China Leadership Monitor

Social Issues Move to Center Stage

Wednesday, October 30, 2002

For the past two decades, economic reform—or, more precisely, economic growth—has been at the center of China's thinking about politics. Party conservatives hoped to avoid social and political cleavages by constraining economic reform. Party reformers hoped to outrun and defuse social and economic challenges by developing the economy rapidly. Today, there is no escaping that reform has created winners and losers. That conclusion is forcing social issues to the center of political consciousness. Some believe that it is already too late to address these issues effectively, while others see them as forcing a process of political reform. For the moment, the political leadership is giving few indications of specific intentions regarding political reform. But it is nevertheless setting a tone and framework that provides space for such issues to be addressed. Although the Sixteenth Party Congress will be important for many reasons, it seems likely that whatever leadership arrangements are made, the pace of political reform will increase. Whether it will increase sufficiently is more difficult to assess.