SINOGRAPH A devious blueprint to empower the party
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - A few days ago, a junior official came to me asking to check the name of an Italian author and the thesis of a book. At first I really could not figure out the author, but then from the name of the book I made out the writer. The official wanted to apply the argument of the book to the Communist Party. He was raving and talking what I thought was nonsense. I tried to calm him down, but he then grew even more agitated trying to explain the deep connections between these two old civilizations, China and Italy, that went well beyond the love for spaghetti or fireworks.
I pretended to understand and agree, but actually could not quite get it. He calmed down and left on my table two typewritten pages with some blurred red stamps on them. The pages were a more
lucid presentation of what he was talking about and even more bizarre than I figured. It is unlikely that anybody will pay attention to this, yet to add to the many thoughts circulating on the Internet nowadays, I figured I would translate it, adapt it, and just for fun offer it to readers patient enough to follow me. The missive follows ...
The predicament of President Xi Jinping is quite understandable. After the difficulties he faced in carrying out the broad economic and political reforms he had in mind early this year, and because he had to eradicate the influence of former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, Xi had to move fast to concentrate power and don the neo-Maoist mantle of his enemy, Bo. Therefore he could only use the tools he had available: Mao's old techniques of launching a propaganda campaign for the unification of thought and mobilizing the people against the party's middle ranks. The president is doing this through his ongoing campaign for self-criticism and his emphasis on control of the media.
To concentrate power, Xi had also to show he was in the middle and not leaning too much on the right. Therefore he had to clamp down on high-flying dissident financier Wang Gongquan in order to better strike down the top echelons of people still supporting Bo.
This I all understand: it is old-school Chinese Communist Party and necessary at this moment, as it was after the Tiananmen protests in 1989 or the Falun gong movement in 1999. But party history also shows that these tools cannot be used for a long time, and after a while they tend to backfire. To unify thoughts in the short term gives power to the center, but in the medium and long term makes the center blind and management at the grassroots ineffective. Everybody will be afraid to report the truth out of fear of offending their superiors, and everybody will stop taking initiatives in ruling their areas since they are scared of being criticized for deviating from the center.
Soon, the country will fall apart from the periphery and the center will not be informed; and the leaders will realize this when it is too late. This happened during Mao's times, but then China was closed and the impact of these mistakes could be digested over a long period of time. Now China is open and similar mistakes could be much harder to digest and could produce deep cracks in the society and party.
China needs a change of the political system and it must look at Western democracies for inspiration, just as it looked at the West when it imported Marxism as its main theory for the communist revolution or took from the West when it started Deng Xiaoping's reforms. However, the party has to be clear that western democracy is not an absolute democracy. It is a system built to find peaceful compromises and agreements between different interest groups and different agendas for running a country.
Power struggle is inherent in any power structure, but a different political system can resolve a power struggle in a peaceful or not peaceful manner. Western democracies have managed to solve their power struggle issues in a peaceful manner that ultimately better preserves the losing party (who most times do not end up in prison) and the system, because the power struggle does not affect the system but only the interested parties.
Therefore we think that although these present measures are necessary, the center should think about the medium and long term, as described in the Italian novel The Leopard by Tomasi di Lampedusa. To enhance the power of the center and of the party in China, everything has to change - in order to change nothing. The Italian writer described the behavior of the Sicilian aristocracy around 1861, when Garibaldi liberated the south of Italy and gave it to the Piedmont to rule. The Sicilian aristocrats, who a few years before sided with the king of Naples in cracking down on the liberals, later turned into supporters of liberal Garibaldi in order to retain their power and continue accruing their riches.
Our [the Communist] party perhaps ought to do the same with a medium- and long-term plan.
After the end of this mass campaign and the launch of the long-promised economic reforms, which will reduce the power and money of the state-owned enterprises, the president should consider two moves.
In the medium term, he should consider a cultural campaign centered on China being a normal country in the world, and thus adhering to generally accepted international practices. China cannot be isolated with its "Chinese characteristics" any longer, as it is part of a global environment, and neither can it impose its "Chinese characteristics" on the whole world. China has to adapt by absorbing foreign ideas and contributing ideas to the world. This is a path already shown by thinkers like Zhao Tingyang and Ge Zhaoguang, who are both very Chinese and can be very international. This cultural campaign is the only real guarantee that a neo-Maoist campaign a la Bo Xilai will cut less and less ice in the country.
In the long term, there should be open elections between two candidates selected by the party but voted on by the whole population, who then will have a sense of belonging. The rest of the world will also take part and feel they are inside China, and thus de facto supportive of its political system. To have a vote before the cultural campaign would only lead to the election of a nationalist demagogue. Bo Xilai was not a real leftist; he only leaned on the left because he understood it would help him get popular approval and support from old party veterans. The cultural campaign therefore cannot be short or hasty.
Now is surely not the time, but the president should consider announcing soon his plans for the future. Many in China are very uncertain about the direction of the country, and despite easy sympathies with the new left, the real "decision-makers" - the people able to make money, the ones able produce the necessary new ideas, and many honest officials - are worried that reforms may stall and lead back to a Maoist path. If they do not feel reassured, they could flee abroad or stop working, both things that will hamper our growth and development, and thus all our ambitions to become a great country.
Conversely, these steps would insure our party's hold on power, which is our ultimate goal.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org