By Bhaskar Roy
Chinese President Hu Jintao laid down a prospective internal policy road on July 23 in Beijing. Hu, who is also the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) was addressing the opening ceremony of a workshop for ministerial officials and provincial heads ahead of the Party’s 18th national congress, according to Xinhua.
For one thing Xinhua, the official news agency, put at rest speculations that the Party congress, which will oversee the once in ten-years leadership change, may be postponed following Bo Xilai incident which caused a political upheaval. Differences among the top leadership seem to have been patched up to present an united front.
The congregation at Hu’s address said something. Vice President Xi Jinping, Hu Jintao’s anointed successor, presided over the occasion. The entire 25 member politburo including the 9-member Politburo Standing Committee, except for Bo Xilai were present. It was a confirmation that Bo was no longer a member of the Politburo, since only his removal from his Chongqing municipality had been officially reported. This was a quiet disposal of Bo Xilai, though his political crimes will come out in due course. Following this workshop, news came out that Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, has been charged of murdering Briton Neil Heywood, her business partner.
This particular occasion reflected what was known in the old days as an extended Politburo meeting, but with a significant difference. In those meetings retired revolutionary leaders played important, sometimes decisive roles. The body of veteran party leaders, known as the Central Advisory
Commission (CAC), was disbanded by Deng Xiaoping following the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen square bloody crackdown. The old revolutionaries were terrified about China becoming westernized. They reportedly forced a thumbs down on the pro-democracy student protestors.
The July 23 occasion had no old revolutionaries. This was a national gathering of outgoing leaders, the incumbent leaders who will continue for another five years, and future leaders. An effort to dissociate with some past ideas and ideologies appeared visible, especially the old Maoist thoughts that were being promoted by some of the princelings (children of old revolutionary leaders) led by Bo Xilai. Whether the workshop would instil any modern revolutionary ideas is not known, as excerpts of Hu Jiantao’s speech officially did not give any such indication.
Hu Jintao focussed on the continuation of Deng Xiaoping’s theory of “reform and opening up” as the basic template to develop economically. In continuation, he highlighted the theory of Scientific outlook of Development as the carriage to take Deng’s theory further. The Scientific Development theory was developed under Hu’s leadership, but cannot carry his name as per the principle of collective leadership. Scientific Development envisages taking development to the people including to the rural areas as a means of common development.
Conscious of the tense political and ideological tension within the party, Hu spelled out the heritage of political theories from the revolutionary years, Mao Zedong’s policy, Deng Xiaoping’s theory and his own predecessor Jiang Zemin’s blessed theory of Three Represents which tried to bring the best of the Chinese population irrespective of Communist Party label for development. This was not only an attempt towards a compromise to prevent ideological factionalism, but also an admission that Maoism was still alive and cannot be ignored.
Hu Jintao was very cautious, even tentative on political reforms, despite the fact that Premier Wen Jiabao, the political reform crusader, had warned at the end of the last National People’s Congress (NPC) session that without political reform Cultural Revolution can revisit the country.
This is the strongest ever statement made in support of political reform. This was in response to Bo Xilai’s efforts to raise Cultural Revolution style functions in Chongqing, and building his own personality cult in the foot steps of Mao. Bo had support from some of the princelings especially in the military. He vowed to remove corruption from Chongqing, prosecuting businessmen including execution of around thirteen people. Investigations in the Bo Xilai affair revealed that behind the Marxist-Maoist policy, Bo Xilai presided over an empire of corruption, sleaze and even murder.
But why is Hu Jintao hesitant? He is not a liberal, but neither is he a leftist. His career suggests that he was always cautious, avoided direct confrontation, but also preferred control. Developments and incidents in China over the last two or three years suggest ‘left’ power is still alive and in high places. A dive into political reform could lead to a serious upheaval, something which China cannot politically and economically.
Instead, Hu advocated strengthening rule of law first to ensure people’s “democratic rights”. This debate has begun circulating among Chinese intellectuals and experts – implement rule of law for the next 15 years, and after that bring in political reform.
Hu Jintao, however, made it clear that the Party’s leadership position remained sacrosanct. The Party must police itself, and any political system change will be made by the Party from the top. This ruling is significant, insulating the Party from any other charges and criticism. This will not be tolerated.
Hu Jintao’s guideline speech was obviously a consensus decision of the Politburo Standing Committee. The speech was short by Chinese standards, short of hyperboles and non-provocative. But there was a controlled intensity – avoid creating situations which can disturb the run up to the 18th Party Congress.
With a little over two months to go for the 18th Party Congress, the top leadership is heading to the Beidaihe sea side resort to resolve still existing differences and tie up loose ends. As usual, there may be some left over decisions which can overflow Beidaihe. That will be a problem.
The Congress document is expected to largely follow the script of Hu Jintao’s speech, unless something drastic was to happen. A particular omission in Hu Jintao’s speech is noteworthy. There was no emphasis on the threat of “social Instability”, a constant mention in all important speeches by China’s top leaders in last few years.
Is this a new strategy of the Party? The developments and incidents that compelled the top leadership to warn against social instability have not gone away. In fact, they have increased. The slowing down of economy is causing more job losses. Rural-Urban income difference remains acute. Protests from workers and peasants, sometimes violent, have not decreased. Unemployment is rising.
The leaders may have realized that taking loudly to the people about social instability may only accentuate the problem. In recent months, the authorities have backed down in the face of protests by the people in several cases including setting up factories and plants. The authorities have also discovered that environmental concerns have become more important for the ordinary people than the officials.
The backing off by the authorities in these cases would be important in the post-18th congress leadership disposition. The authorities have realized that technology is neutral. The people can beat the government censorship. The social medial has been used by those challenging the draconian aspects of the authorities. Therefore, the authorities, it is noticed, are allowing certain amount of criticism of establishment’s policies even by noted intellectuals, and those being carried on party publications.
The intention is to allow some steam to be released to reduce the national pressure. This may be a wise decision, and may have been contributed by upcoming younger leaders who realise that the China of today is a global entity and not insular like in Mao’s time. The Chinese leaders understood of the consequences after the 1989 crackdown on student activists who demanded a clean, transparent and responsive Party and government. A build up of steam must be avoided.
But there is a redline. Efforts to bring down the Party and introduce western style of democracy is not acceptable. Recently, a section within the establishment have accused western trained Chinese officials are “traitors”. The internal security agency has been given a budget bigger than that of the defence services and China defence budget is now only the second in the world after the USA. The internal security agency has the primary task of protecting the Party. In China’s official position the Party is the top most priority of the whole country and also protected by the PLA. Therefore, the Party cannot be challenged.
Is a sense of readjust in political approach lurking behind the bamboo curtains? There is some relevance in thought process. First establish law because without that democracy is not achievable. China has laws in place, but only in name. Courts deliver verdicts purely on political considerations, and lawyers representing the aggrieved parties are often prosecuted. But changing the system is no easy because it can ultimately hurt the Party. And there is a huge vested interest in the security and longevity of the Party. So, the statement looms large.