BEIJING — As the Communist Party’s 18th Congress approached, Li Weidong, a scholar of politics, made plans to observe a historic leadership battle in one of the world’s great nations. Instead of staying in Beijing to monitor China’s once-a-decade transfer of power, Li boarded a plane.
“I’m going to the United States to study the elections," Li said in a telephone interview during a stopover in Paris. After witnessing the American presidential election Tuesday, Li went on the radio for another interview. “I still think China’s politics remain prehistoric. I often joke that the Chinese civilization is the last prehistoric civilization left in the world."
With China at a critical juncture, there is a rising chorus within the elite expressing doubt that the 91-year-old Communist Party’s authoritarian system can deal with the stresses bearing down on the nation and its 1.3 billion people. Policies introduced after 1978 by Deng Xiaoping lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and transformed the country into the world’s second-largest economy. But the way party leaders have managed decades of growth has created towering problems that critics say can no longer be avoided.
What is needed, they say, is a comprehensive strategy to gradually extricate the Communist Party, which has more than 80 million members, from its heavy-handed control of the economy, the courts, the news media, the military, educational institutions, civic life and just the plain day-to-day affairs of citizens.
Only then, the critics argue, can the government start to address the array of issues facing China, including rampant corruption, environmental degradation, and an aging population whose demographics have been skewed because of the one-child policy.
For now, however, party leaders have given no indication that they intend to curb their role in government in a meaningful way. “We will never copy a Western political system," Hu Jintao, the departing party chief, said in a speech Thursday opening the weeklong congress.