China looks to democracy to cure
its ills By Fong Tak-ho
HONG KONG - Over the past 16 years, the
Chinese leadership has tried its best to dodge
democratic reform while looking for alternative
measures to stamp out rampant corruption and
increase government efficiency. However, it seems
to have recently come to the conclusion that there
is just no way other than democratic reform.
Chinese President Hu Jintao has indicated
that China will institute a program of democratic
reforms, and Premier Wen Jiabao has given more
detail, pledging to introduce direct elections at
the township level "within a couple of years".
Hu and Wen chose to make their
international events shorthly
before Hu's trip last week to the United Nations
summit meeting in New York. This could be a sign
that both are eager to project a reformist image
to the international community as part of efforts
to defuse the theory of a "China threat" from what
is still officially a communist government.
"China will press for democratic progress,
unswervingly reestablish democracy, including
direct elections," the premier, who favors mild
reform, told a news conference prior to the 8th
EU-China summit on September 5. "If we Chinese
people can manage a village, I believe they can
manage a town in several years. This system [of
direct voting] will be realized step by step."
Visiting British Prime Minister Tony
Blair, who sat next to Wen, was reportedly
"shocked" when he heard the premier's remarks.
Blair shouldn't be surprised. What Wen is talking
about is only a mild democratic reform package.
Similar political schemes were introduced as early
Former Chinese leaders, such as
late Communist Party party chiefs Hu Yaobang and
Zhao Ziyang, considered what Wen is now planning.
Such initiatives came to a sudden halt in 1989
when Hu Yaobang passed away, three years after the
pro-reform leader was sacked from his post, which
immediately sparked an outcry for more democracy.
This pro-democracy campaign culminated in the
showdown at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989 and
the replacement of Zhao Ziyang by Jiang Zemin.
During Jiang's era, direct elections were
introduced to Chinese villages. Nevertheless,
critics said this was far from enough.
Chinese government has now exhausted other
measures aimed at maintaining social stability,
and all are considered to have been unsuccessful.
Former premier Zhu Rongji's state-owned enterprise
reforms, for instance, backfired as the procedure
for management buy-out resulted in even more
corruption and embezzlement. (The leaders all
agreed that economic reform had a strong political
aspect.) Administrative measures alone have proven
a poor substitute for democracy.
China was under Jiang's rule, corruption got worse
as individual corrupt officials collaborated with
each other, and in recent years the central
government has exposed corrupt syndicates
involving hundreds of officials.
Meanwhile, many local officials have made
use of their unchecked power to exploit natural
resources. They have received kickbacks from
property developers, and they run coal mines
without considering the impact on the environment.
Beijing realizes it could face an ecological
disaster should this trend remain unaddressed.
When the Jiang administration was replaced
by Hu Jintao's team in 2003, Zhao's former
secretary, Wen Jiabao, became premier. Now, it
looks as if Wen is determined to finish what his
former boss could not.
Before Wen declared
his intention to introduce more democracy, he
tried to introduce administrative measures to lift
the efficiency of his civil service. He also
issued a spate of government decrees stressing the
need to address grassroots problems. Most
government officials, however, turned a deaf ear
to these repeated calls. The reason is simple:
officials in China are appointed, instead of being
elected, and they are not accountable at the
For a long time, Wen has
been trying hard to reduce redundancy, to
streamline the bulky administrative structure.
Like previous streamlining efforts, the plan to
cut down the size of the government has met with a
huge amount of resistance. To change this
situation, Wen has to make sure that the
grassroots' voices are heard.
reason Wen has to introduce democracy at the
township level is to check the power of provincial
leaders. These leaders are at the top of the
executive, judicial and legislative wings in local
government, while theoretically they also have
command of the army in their areas.
provincial leader's power is essentially
unchecked. Under such circumstance, the Chinese
central government has in the past empowered city
and township governments with financial autonomy
to prevent the provincial government from becoming
too powerful. But this measure has not been very
effective as city leaders also can be corrupt.
Thus, the central government is
contemplating scrapping the city's role in
controlling the city's budget. However, a new
problem arises. There are thousands of cities and
towns in a single province, and it is very hard
for the province to supervise all their
operations. Thus the central government is now
convinced that corruption at the township level
can only be checked by democracy being introduced
at that level.
Now it is a question of
timing beyond the broad "within a couple of years"
promise. No detailed timetable has been announced.
In the most optimistic scenario, this reform could
be incorporated in the working report for the 2007
17th Communist Party congress. Should Wen's idea
meet great resistance, the issue could be delayed
to the 18th congress in 2008. In both scenarios,
Wen's promise of introducing reform "within a
couple of years" could be kept.
appears to be a rhythm of reform in Chinese
history since modern-day China came into existence
in 1949. Apart from the unusual period of the
Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, a wave of
reform thinking washes over China every 14 years
Taking over the mainland in October
1949, the Chinese government virtually ran the
state from 1950. In 1964, when most of Mao
Zedong's planned economic policies had failed and
resulted in the massive famine of the late 1950s,
former president Liu Shaoqi took over command of
the economy and introduced some elements of market
reform. Liu's reform package, however, was called
off when Mao initiated the decade-long Cultural
Revolution in 1966.
devastation, the late leader, Deng Xiaoping, won
over his conservative rivals in 1978 to launch his
open-door policy. After another 14 years in 1992,
Deng pressed ahead with further market reforms by
visiting the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen.
Now, it has been almost 14 years since Deng's call
to spearhead further market reform.
14-year phenomenon is not merely a coincidence.
Fourteen years is long enough for the government
to forget the very spirit of reform, while it is
also long enough for new problems to arise.
Officials need to be reminded why there was a need
for reform in the first place. The people need to
be told how problems that appeared following the
previous bout of reforms can be fixed - and this
is by further and harder reform.