Chinese Political Symbolism: Let the Games Begin

December 13, 2012

There’s an army of journalists and China watchers out there waiting with bated breath for the new Chinese leadership to indicate, either directly or indirectly, the future course of government policy. The big question, according to the foreign commentariat, is whether, and to what extent, there will be significant political reform. I don’t personally understand why people think this is necessarily even up for discussion, but maybe that’s just me.

The new leadership is therefore under a tremendous amount of scrutiny and can’t even blow their noses without some schmuck with a newspaper column analyzing it. Yuck.

Given this dynamic, it is no surprise when an obvious, bona fide symbolic move garners a deluge of chatter, like the following in the Diplomat:

With his trip to Shenzhen and other places in southern China, Xi Jinping, the new leader of China’s Communist Party, has all but declared himself to be a reformer in the vein of Deng Xiaoping.

Get used to this sort of thing as you will be seeing a lot of this tea leaf reading over the next year or so. This one was sort of easy, but future “events” might be a bit more opaque.

There is no doubt that Xi’s Southern Tour was intentionally symbolic. But of what? Most of the discussion from the foreign press on this has been on what kind of reform we are likely to see and whether conservatives will thwart these attempts. As you no doubt recall, Deng’s legacy is rooted in economic liberalization (or perhaps just economic growth).

Nevertheless, because the West is so keyed in to political reform, a lot of the chatter has focused on that area. But it seems to me that even if the message was all about reform instead of economic growth/stability, “reform” could mean a lot of different things, including anti-corruption, and absolutely nothing to do with the political framework of the nation.

Finally, as a cynic, my first reaction to all this was “Suckers! They want to you all to be thinking reform, and all it took was a trip to Shenzhen. Now the government will just go back to work, all the while you guys are busy with fantasy and speculation.”

I grew up with American politics and something called “spin.” Given the right PR team, the government can do pretty much whatever it wants and, more often than not, convince folks that they’re doing the opposite.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens.

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