support the free-market economy, private enterprises should also protect their workers' interests. Simply relying on the good conscience of private companies falls far short in protecting workers and citizens. It is fair to say that "the government was absent" in this tragic case. The question is what mechanism can monitor whether the government is doing its job of overseeing the private sector?

China's economic situation since 2012 is suddenly sinking from its pinnacle of the past decade. "It is easier to climb up than come down a hill," as the Chinese proverb goes. Conflicts can be kept hidden when times are good. China's current situation doesn't allow us to "cross the river by feeling the stones." When troubling issues remain unsettled it can create even more problems.

Second, China's younger generation is becoming the driving factor in society. Their evaluation of the system, policy and the surrounding environment is different than previous generations -- and they also have higher expectations.

For example, for those who experienced the Great Famine of 1959-1961, the People's Communes and the Cultural Revolution, the changes and progress they have witnessed since China's reform and opening-up is huge. Yet, for those born in a relatively more open China, much is now taken for granted -- and if the world does not reach their standard of an ideal state, they will not be satisfied.

Great expectations

A society with true hope is one where each generation sets higher and higher expectations. Thus, reform ought to match the mainstream population's ideal. If improvements cannot keep up with young people's social expectations, problems will arise.

Finally, because institutional variables are changing too slowly or are absent, a parallel "extra-judicial" system is taking root. In many ways, the law says one thing while people actually practice something else. Many choose not to abide by the law because it is so unreasonable, while economic regulations are so impracticable that people end up going underground to survive.

The examples are all around: the proliferation of "black cabs" in Chinese cities to serve the ordinary people who can't afford legal ones, or the so-called "small-ownership properties", the houses owned and built by collectivities and sold to the public without proper legal protection in rural or suburban areas. Also, how many "black families" are produced because of the outdated One-Child-Per-Family policy?

The Chinese authorities seem to have forgotten that if nothing is to be challenged or reviewed, this will naturally lead to heterodoxy. In a fast-evolving society, reform should enhance institutional capacity and allow illegal behaviors that do little harm to others or the society to be put into the legal framework as much as possible.

China is standing before a critical crossroads, where reforms are as difficult as they are necessary. The more that progress is delayed, the harder it becomes. Not only are China's reforms up against the corruption of the system, but are also racing against the rising expectations of the younger generation. If Chinese authorities don't move fast enough, bigger troubles will surely be in store.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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