Editor’s Note: In the midst of China’s once-a-decade top leadership transition, The Wall Street Journal invited Brookings’s Cheng Li and Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College to debate the chances for political reform. In the first round Li, more optimistic on the outlook, argues the case that reform is possible. Mr. Pei, more skeptical, argues that it is unlikely. Read an excerpt below. (Read also Part 2 and Part 3.)
China Real Time: What does political reform mean in China, and why is it so important right now?
Cheng Li: Political reform means that China’s leadership will open the political system for competition, supervision and for rule of law. To a certain extent it’s a democratic change, although they may be hesitant to use that phrase. They will emphasize intra-party democracy or intra-party elections.
I think there’s a very good chance that the new leadership, the fifth-generation leadership, will push for serious or even fundamental political reform now, for several reasons.
First, this is actually not a choice, in my view; it’s a necessity.
The Bo Xilai crisis revealed the fundamental flaws of China’s political system. Corruption is completely out of control. It’s unprecedented in terms of scale and scope — one may even argue unparalleled in today’s world. We’re talking about, you know, a couple of billion U.S. dollars for many cases, including the railroad minister.
So the Communist Party has largely lost the moral high ground with these kinds of cases. There’s no moral bottom line. That’s clear in the case of assassination with Bo Xilai’s wife; and also terrible abuse of power elsewhere.