The Chinese National People’s Congress reunites in Beijing every March, and this year will be marked by an unexpected record. Though mostly ceremonial, it is still a gathering of China’s highest legislative body, and this year, like every year, the government will praise its own achievements and applaud the leadership of the CCP. Social and economic progress is certainly a cause for celebration, but this year’s Congress is witness to a different kind of achievement: last year, the increase in worth of the personal fortunes of the 70 richest members of the CCP was greater than the total wealth of the United States Congress, Executive, and Supreme Court put together. That means that the Chinese lawmakers are worth 11.5 billion USD more than last year, dwarfing the combined 7.5 billion USD currently held by the 660 members of the US administration. The source of this revelation is the Hurun Report, a reliable Shanghai-based media company, which tracks Chinese wealth and is not given to speculation. That such a spectacular result takes place in a country with a mediocre pro-capita income, particularly in comparison to the United States, signals a glaring contradiction and sheds some light on modern China, a relatively poor nation that is able to give birth to billionaires, with astronomical wealth and the inevitable income inequalities to go along with them.
The theoretical basis for this disconnect can be found in the words of Jang Zemin and his theory of the “Three Represents,” which the ex-Party Secretary imparted to the NPC ten years ago. According to Jang, “The Party must always represent the requirements of the development of China’s advanced productive forces, the orientation of the development of China’s advanced culture, and the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people in China.” It was a clear message that the Party was not going to be for the representation of only the working class, and an invitation for the Chinese capitalists to join. No longer would they have to seek to organize separately, because the only organization was now on their side.
Jang Zemin’s ideological authorization was followed by a period of pragmatic decision making that brought the country to where it is today. As expected, the new members brought managerial experience, personal wealth, and contagious ambition into the formerly hostile Party. Since then, the majority of business in China has been driven by an informal coalition of vested interests, profits, bureaucracy, and opaque banking practices. It is no surprise, then, if today a part of the NPC looks like a club for billionaires.
The cold embrace of business and politics has borne the fruit of unimaginable enrichment, and indeed millions of Chinese have crossed the poverty line, but at a price of growing inequality, little transparency, and special interests at the helm of the economy.
Beijing may be past the point of no return. It has given birth to the intertwining of political control and socio-economic greed, and the most glaring example of this is the growing personal fortunes of NPC members. It will be difficult for the new leadership to reverse the course. Self-preservation will not allow them to repudiate the system that has brought success to the nation, and current Party members to power. An attempt to bring order to the shadowy system would be an admission of responsibility that could have serious consequences, potentially causing a fractional struggle within the party and risking social cohesion. Stability might be at stake, a risk that today’s China cannot afford.
The upcoming leadership will likely do little to address the issue, despite the need for more radical change. Adjustments will be made, but they will be small and easily controlled by the Party, a sort of fine-tuning for a bigger problem. As usual, these adjustments rely on endless growth, a tool that can capture the general consensus by sharing the wealth, unequal as its distribution may be. That is, of course, only on the condition that GDP continues to rise as fast as it has in the past.