What Can Change In China? – Analysis


By Bhaskar Roy

The 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) opened in Beijing on November 8 amid almost unprecedented security. Sale of meat cleavers and flying of pigeons for sport was prohibited. The capital was almost sanitized. In 2012, the Chinese government allocated $ 105 billion for security, a figure higher than the military budget for the year.

Where was the massive threat from? If it was from a few Uighur or Tibetan nationalists, the security arrangements were like using a sledge hammer to kill a fly. The few political dissidents were dispatched thousands of miles from Beijing for the period. But the dissidents were never known for indulging in violence. Therefore, where was this massive threat perception from?

China has emerged as the second largest economy in the world. Projections are being made across the world that the Chinese economy could outpace the American economy between 2020 and 2025. If the country is so prosperous why have incidents of social disturbances (raids, protests, sometimes violent) reached nearly 200,000 a year according to official figures.

These protests from the people relate mainly to issues of land being forcefully taken away from them by the land mafia backed by government security forces, wage issues, retrenchment of workers among many other things. The use of a huge public security force mainly to beat down people has not been appreciated by the population. These are simmering volcanoes which can erupt without much notice. In a two-party or multi-party state a defaulting government can be removed through elections and a new government brought in. In China, that luxury for the people is missing. Hence, the state, which is controlled by the CCP or Party, are allowing some amount of criticism over the internet as long they do not seek to attack the legitimacy and supreme command of the party.

Coming back to economic power, there is no doubt China has surged ahead in the last ten years. At the same time Chinese statistics are notorious for artificial inflation of production by provinces. As outgoing Party General Secretary and President Hu Jintao pointed out in the work report to Congress on November 8, problems include “unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable development, weak agricultural infrastructure systemic barriers, increasing social problems, bureaucracy and corruption”. Rarely does China’s top leaders spell out challenges so clearly. That means the problems are really serious and are being shared with the people.

The 10-year leadership of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao from 2002 saw China’s highest growth rate success. They weathered the global economic meltdown of 2008 using strong state economic instruments including the $560 billion money injection in 2009. Unfortunately, this money went to the state owned banks and then to State Owned Enterprises (SOE), which most of time are unrecoverable.

The high growth period was not accompanied by the political and economic restructuring to lay a level playing field for all. Major lapses in areas like energy policy, serious environmental degradation and wastage of natural resources will negatively impact China in the future.

This year was politically disturbing for China as internal fights broke out. The most important was the Bo Xilai multi-layered scandal. Bo Xilai was a highly rated leader, a ‘princeling’, and almost a sure shot for a position in the new super-body of the Party, the 9-member Standing Committee of the Politburo (PBSC). Bo’s father Bo Yibo was a revolutionary, purged by Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution, and later rehabilitated by Deng Xiaoping and was one of China’s “eight immortals’ during 1980s and 1990s.

Unfortunately, Bo Xilai’s arrogance brought him down. As Party Chief of Chongqing Municipality, he launched a high profile crackdown against corruption and had eleven businessmen executed. Later it was found he and his family, especially his lawyer wife Gu Kailai, were also neck deep in corruption. Gu murdered a business partner, Englishman Neil Heywood. He fell out with his favoured Police Chief who, under fear of death tried to get asylum in the US Consulate in Chengdu, but was turned down. Gu Kailai received a suspended death sentence. Police Chief Wang Lijun was jailed for 15 years. Bo was expelled from all Party and State posts and is undergoing trail.

It is unlikely Bo Xilai went down because of corruption although it was officially projected as such. Most Chinese leaders are involved in corruption either directly or through wives and relatives. Interestingly, an accusation currently floating is that Premier Wen Jiabao’s wife has stashed more than $2.1 million overseas.

Bo’s problem, like two former politburo members ousted for corruption, was political. He tried to bring back two things that are taboo in today’s China. Maoism with Cultural Revolution spirit, and personality cult. In private, he also spoke disparagingly about some top leaders as sold out to foreign interests, and tried to intercept telephone conversations of leaders including that of President Hu Jintao. There was also a fear that Bo was conspiring with some like minded PLA generals to execute a coup. Two of his close PLA friends who were expected to get promotions to important posts, got sidelined. Is the Bo Xilai and leftist saga over? Unlikely. The Chinese propaganda apparatus launched a blitz against Bo on corruption and womanizing not only during his Chongqing posting but even earlier. But it was silent on leftism.

In an unprecedented move, the authorities allowed critical writings on Mao’s disastrous 1958-1962 “Great Leap Forward” in which 36 million people died of starvation and people had to eat dead bodies. There were articles on the urgent need for political reform and economic reform without which the country would collapse. On at least three major occasions from October, “Mao Zedong Thought” was dropped from the national banner embodied in the Party’s constitution, and only mentioned Deng Xiaoping theory, “Three Represents” (attributed to Jiang Zemin) and “Theory of Scientific Development” (attributed to Hu Jintao). Finally in the Congress Work Report, Hu Jintao could not avoid reiterating Mao Zedong Thought and Marxism-Leninism.

The Work Report is not written by the Party Chief. He gives a framework only, and opinion is sought from Central Committee members and other stake holders. It leaves no doubt that there are forces who question moving away from the philosophy of the first one and a half decades of communist rule. Even those who suffered during the cultural revolution line up every morning to visit the Mao mausoleum in Beijing.

Ideological struggle continues as China enters a new period when the opportunities of the past are receding and the country is on a precipice from where a jump is not an option any longer – forward or backward.

Deng Yuwen of the Central Party School published in early September an essay on the political legacy of Hu-Wen 10-year period and pointed out ten grave problems facing China. Deng’s essay mainly pointed out the failure of this duo to take advantage of the opportunity to take the country forward, and criticized the antiquated laws and practices.

In another essay Yuan Peng, head of the American Research Centre of the CICIR, a think tank of the Ministry of State Security, identified five black groups in the country as follows: rights lawyers, dissidents, underground religious activists, Internet leaders and vulnerable groups. It is known that rights lawyers are sometime detained and not allowed to appear for their dissident clients.

What is most disturbing, however, is clubbing ‘vulnerable groups’ in the block list. Who are these vulnerable groups? They are the dispossessed whose land is taken away by the land mafia with state support, poor villagers who are taxed beyond their capacity by local officials, workers who are denied their pay and pensions, and the growing unemployed. It is a neo-fascist thought coming from a senior government think tank intellectual, suggesting he is not alone inside the political structure in such views. Mix this with neo-Maoism and steadfast leftism; it is a heady mix of political explosive. It is, therefore, no wonder that Hu Jintao had to retain Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought as the Party’s guide lines, but the work report strongly pushed Deng Xiaoping’s agenda of building socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Hu Jintao is not even a closet liberal, but he will also not allow the extreme of returning to the Maoist era. He was Deng Xiaoping’s chosen leader for the fourth generation leadership, the reason why Jiang Zemin could not position his own chosen successor. Like Deng, he will not allow a slide back to Maoist days, but yet will not tolerate total westernization.

Delivering the keynote report to the congress Hu Jintao made it clear that there was no ‘going back to the old ways’, holding up different banners and flags – a clear reference to the Dazibao (Big character posters), sloganeering and attacking people of the Cultural Revolution years. At the same time “people’s democracy” an euphemism for what the party and state allows, and not more, was encouraged. It has to be seen, however, what is meant when the report said “judicial credibility should be steadily enhanced, and human rights should be fully respected and protected”. In the run up to the party congress none of these was in evidence.

Most significantly, the report warned that corruption was the biggest threat to the party and the state. Hu said “if we fail to handle this issue well, it could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse of the party and the state”. This alert raised the veil over the serious problems facing the party and the state.

Over the last two years Premier Wen Jiabao campaigned for democracy and freedom of speech, even taking his campaign abroad. Initially, the official media blocked his speeches on the subject but gradually lifted the censor suggesting Wen’s views had a growing support inside the party. One Chinese dissident writer called Wen “China’s most consummate liar”, doubting his sincerity. Wen warned that without democracy and political reform even economic development will regress and the party would collapse.

Hu Jintao’s work report pointed to the prime malaise but did not really promise cleansing of the causes that have led to unbridled corruption. Wen Jiabao’s call for democracy and political reform tried to spell out a systemic change to bring officials under people’s supervision.

The work report says that reform of the political structure is an important part of China’s overall reform. If this is truly purused supervision and the rule of law must be implemented. The Judiciary and the party will have to be separated, and good laws in the books will have to be given life. This is not an easy task, however.

The party now has 82 million members, and membership of the party is the ticket to success. The party is the big pie, zealously guarded by its members whether it be individuals, SOEs or other institution. Some senior officials of the big SOEs earn more than a million yuans a year, ride in the biggest of luxury cars and drink the best of wines and spirits. These vested interests go up very high in the hierarchy.

Considering the internal social and political development in China over the last two years, reform is no longer an option, but a dire necessity. The problem has been the fear that if democracy is expanded and real political reform is introduced, the party will be written away and the country fragmented. This is a genuine fear. Chinese scholars have deeply studied the collapse of the Soviet Union and the East European block, and the consequences thereof. For more than two decades the progress of these countries have been meticulously studied in China. There is also the question that if Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had not moved at that moment towards democracy, the result could have been worse. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) had become unsustainable, and the demand of the constituents of the Soviet Union for independence had reached a point of cracking by themselves. Today, Russia is a unitary country and regaining strength.

The 5th generation of China’s leadership who are to take their first step to power on November 14, are substantially different from their predecessors. The top layer led by putative successor to Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping are princelings. Xi’s father Xi Zhongxun was a revolutionary who fought alongside Mao Zedong and was also persecuted by Mao, but returned to become a Vice Premier to work with Deng Xiaoping. Premier to be Li Keqiang belongs to the Youth League faction.

In terms of factional politics it is generally said that the two main factions today are the Princelings and the Youth Leagues. The Princelings appear to have merged with the Shanghai faction led by former Party Chief Jiang Zemin. But it is not that simple. Bo Xilai was a powerful princeling backed by Jiang Zemin. It is again Jiang who gave the final go ahead to prosecute him. The new leaders have been exposed to the west and have an understanding of western history, education and knowledge. Yet, they are acutely aware of the revolution and China’s goal on the global state. China’s future is in their hands.

One disconcerting factor during the congress was the appearance of Jiang Zemin in the front line of politics. He sat on the podium with other PBSC leaders in the opening ceremony of the 18th congress of the CCP. Deng Xiaoping had succeeded in excluding the retired party elders from active politics after the 1989 Tiananmen Square student’s demonstrations. The elders had rigid political and ideological ideas.

It is widely reported that Jiang and Hu Jintao differed on many issues and policies. With Jiang’s re-entry other leaders like former conservative Premier Li Peng, and former constructive Premier Zhu Rongji could also wade in. That may open the door to around 20 retired PBSC members to interfere in policies and governance. How this will impact on any hopes of political reform and democracy will have to be seen.

(The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail [email protected])


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.

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