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The new leaders that will take over China in the next year may find themselves forced to open the country’s economy and political life as they try to maintain its economic growth, said Jon Huntsman Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to China and Republican presidential hopeful.
“Their opening to the rest of the world will require a certain standardizing of the way business is done,” Huntsman said yesterday at an event in New York organized by the National Committee on United States-China Relations. “You just can’t make decisions behind the velvet curtain.”
China is in the midst of a once-in-a-decade political transition to its fifth generation of leaders since its People’s Republic was established in 1949, with Vice President Xi Jinping set to succeed President Hu Jintao, who has served in that role since 2003.
“The Deng Xiaoping dynasty pretty much comes to an end,” at the Congress, Huntsman said, referring to the Chinese leader who began the country’s market-oriented reforms in 1978.
Huntsman, who quit his quest for the Republican presidential nomination in January, said that as U.S. ambassador to China from 2009 to 2011, he witnessed the rise of industrial lobbies and what he called “special interest politics” in China.
The need to develop the economy may push China’s incoming leaders, whom Huntsman called “pragmatic,” to loosen social and political constraints to keep the economy moving, easing restrictions on the Internet and on many dissidents.
Xi may have to open the Internet to encourage economic growth, making the argument to hardliners that for China to stay competitive, it will need its own “Silicon Valley,” which requires the free flow of ideas, he said.
The ruling Communist Party’s “most vulnerable area is credibility and legitimacy, and I don’t think there is a choice other than to let a little bit of pressure out of the valve from time to time,” Huntsman said.
In the interim, Huntsman said, the U.S. shouldn’t shy from pressing democratic issues.
Human rights shouldn’t be locked in a small office of the State Department, Huntsman said. Instead, pushing China to show greater respect for the basic rights of its citizens should cut across all aspects of U.S. discussions with China. U.S. companies operating in China will support a stronger emphasis on human rights, he added.
An emphasis by U.S. diplomats on labor rights in China could be a way to tie human rights to the broader issue of trade, and would probably have support from U.S. business, he said.
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