SPEAKING FREELY China reforms miss the political mark
By Jinghao Zhou
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Since 1978, the third plenary sessions of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) have been landmarks of deepening reforms, and many expected the third plenary session under the leadership of Xi Jinping to be another springboard for comprehensive change.
Although the central committee's decision on "major issues concerning comprehensively deepening reforms" adopts over 100 reform measures, the reform agenda obviously is limited to the
economic area. Some might argue that the agenda plans to further the anti-corruption campaign through judicial reforms. In fact, it is impossible for the Chinese judicial system to become independent within the one-party system. This reflects that the CPC is not confident in fundamentally dealing with complex domestic issues such as corruption and social inequality.
In the past three decades, the CPC has not taken one serious step in changing the political system. The lopsided relationship between rapid economic development and political stagnation has created serious social problems. Corruption is rampant, and the disparity between rich and poor is widening. Tensions between government and society have become intensified. Obviously, economic reform alone is not the solution to relieving those tensions.
The majority of the Chinese people have advocated modern democracy for a long time. In 1989, hundreds of thousands of people gathered at Tiananmen Square launching the democratic movement, but Deng Xiaoping used military force to suppress it. Zhao Ziyang, the former general secretary of the CPC and a symbol to political reformers, was placed under house arrest for 15 years until his death in 2005.
The CPC today continues to reject political change, so the conflict between the state and society has kept growing, and the distrust between the CPC and common citizens continues to build up. Consequently, social protests follow one after another.
The CPC has used a tremendous amount of human and financial capital to maintain social stability (wei wen). Although Chinese internal security spending now exceeds the defense budget, the results of wei wen have been poor. China has reached a crucial moment: the CPC will not be able to make a breakthrough without fundamental political reform. It is still not too late to gradually resolve social conflicts if the CPC takes a courageous step by adding political components to economic reform. One explanation for rejecting political reform is that the CPC believes that there is no other remedy for maintaining social stability but to use force.
There is a common phenomenon in authoritarian regimes that government leaders mainly focus on their own power rather than the people's interests. Political reform is the most difficult task for any Chinese leader to take. If Xi Jinping does not handle it well, he would risk his political tenure. Many Chinese people expected Xi to be a Chinese Mikhail Gorbachev, but Xi sarcastically mocked Russia's 1990 democratic transition in a clear reflection of his determination to protect the current political system. The major function of a newly established party/state organ "The National Security Council" will serve this goal.
The Third Plenary Session insists that China must deepen reform in the framework of the socialist system. The CPC will still have great power to interfere in the market economy. As long as the one-party system is alive, political power can be used to make money. Accordingly, economic reforms could become a legitimate umbrella for corrupt officials to plunder social wealth. This explains why all interest groups in the party strongly resist political reform.
The CPC has claimed that maintaining the political system is the number one interest of China, even above state sovereignty and territorial integrity. This implies that the CPC cannot tolerate anyone undermining the foundation of the political system. Yet, political reform must endorse the basic democratic principles, such as a multi-party-system, a general election system, the separation of the three powers, and freedom of speech and assembly. If these principles were legitimized in China, the CPC would lose its sole leadership overnight.
Therefore, the CPC is only willing to adopt some minor reform measures, attempting to fix administrative loopholes instead of launching political reform. Wen Jiaobao, the former Chinese premier, unusually acknowledged the universal values and advocated modern democracy, but he did nothing to promote political reform. Xi Jinping has campaigned for anti-corruption measures and has asserted that he will punish both "tiger and fly". Since the CPC does not offer a true comprehensive agenda for reforming the political system - the original source of China's corruption - Xi will ultimately fail to keep his promise.
How long will the CPC be able to survive if it continues rejecting political reform? The Party has legitimized its governance through its economic performance over three decades. The CPC could be in danger if it only relies on its economic performance to sustain its regime, not only because it is uncertain that China's economy is sustainable, but also because reforms will inevitably change the balance between economic development and political coordination. If unbalanced development goes beyond a certain point, it will be very difficult for the country to avoid a chaotic transition. In the long term, the CPC must start the democratic process sooner rather than latter in order to survive in the 21st century.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Jinghao Zhou is Associate Professor of Contemporary China at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York. He is author of four books, including Chinese vs. Western Perspectives: Understanding Contemporary China (Lexington Books), published this month, and China's Peaceful Rise in a Global Context: A Domestic Aspect of China's Road Map to Democratization (Lexington Books, 2010).