਀㰀䴀䔀吀䄀 渀愀洀攀㴀䜀䔀一䔀刀䄀吀伀刀 挀漀渀琀攀渀琀㴀∀䴀匀䠀吀䴀䰀 㠀⸀  ⸀㘀  ㄀⸀㄀㤀 ㄀㤀∀㸀㰀⼀䠀䔀䄀䐀㸀 Many roads, and no collective mind
By Francesco Sisci

BEIJING - How big are the differences of opinion between the Democratic and Republican parties in United States? Huge, one would say in America. Yet, looking at the political debate from the other side of the Pacific, the gap between the two parties could seem negligible, as neither is challenging - or even thinking of challenging - the American institutional status quo.

Conversely, as ambassador Stapleton Roy has pointed out, [1] institutional changes in China in the past 30 years have been huge and the political atmosphere in the country has been dramatically transformed.

In fact, one does not need to peek around for state secrets to notice the many different opinions in China and within the party about the country's future. Some, thinking of the upcoming 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party in Shanghai, want to hark back to Mao Zedong times. Others, , thinking of an identity encompassing all ethnic Chinese, want to turn the clock all the way back to Confucius. Still others would like to jump the gun and go straight to the West, thinking of the many non-ethnic Han-Chinese in and out of China.

There are many ideas in between and many consequences in each of these divergent political thrusts, as they all imply a massive political and institutional transformation of the country.

To a naked and possibly naive eye, these differences appear far bigger than those in America - still in America there are two parties, and in China there is one! In fact, these differences run much deeper, involving basically all Chinese institutions, each with its own agenda and priority. [2]

In theory, institutions like the party's central committee and the politburo are forums where compromises are reached. Yet these institutions have adapted to different purposes. They were originally designed to send down the orders of one autocrat and a small group of his assistants, as it was with Joseph Stalin in Russia or Mao, or to call on a collective responsibility with unanimous consensus over single decisions, as occurred with Deng Xiaoping.

But during Deng's times, the process worked because it hinged on a cohesive group of friends who had gone through thick and thin together for many decades. They all shared the same mind, and they basically summoned to this "collective mind" a selected number of people they felt close to.

Once these old people passed away, the collective mind was gone forever, since none of their successors had this level of close-knit bond. Moreover, the world and China have dramatically changed over the past 15-20years, since the demise of the elderly leaders. In the "outside world" and in China things are moving faster and are far more complicated, the old structure is simply ineffective in present times.

Still, the one-party structure holds, and there are not many clear-cut responsibilities: Everything must be collectively discussed at all levels. The practical result is that opinions in the party differ very widely, and taking decisions at all levels can be very cumbersome. For instance, it is not quite clear who could declare war in China.

In America, it is well-defined: the president, with the consent of the congress and for the limited period of time (four or eight years) he is in office, he can deploy troops. But in China? And from this follows an even weirder question: Who can stop a war in China? As many departments have different priorities, agendas and entrenched turfs of power to defend, almost any given government branch could start a commercial conflict - or even a war over a clash between fishing boats, or over the import and export of mushrooms or chicken - with very little beef.

These things are not exclusive to China, yet in other countries there are mechanisms to control and check these flights of rage and hubris. In China, it is uncertain who speaks for himself and who speaks for the president or the politburo, and how those possible flights can be checked.

The problem is there are too many different ideas, there are no real channels to check and control these ideas, and thus the chain of command is very clumsy. Therefore whereas in the West there might be a division of three powers (four, if one adds the press), with clear-cut division of responsibility, in China there are dozens of powers with muddled responsibilities.

That is, despite the official line rejecting the Western division of power, de facto China practices a far more complicated and awkward division of power.

Here decisions are made by looking at the greater good of the country - and massive horse-trading. The fact that these differences of opinion are officially hidden and the system is not transparent makes it even more difficult to bring together the different ideas and the decisions.

As the party approaches its 18th congress and ends its 90th anniversary, it should find a way to concentrate power. Looking at it from China, the Western system could then be a simplification of the present one and a way to concentrate power, not further disperse it.

One could consider that there could be one party and two lines, and the popular vote could elect a president with enough power to overhaul the system. But the main obstacle to this might be the newly powerful interest groups that would see their clout decline.

There should be enough reasons to be pessimistic and expect the worst. Perhaps this will not be the case. There is apparent debate about this in China, and one should await the results. Then if not two parties, at least two transparent lines could emerge and the difference between them could eventually grow smaller, just like in the US. Notes
1. J Stapleton Roy, Globalist Perspective: The Internal Logic of China's Political Development, The Globalist (June 3, 2011).
2. See Too many cooks spoil foreign-policy stew

Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore and can be reached at