By Dr. B R Deepak
Wen Jiabao, the outgoing premier has been the strongest votary of political reforms in China in recent times. Wen had joined the student protesters at Tian Anmen with the then Party Secretary, Zhao Zeyang, who was equally sympathetic about the cause of the students, and political reforms being one of their demands.
Zhao got booted out for his sympathy, whereas Wen survived. Since then, especially in his last stint as Premier, he did reveal his thinking, on and off about the political reforms in public. Last he spoke about these reforms was in March 2012 when he said during the National People’s Congress meeting in a live broadcast on March 14 that “Without the success of political structural reforms, economic structural reforms cannot be carried out in full.” So far his remarks proved to be no more than rhetoric.
As far as the President designate Xi Jinping’s attitude towards political reforms is concerned, he has been talking a lot about reforms, but what he is indicating so far is his commitment towards economic reforms. His south China visit between December 7-11 is an indication, and more symbolic in terms of market reforms. And, why not, he represents the Shanghai clique in the Party who has vociferously advocated the deepening of reforms without touching the sensitive political reforms.
The hue and cry about political reforms in China has been kept alive in its best political tradition by the Peking University, which was at the forefront of these movements, be it the May Fourth New Culture Movement of 1919, or the Tian Anmen demonstrations of 1989 or the recent 8,000-word petition drafted by Peking University Law Professor, Zhang Qianfan, and signed by 70 odd renowned legal experts, political scientists, economists, journalists and writers. Professor Zhang came to limelight last in 2011 when one of his classroom lecture entitled “The Xinhai Revolution and the Chinese constitutional government” went viral on the You Tube and China’s own version of You Tube, the Youku. Zhang took the stock and unleashed scathing attack on China’s present situation, and called for political reform, so as the sufferings of China are done away with. He said, although the reforms and opening up brought China a relative peace for three decades or so, brought China out of the dangers of famine and ‘great revolution’; brought China to the folds of the comity of world civilizations, but the nature of the totalitarian structure of the power has not changed at all. Prof. Zhang continued, in a century after the Xinhai Revolution, civil rights have remained constricted as against the unprecedented expansion of the government power. Extortion, unlawful acquisitions, indiscriminate demolitions, and even disregard for human life are rampant. Prof. Zhang further says that today, China seems calm on the surface, but it is sitting on a powder keg. China could draw lessons from the fall of the Manchus, only the swift implementation of constitutional reforms can prevent the tragedy of the revolution. Past hundred years of history and ups and downs demonstrates that only a constitutional government can save China. We must rely on people to get rid of the totalitarianism…
The petition drafter by Professor Zhang was released on 25 December 2011 and sought milder political reforms in China. This is in contrast to the Charter 2008 when signatories asked for democracy and end to the single-party rule. The architect of the Charter, Liu Xiaobo, a dissident writer ended in prison for inciting subversion, even though the Nobel Committee found him suitable for the Nobel Peace Prize.
It is too early to predict the impact of such petitions in China, however, I believe Xi would require a few years to consolidate his power before initiating drastic changes, we can expect, however, him enhancing intra-party democracy; greater transparency as regards the assets of CPC leaders; Guangdong has already started to declare assets of leaders and officials; this is also linked to fight against corruption and would be on the agenda of Xi Jinping; this could also be the part of administrative reforms another area where we can see Xi initiating some steps. The kind of political reforms dissidents in China and abroad are seeking would be a distant dream as China has categorically said that it will never go down the path of western democracy.
Therefore, rather than talking about political reforms, fighting corruption would be on top agenda of the new leadership. In this regards, we see him making various statement. For example last month he told party members to “take the lead to spread a healthy spirit, and reject unhealthy trends and evil influences”. Xi Jinping is aware of what the Chinese press says, the undeclared ‘gray’ income of the party leaders and officials. It is precisely due to this that last decade saw outflow of money through corruption, crime, and tax evasion reaching as high as $3.72 trillion in China.
The most we can expect from the new leadership is the investigation of hundred thousands of party leaders and officials for corruption, and cutting or reducing their access to public money spent on banquets, renovations and conveyance etc. The leadership would try to bring in transparency and rule of law; the publication of family backgrounds even private lives of the leading party members is an inkling in this direction. However, it would be extremely difficult for Xi to put a complete check, and be transparent as many of the businesses are in the hands of the kiths and kins of the former party bigwigs. Netizens may also give him a helping hand as have been proved in recent cases of corruption over the micro blogs, but the kind of regulations China is bringing in by forcing the users of popular microblogs to register their real names. Even on this front the going would be not so smooth for Xi Jinping.
(Dr. B R Deepak is Professor of Chinese and China Studies at the Centre of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi. The views are solely his own)
About the author: SAAG
SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.