A mid-autumn fantasy: The year 2012 is drawing to a close, and China is preparing to inaugurate its first democratically elected President. World leaders are gathered in Beijing to congratulate its outgoing leader, Hu Jintao, for paving the way to democracy. Hu got the ball rolling back in 2003. That was the year he took over as President from Jiang Zemin, the year China sent its first astronaut into space, and the year Hu presided at his first annual plenary session of the Communist Party's Central Committee. At that October 11-14 meeting, the 60-year-old Hu pushed through a series of modest changes that created momentum for political reforms that have blossomed into full-fledged democratic institutions.
Sound far-fetched? Certainly. But there is reason to believe that Hu may be unleashing forces that will lead to real reform in China. Like Mikhail Gorbachev during the final days of the Soviet Union, Hu has little reason to dismantle a system that brought him to the peak. But like Gorbachev, Hu seems prepared to take measures to cure the rot that has eaten away the credibility of the ruling Communists -- measures that may eventually cause the system to crumble. "There's a large sense within Chinese society that China needs political reform," says David Zweig, a political scientist at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology.
True, those wanting quick results have so far been disappointed. The official communiqué from the plenum didn't mention political reform. Hu has made vague references to democratic elections but has done nothing to expand multicandidate polls, which currently exist only for the lowest-level leaders in the countryside. And he has shown little tolerance for dissent in the media.
Still, an optimist might see some hopeful signs in the tea leaves. Before the plenum, Hu scored a modest victory by getting the Politburo to submit a report to the Central Committee, reestablishing the idea that senior leaders are actually accountable -- even if only to a group of almost-as-senior leaders. That could send the message that officials must be less aloof. Hu has encouraged administrative experiments, such as a Shanghai initiative requiring competition among candidates for many jobs. And the plenum produced a call for a constitutional amendment to recognize the right to private property. While the move was intended to make it easier to privatize state-owned enterprises, it could lead the growing middle classes to demand political and legal reform, says Winston Zhao, a partner at the Shanghai office of U.S. law firm Jones Day. "When you own property, you want to make sure that it is protected and that your representative will voice your concerns," says Zhao.
AN EXTERNAL JOLT
Hu may be tempted to muddle through, in the same way China has delayed decisions on economic issues such as banking reform. An external jolt, though, could kick-start political change. A return of SARS, or a more deadly flu outbreak, could lead to greater discontent. And Hu has to contend with urban unemployment as high as 10%, a recipe for unrest. If large-scale protests were to break out, Hu may not be as willing as Jiang to summon troops. One big reason: A crackdown would jeopardize the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, which the government is desperate to pull off without a hitch.
So here's the rest of that fantasy: In 2007, demonstrations erupt nationwide. Instead of suppressing them, Hu compromises with the protesters in the runup to the Olympics. After that turning point, the hardliners can only watch helplessly as events move beyond their control. The rest is history.
By Bruce Einhorn in Hong Kong