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Joseph Fewsmith

Biography: 

Joseph Fewsmith is Professor of International Relations and Political Science as well as Director of the East Asia Interdisciplinary Studies Program at Boston University. He is the author of four books: China Since Tiananmen: The Politics of Transition (Cambridge University Press, 2001), Elite Politics in Contemporary China (M.E. Sharpe, 2001), The Dilemmas of Reform in China: Political Conflict and Economic Debate (M.E. Sharpe, 1994), and Party, State, and Local Elites in Republican China: Merchant Organizations and Politics in Shanghai, 1980-1930 (University of Hawaii Press, 1985). His articles have appeared in such journals as Asian Survey, Comparative Studies in Society and History, The China Journal, The China Quarterly, Current History, The Journal of Contemporary China, and Modern China. He is also a research associate of the John King Fairbank Center for East Asian Studies at Harvard University.

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Recent Commentary

Political Reform

Debating “the China Model”

by Joseph Fewsmithvia China Leadership Monitor
Wednesday, September 21, 2011

In recent years, especially since 2008, there has been a broad-ranging discussion about whether a “China model” exists, and, if so, whether it is good or bad, and whether it is restricted to China or can be spread to other countries. While this discussion has involved both Chinese and foreign scholars around the world, it is largely a discussion about Chinese identity and whether and how China should adopt “Western” concepts and practices or resist such trends. Although some of the discussions are serious explorations of development trends, most are highly politicized and emotional. Participants in the discussion tend to fall along the lines of past debates, with those identified with the “new left” advocating the existence and virtues of the China model, and those identified as liberal rejecting the claims of the former. In addition, there are some who seek to avoid politicization by taking an agnostic attitude toward the existence of a China model. In many ways, the discussion of the China model is a recurrence of earlier debates over “socialism” and “capitalism,” “the Beijing consensus,” and even earlier debates in Chinese history about the uniqueness of Chinese civilization.

Political Reform

Political Reform Was Never on the Agenda

by Joseph Fewsmithvia China Leadership Monitor
Tuesday, February 22, 2011

In August 2010 Premier Wen Jiabao went to the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, which was approaching the celebration of its 30th anniversary, and gave a speech that, among other things, called for political reform. What exactly Wen meant by his remarks, and whether he differed significantly from General Secretary Hu Jintao, who gave an official and less enthusiastic address in Shenzhen two weeks later, have become topics of intense media speculation. Whatever distance may or may not lie between the general secretary and his premier, it is safe to assume that Wen was not crossing swords with Hu and that significant political reform—meaning reform that would challenge the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on power—was never on the agenda. There is, on the contrary, good evidence that the CCP is continuing on a trajectory of limited, inner-party “democracy” that it set on some time ago.

Political Reform

Institutional Reforms in Xian’an

by Joseph Fewsmithvia China Leadership Monitor
Monday, June 28, 2010

Like many agricultural areas of the interior, Xian’an district in Hubei Province faced enormous problems from growing numbers of bureaucratic offices, increasing numbers of cadres, escalating debt, and financial malfeasance. Beginning in 2000, a new Party secretary, Song Yaping, began drastic measures to reduce the size of the cadre force and restructure local government. With strong political backing and a forceful personality, Song appears to have been largely successful, though his reforms remain controversial. The bigger question is whether the model adopted in Xian’an can be spread to other areas, and the answer to that appears to be negative.

Political Reform

Bo Xilai Takes On Organized Crime

by Joseph Fewsmithvia China Leadership Monitor
Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Although the 18th Party Congress remains two years away, competition among officials for seats on the all-important Politburo Standing Committee appears to be heating up. Over the past nine months, Bo Xilai, Party secretary of Chongqing, has been carrying out a high-profile campaign against organized crime that has catapulted him into the limelight. Because his predecessor in that position was Wang Yang, currently Party secretary of Guangdong Province and seemingly a valued protégé of General Secretary Hu Jintao, there has been much speculation over the possible rivalry between these two contenders for power. This speculation has been fueled in part because Bo Xilai, son of senior political leader Bo Yibo, is a “princeling” while Wang Yang, with no special family background but with a long history in the Communist Youth League, appears to be favored by Hu Jintao. Although one must be cautious about drawing conclusions, it is a situation that bears watching as preparations for the congress continue.

Political Reform

Inner-Party Democracy: Development and Limitations

by Joseph Fewsmithvia China Leadership Monitor
Monday, February 15, 2010

The Fourth Plenary Session of the 17th Central Committee, which met in September, passed a decision on promoting “inner-party democracy,” a political direction with which CCP general secretary Hu Jintao is closely identified. Although there can be beneficial aspects of inner-party democracy, including expanding the pool from which cadres are drawn and increasing the number of people participating in the political process, the development of inner-party democracy over the past decade suggests that movement will be slow and that renewed emphasis on electoral practices within the Party is unlikely to stem corruption or reduce social conflict.

Political Reform

What Zhao Ziyang Tells Us about Elite Politics in the 1980s

by Joseph Fewsmithvia China Leadership Monitor
Thursday, November 19, 2009

On the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, the posthumous account of politics in the 1980s by former premier and general secretary Zhao Ziyang was published in both Chinese and English.  The publication of this memoir follows the publication of several interviews with the former Party leader and marks a continuing effort to speak to history.  Publication was apparently intended to remind the world of the tragedy of Tiananmen, but there is little sign in China that it is having much of an impact. Although Zhao's various accounts do not contain startling revelations, they do add much detail and nuance to our understanding of politics in this period. Indeed, the role and rivalries of personalities come through very clearly, allowing one to better understand the political meltdown that befell China in 1989.

Political Reform

Participatory Budgeting: Development and Limitations

by Joseph Fewsmithvia China Leadership Monitor
Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Over the past five years, Wenling City— particularly Xinhe Township—in southeastern Zhejiang Province has pioneered openness and public participation in local budgeting. Although there are flaws in the reform, it is nevertheless highly significant in underscoring a clear problem in local governance, breathing life into the normally inert local people's congresses, and introducing a degree of democratic supervision. Local leaders can justly take pride in these reforms. Although there have been efforts in other parts of China to introduce legislative supervision of local budgets, there are significant obstacles to popularizing this innovation, including recent efforts to centralize control over budgets.

Political Reform

Social Order in the Wake of Economic Crisis

by Joseph Fewsmithvia China Leadership Monitor
Friday, May 8, 2009

With the onset of the world economic crisis, China’s export industries have been hard hit, with the result that millions of “peasant workers” have returned to their inland homes. Although these returnees present a potential social order problem, especially if the economy does not rebound in the latter half of 2009, most of the social order problems witnessed in recent months appear to be a continuation of the deterioration in local governance in various parts of the country in recent years. Thus, the return of migrant workers to the countryside is not so much a problem in and of itself as it is an additional burden on an already fragile political economy.

Special Topic: The Third Plenum's Rural Reforms

Tackling the Land Issue—Carefully

by Joseph Fewsmithvia China Leadership Monitor
Friday, January 9, 2009

Thirty years after undergoing a major revolution that de-collectivized agriculture, China is facing another major change in rural life as commercial agriculture spreads and as peasants migrate to the cities. This revolution in rural affairs, however, has been much more difficult. Cadres and peasants contend over land rights, growing income gaps between urban and rural areas fuel social discontent, and cities resist extending urban services to rural migrants. As the recent decision of the Third Plenum shows, China’s leaders are confronting the difficult issues involved, but are doing so cautiously. The Plenum decision also suggests that socially contentious issues that have boiled over in many places will continue for years to come.

Political Reform

An “Anger-Venting” Mass Incident Catches the Attention of China’s Leadership

by Joseph Fewsmithvia China Leadership Monitor
Tuesday, September 2, 2008

On 28 June, at least 10,000 people, and perhaps as many as 30,000 protested the death of a schoolgirl in Weng’an County in southwestern Guizhou, the poorest province in China, overturning police cars and setting fire to the local security bureau. Video and still photographs of the event quickly circulated on the Internet. Shortly after the Weng’an incident, another mass riot broke out in Menglian, in neighboring Yunnan Province, showing that the emotions that fueled the Weng’an riot are not isolated. Whether because of an inability to cover up an incident of this size, the approach of the Beijing Olympics, or for other reasons, Chinese media quickly switched to trying to explain the causes of the incident and to calling for reforms to prevent similar confrontations in the future. Although the Weng’an disturbance was particularly large in scale, similar incidents have erupted in China over at least the last four years. Unlike protestors demonstrating against exorbitant taxation or land requisition, those participating in the Weng’an riot were not involved in the incident that set it off (the death of a girl), suggesting longstanding anger among the populace. Preventing similar incidents in the future marks a serious challenge for the Chinese government.

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