The Internal Political Situation In China
Originally published by Eurasia Review, 06 December 2010
By B. Raman
An editorial published on October 15, 2010, by the Communist Party controlled “Global Times” said: “China has changed a lot. In the future it will continue to adopt gradualism to bring about changes. No force can compel the nation to change what cannot be changed at the moment….. The Chinese cherish stability. They don’t want to let a radical revolution overwhelm current reforms. In respect to reforming the political system, China needs political wisdom and constant drive. It doesn’t need to rush its fences.”
This editorial was published on the eve of the four-day fifth plenary session of the 17th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, which was held at Beijing from October 15 to 18. Even though the main item on the agenda of the session was the approval of the next (12th) Fife-Year Plan, there was considerable speculation in China and abroad that the session might set in motion a programme of political reforms as a follow-up to the economic reforms launched by Deng Xiao-Ping in 1978 and the administrative reforms that followed in 1982.
The gradual introduction of a free market economy and the equally gradual integration of the Chinese economy with the global economy were the two pillars of the economic reforms. Deng believed that while a centrally controlled economy was necessary during a period of revolutionary war, the continuance of the planned economy after the revolutionary war was over would stand in the way of China’s rise as an economic power. His administrative reforms consisted of streamlining the structure of the Government by reducing the number of Ministries from about a 100 to 61 and providing a fixed tenure for all holders of political office.
Deng believed that the economic reforms, even if successful, would not be sustainable unless they were built on a carefully constructed foundation of political reforms. In a talk on “The Reform of the Chinese Political System” to the Europe-China Forum in Ireland on September 5, 2003, Professor Liu Ji,Executive President, China Europe International Business School, said as follows : “As China has now adopted a market-based economic system, great changes have to be made to its superstructure, including its political system. Mr. Deng once hit the nail on the head when he stated that without political reform, the economic reform would remain purely superficial, and might even turn out to be a failure.”
Has the time come for launching an ambitious programme of political reforms? If so, what should be the nature of the political reforms to be introduced? What should be the role of the Communist Party in future? These are some of the questions, which were engaging the attention of the political leadership since the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China held in October 2007. The debate in the party and in the intellectual circles outside the party focused on the following points:
- The time has come to undertake changes in the political structure, but such changes should not affect the continuity of the functioning of the State and the Party.
- The Party will be the innovator and the driving force of the political re-structuring as it was of the economic re-structuring after 1978.
- The individual freedom of speech will be freedom to criticize constructively and not freedom to promote destabilizing dissidence.
- The introduction of the political reforms will be gradual just as the introduction of the economic reforms were.
The report presented by President Hu Jintao, in his capacity as the Party Secretary, to the Congress contained 60 references to the expression “people’s democracy”. This expression also figured repeatedly in the subsequent discussion on the report. Both Deng and Jiang Zemin had spoken of socialist democracy as the basis of the proposed political reforms. To quote Prof. Liu Ji: “Mr. Deng pointed out that “socialism is not able to survive without democracy”, and it is our mission to “build a socialist democratic political system”. Mr. Jiang stated that “we are going to build up a nation based on a socialist democratic political system and the rule of law.” Unquote. Hu and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao spoke of people’s democracy as well as socialist democracy..
For China’s progress and stability in the future, political development was as important as economic and social development. That was what Hu sought to underline in his report. What should be the political characteristics of the Chinese State would be decided by the Chinese people through their party in accordance with their genius and experience. It would not be imposed from outside. The Chinese media quoted Yang Guangbin, Professor of the Renmin University of China. as saying: “With more individual freedom, gradual shaping of unique concept of democracy and solid forming of institutional arrangements, China-style democracy is emerging.”
Hu drew attention to the following aspects of democracy in Chinese colours: The supremacy of the Constitution and the rule of the law, avoidance of arbitrariness in decision-making and governance, collective leadership through the party tempered by a division of individual responsibilities, democratic centralism moderated by inner party democracy, decisions based on information and intellectual support to the decision-making process, self-management, self-service, self-education and self-oversight. He emphasised that “power must be exercised in the sunshine to ensure that it is exercised correctly”.
During the Congress, the Chinese Party leaders sought to convey to their own people and to the rest of the world that what one saw in China was not the rule of the few over the many, but the rule of the many through the few. They projected China as a State where decisions were made and power was exercised not in darkness, but in full sunshine.
It was stated during the discussion on Hu’s report that while China would continue to be a one-party State, the Party should avoid any pretension of a monopoly of wisdom. Non-party intellectuals and technocrats would have an increasing role in policy-formulation and governance. One need not have to be a party member in order to be associated with the Government, but those associated with the Government—whether they were party members or not— must accept party supervision over their functioning.
Liberal democracy has two important features: The right of the people to elect their leaders and to question in open the wisdom of the decisions taken by the Government. The Chinese-style democracy would not have these features. The leaders would be elected by the party cadres in accordance with party procedures. While there would be a widest possible public contribution to decision-making by the leadership, once a decision was made, its wisdom cannot be challenged. The expression of any reservations or dissent should be in the darkness of party corridors and not in open sunshine. However, it was stated that the party had decided to experiment with direct elections of Party chiefs in more than 200 townships in Chongqing, Sichuan and Hubei.
Among those who expressed themselves in favour of political restructuring was Prime Minister Wen Jiabao himself who told the National People’s Congress (NPC) on March 5, 2010, while delivering the annual report on the work of his Government: “China’s modernization drive and economic reforms could risk a failure without political restructuring. The Government would create conditions for the people to criticize and supervise the Government, and let news media fully play their oversight role so as to put the authorities under sunlight.”
This debate was further taken forward during functions held in Shenzhen in August-September, 2010, to mark the 30th anniversary of the setting up of the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) under the directive of Deng. In a speech delivered by him at Shenzhen on August 21, 2010, Wen, according to the Xinhua news agency, made the following points: China has to pursue political reform to safeguard its economic health. “Without the safeguarding of political restructuring, China may lose what it has already achieved through economic restructuring and the targets of its modernization drive might not be reached. People’s democratic rights and legitimate rights must be guaranteed. People should be mobilized and organized to deal with, in accordance with the law, state, economic, social and cultural affairs.” Wen also wanted to “create conditions” to allow the people to criticize and supervise the government as a way to address “the problem of over-concentration of power with ineffective supervision.”
In an article published on August 23, the “Global Times” commented on Wen’s speech as follows: “Wen’s remarks about political reform came 30 years after the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping first raised the issue during an important speech on August 18, 1980, which was regarded as “the programmatic document for China’s political restructuring.”. After three decades of reform and opening-up, China is expected to overtake Japan to become the world’s second largest economy this year, but the country is facing mounting pressure during its social transition including frequent attacks on vulnerable groups, aggravating pollution, serious corruption, inequality of distribution and a widening income gap. Mounting social unrests in recent years have proved costly. In 2009, the government earmarked 514 billion yuan ($76 billion) to maintain stability, much more than the 480 billion yuan for national defense.”
The article added: ”Zhang Liangui, a professor at the Party School of the CPC Central Committee, noted that the root cause of growing social conflict is the slow pace of political reform that seriously lags behind unprecedented economic reform.” Mao Shoulong, a professor of administrative management at Renmin University, said that we will “cross the river by touching each stone” during political reform, just like economic reform in the past 30 years, and it should be carried out under the framework of the current political system, which is dominated by the CPC. Democracy would probably be promoted at the grassroots level, especially with the election of lower-ranking officials, Mao added.”
The message from the article was clear: Yes, China must embark on political reforms, but they should be carried out under the leadership of the Communist Party. The measures undertaken should reform the functioning of the Government and the Party without weakening them.
In his speech at Shenzhen on September 6, Hu Jintao avoided the use of expressions such as political re-structuring etc. Hu’s emphasis was on Shenzhen as a trigger for the Chinese economic miracle. . But Hu’s speech was not devoid of references to the political system as made out by some analysts. He said that the SEZs could experiment with reforms in economic, political, cultural and social systems.Hu called for “expanding socialist democracy” and speeding up the construction of “a socialist country under the rule of law.” He said efforts should be made to carry out democratic elections, decision-making, management and supervision in order to safeguard the people’s right to know, to participate, to express and to supervise.
In September, Wen was in New York to attend the UN General Assembly session.He was interviewed by Fareed Zakaria for CNN’s Global Public Square programme. Zakaria asked him about freedom in China: “Can you be as strong and creative a nation with so many restrictions on freedom of expression, with the internet being censored?” Wen replied: “I believe freedom of speech is indispensable, for any country, a country in the course of development and a country that has become strong. Freedom of speech has been incorporated into the Chinese constitution. I often say that we should not only let people have the freedom of speech, we more importantly must create conditions to let them criticise the work of the government. It is only when there is the supervision and critical oversight from the people that the government will be in a position to do an even better job, and employees of government departments will be the true public servants of the people.”
From Wen’s comments at Shenzhen and from his subsequent interview on the CNN, many analysts jumped to the conclusion that Hu and Wen were probably not on the same wavelength as regards the need for political restructuring in China and greater respect for the freedom of speech. But if one read and analysed carefully the statements and comments made by Hu and Wen since the 17th National Congress of the Party in October 2007, it was evident that both in their own respective style were reflecting the party line on the need for political restructuring and how to go about it.
However, expectations and speculation that the 5th plenum of the 17th Central Committee would come out with a slew of political reforms as forward-looking and as significant as the economic reforms of the post-1978 years were belied. The advocates of political gradualism and opponents of hasty actions seemed to have prevailed over those advocating a faster pace of political reforms. A communiqué issued at the end of the plenum said that the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC) would be the “fundamental guarantee” for China to achieve the goals of the economic and social development plan for the next five years. It added that steps to improve the CPC’s ruling capacity and maintain the Party’s advanced nature should be strengthened to promote the Party’s competence in leading the country’s economic and social development. A reformed, people-friendly Communist Party and not a reformed political structure emerged as the present objective.
Why this cautious line? Why, after the enthusiastic debate in the months after October 2007 on the need for political restructuring, the present emphasis on the need for a more gradual approach? Maintaining political stability, economic prosperity and social harmony is the driving force of Chinese policy-making. Three events since October 2007 have made the Chinese leadership feel that they cannot take the present stability, prosperity and harmony for granted. Potentially destabilizing factors continue to confront the leadership.
These events are: firstly, the economic melt-down; secondly, the uprising in Tibet in 2008 just before the Olympics; and thirdly, the violent incidents in the Xinjiang Province before the Olympics which were followed by a violent uprising by the Uighurs in the middle of 2009. The economic melt-down resulted in the retrenchment of about 30 million Chinese workers due to the closure of a number of manufacturing industries in the coastal areas due to a drop in orders from the West, particularly the US. These workers had migrated to the coastal areas from the rural areas to take up jobs. Their retrenchment and return to their villages created fears of possible widespread social unrest. However, these fears have been belied, but a new cause of unrest has arisen as a result of the economic re-restructuring undertaken by the Chinese leadership to reduce the dependence on exports and to increase the domestic demand for manufactured goods by increasing the minimum wages of workers in many towns. There have been many instances of workers unsatisfied with the increase in minimum wages resorting to strikes—particularly in foreign-owned enterprises—- in order to demand more. Fortunately, the labour unrest has not so far affected Government servants. There have been no reported instances of Government servants resorting to strikes in order to demand an increase in their salaries. If they do so, the political leadership could be faced with a tricky situation. The ambitious stimulus package to keep the economy doing well at a GDP growth rate of eight per cent plus and the increase in minimum wages have led to a spiraling inflationary situation with a potential for social unrest. While dealing with these problems through energetic economic management measures, the Government is at the same time avoiding hasty political actions which could cause instability due to a mix of political and economic factors.
The uprisings in Tibet and Xinjiang jolted the self-confidence of the political leadership which had convinced itself that through economic development it had won the loyalty of the Tibetan Buddhists and the Uighur Muslims. It realized that this is not so. Anti-Han feelings continue to be as high as ever in the Tibetan and Uighur-inhabited areas. More than the Uighur uprising of July 2009, what shocked the Government was the anger of the Hans who protested in the streets of Urumqi over the failure of the local Government to protect them from attacks by the Uighurs. The danger of the Hans taking the law into their own hands and indulging in a large-scale massacre of the Uighurs, thereby damaging China’s relations with the Islamic world, led to Hu Jintao, who had gone to Italy to participate in the G-20 summit, cancelling his participation and returning prematurely to Beijing to chair a meeting of the Central Military Commission to order the dispatch of army units to Xinjiang to help the local police in the restoration of law and order. In Tibet, the Army was not called in to help the civilian authorities in restoring law and order, but in Xinjiang the Army had to be called in.
Maintaining internal security against economic unrest in the Han-inhabited coastal areas and against ethnic unrest in the Tibetan and Uighur inhabited border areas has become a major concern. Chinese leaders have, of late, been speaking of their core interests and major concerns. When they talk of their core interests, they mean their disputes with other countries. In their perception, the threats to their core interests arise from abroad. When they talk of major concerns, they largely mean threats to their internal security.
The Chinese authorities have seen to it that the rest of the world does not know much of the internal security situation, but it is of major concern to the leadership. This would be obvious from their enormous budgetary allocation for their internal security apparatus, which, according to the “Global Times” of August 23, amounts to US $ 76 billion. If the “Global Times” is to be believed, China spends more money for maintaining political stability than for protecting the country from external threats. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that the leadership is going slow on political reforms.
Can China disintegrate under the weight of its internal security problems? This is unlikely. The undoubted economic prosperity and the interest of the homogenous Hans as a whole in ensuring that this prosperity is maintained guarantees against any tendency towards disintegration in the Han core of the country. The Tibetan and Uighur uprisings have shown that economic prosperity has not diluted their yearnings for freedom. So long as this urge for freedom remains alive, the danger of instability in the border areas will remain.
The Chinese leadership has not learnt the right lessons from the Tibetan and Uighur uprisings. It continues to believe that by pumping more money into these areas for bringing their economic development on par with that in the coastal areas, it could dilute the tendency towards separation and reduce the feelings of alienation. It is confident that after the death of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the situation in Tibet will become manageable after a short spell of controllable violence. It is counting on Pakistan and Turkey to help it maintain peace in Xinjiang. At the same time it has taken measures to dilute the ethnic identity of the Tibetans and the Uighurs by making Mandarin the medium of instruction in the Tibetan and Uighur schools. The importance of the Tibetan and Uighur languages has been reduced by making them only second languages. These actions have already evoked fresh protests among the youth and their teachers. However, the protests have remained peaceful. Some of the actions taken by it as mid-course corrections of its policies in the border areas might turn out to be new seeds of fresh unrest.
It is important for India to keep the hopes of the Tibetan youth alive. Total Indian silence on the developments in Tibet is already causing demoralization among the Tibetan youth. Our policy of silence and maintaining a distance from His Holiness the Dalai Lama is suiting the Chinese interests and not our future interests. We need to be a little more articulate on Tibet.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai and Associate, Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: email@example.com