Democracy with Chinese
characteristics By Francesco
BEIJING - China's burgeoning and at
times free-wheeling economy is officially
described as "socialism with Chinese
characteristics". One could just as well call it
"capitalism with Chinese characteristics".
In the same vein, a recent white paper
describes China as having a "socialist democracy",
that is, "democracy with Chinese characteristics".
The precise nature of these
"characteristics", though, is at the center of
ongoing debate within the country's leadership,
which faces its greatest and most tantalizing
dilemma: just as it embraced capitalism, which is
anathema to communism, it can
in power by embracing democracy (in some form) ,
even though this goes against its core principles.
Reading the signs of
Tiananmen Hours after news of the death on
April 15, 1989 of former Chinese Communist Party
(CCP) chief Hu Yaobang spread through the streets
of Beijing, people started blaming some of his
colleagues for his demise.
in small characters were hastily plastered on the
bulletin boards of Beijing's main universities,
and even over the monument of the People's Hero at
the center of Tiananmen Square. These protests
grew, culminating in an army crackdown on June 4
at Tiananmen in which hundreds, some say
thousands, were killed.
Hu was widely
popular for having rehabilitated millions of
people purged during the 1957 Anti-Rightist
Movement, as well as after the catastrophic
1966-76 Cultural Revolution. Hu was sacked in 1987
for apparently leaning towards "Western,
bourgeois" principles of democracy, and for
indirectly encouraging questioning of the
communist system, as well as for pushing economic
reforms beyond their intended limits. He was
succeeded by Zhao Ziyang.
protestors denounced the then prime minister, Li
Peng, saying that he had caused Hu the deep
unhappiness that led to his being admitted to
hospital with a stroke; they blamed paramount
leader Deng Xiaoping for not fully backing Hu,
despite Hu's total loyalty to Deng; and they
poured even greater insults on Zhao, saying he had
stabbed Hu in the back.
People argued that
Zhao had betrayed Hu twice. The first time was in
1986, when he spearheaded an internal political
campaign blaming Hu for student demonstrations in
Shanghai and Beijing; the second time was when
Zhao had a talk with Hu while the latter was
convalescing from his stroke. After this talk, Hu
literally died of anger, they say. No one will
ever know what was said during the talk, as both
protagonists are now dead, yet speculation was
rife then, and some people still bring it up.
In 1989, the accusations against Zhao
dwindled as the protests grew, and especially
after it became clear that Zhao had distanced
himself from an April 26 People's Daily editorial
accusing the students of being manipulated by
Yet suspicion between Hu's
and Zhao's followers never entirely disappeared.
Beijing's rumor mill at the time had it
that Qiao Shi, a member of the then five-man
politburo, abstained in more than one crucial vote
relating to the protests, and provided legal
reasons for the powerful advisory commission to
step in and isolate Zhao. Qiao, formerly very
close to Hu, did this out of loyalty to Hu and
suspicion of Zhao, according to conventional
Zhao was consequently ousted as
CCP chief in 1989, and lived under house arrest
until his death early this year.
details could be added to this tumultuous period
of history, which, without strong documentary
evidence, is bound to remain highly controversial.
However, the point is not so much about the facts
of 1989, but about present politics.
The rise of Hu Jintao Deng
Xiaoping promoted present CCP leader and
president, Hu Jintao, (no relation to Hu Yaobang)
in 1992, taking the advice of Hu Yaobang's party
veteran, Song Ping, who had first singled out Hu
Jintao. But it was Hu Yaobang who strongly pushed
for the middle-aged cadre to become CCP chief in
poor Guizhou province in 1985. Hu Jintao built his
career through the Youth League, which remains one
of his power bases.
The impression of a
close association between the two Hus can be drawn
from the career of Zheng Bijian. Zheng served as
Hu Yaobang's political adviser in the 1980s, and
for nine years he was Hu Jintao's deputy when the
latter headed the Central Party School, a decisive
position in the process of promotions and training
in the communist organization.
all hints that give some credibility to reports
that Hu Yaobang might now be rehabilitated. The
CCP is due to stage a gathering, the first of its
kind, on November 20 to mark Hu Yaobang's 90th
birth anniversary, but the exact nature of the
event and the timing have not been confirmed.
However, contrary reports say that Hu
Jintao is no closet liberal, and that he is not
keen on relying on Hu Yaobang's people, some of
whom have allegedly even been "disgraced".
And there are certainly no actual moves to
reverse the CCP's verdict on Tiananmen, namely
that the protests were a "counter-revolutionary
What Hu Jintao seems to be doing is
drawing a line: rehabilitate Hu Yaobang, but not
Zhao Ziyang. By doing so he is passing a complex
judgment on Tiananmen, that Hu Yaobang was right,
and so were the students mourning for him, but not
It might not be accurate to split
the two personalities, but the stories about
friction between Hu Yaobang and Zhao might explain
the reasoning. Whatever the case, the history of
Tiananmen is not one of black and white: good and
bad are mixed.
By favoring Hu Yaobang and
not Zhao, Hu Jintao might also be sending a
message abroad, that he wishes to liberalize, but
by moving cautiously. Tiananmen is an iimmensly
sensitive issue. It was part of a complex power
struggle that had started in 1986. Any
reassessment of Tiananmen will be a slow and
Domestically, Hu Jintao's
position strikes a balance within the party
without irritating the old guard, which is still
influential and which 16 years ago was calling for
a crackdown, while also nudging political
reformers to go ahead. This internal balance is
important. If the old guard feels that tinkering
with Tiananmen's "history" will put them and their
decisions on trial, then they could become restive
and stop any political reforms dead in their
Of morals and
legacy Furthermore, the separation of Hu
Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang might also affirm a sense
of morality. "Did it make sense for Zhao Ziyang to
go to Tiananmen and cry, begging the students to
go home, while he knew full well that a crackdown
had been decided?" people in Beijing still wonder.
Was he trying to convince the students to
go home, and then score a political victory over
those who claimed nothing could be done other than
send in the troops? In sum, was Zhao a tall moral
figure or an opportunist? And if he was a little
of both, what part was opportunism and what part
morality? It is hard to say now, and perhaps it is
still too early to pass judgment, but one thing
seems certain: Hu Yaobang was morally taller than
But this is not simply an issue of
morality, it is also one of legacy. In 1987, Hu
Yaobang was demoted as CCP chief, but still
retained his post in the politburo. This was a
sign of loyalty by the party to Hu, recognizing
his value although he could no longer hold his
And most importantly, it was
a sign of Hu's loyalty to the party: he recognized
and accepted the reasons for his demotion and did
what the party told him to do. Hu might have had a
personal reason for acting as he did, and he might
have been right, but he realized that ultimately
he had to put the party above his personal
This is what the party, rightly
or wrongly, treasures most.
differently. After the Tiananmen crackdown and
being stripped of his party post, he was offered a
ministerial post, but he turned it down, demanding
instead a full-blown reversal of the Tiananmen
verdict, something the party was not prepared to
Incidentally, Hu Qili also lost his
post in the standing committee of the politburo in
1989. Hu Qili accepted a minor post, minister of
electronics, as he wanted to preserve the unity of
Zhao might have had plenty of
reasons for his attitude, but what the party asked
from him was to retract his view and apologize for
his errors, in the name of unity. Instead, Zhao
endangered the unity of the party, which is the
supreme value, even if in the case of Tiananmen he
might have been right. Conversely, Hu Yaobang
yielded to the party when he could have been
unthinkable Zhao's refusal to consider
party unity, and the fact that the party didn't
recognize Hu's beliefs in time to use him,
betrayed a deeper crisis within the CCP.
While there are reasons to uphold party
unity, what did the party do to deserve to live
on, and what reasons could it give to its members
to be proud of it?
Since taking power in
1949, the history of the CCP has been littered
with mistakes, and Tiananmen was just another one
of them, and not even the most serious.
Increasingly, especially after Deng's famous trip
to the south in 1992 to relaunch economic reforms,
the party had been schizophrenic, and then it
found a new legitimacy for being in power: it
gained the support of the people by encouraging
the transformation of the economy into de facto
capitalism, while officially remaining a communist
The leaders realized that they
could stay in power by advocating policies that
were contrary to their very principles.
course, the leaders, especially by the early
1990s, were not true believers in communism. They
were pragmatic and understood the traditional
Chinese political thought that the means to keep
power can't be the same as the means to gain
This led to the development of the
theory of the Three Represents, which became
official CCP theory in the late 1990s. In essence,
it claims that the party must represent the most
advanced forces in society, in culture and in
production. Traditionally these forces were the
proletariat, subsequently they became
entrepreneurs. Tomorrow? We don't know. But what
the theory did, and can still do, is give
continuity to the party's history and at the same
time allow for radical change.
the theory came from the Central Party School. Its
inspiration seems to have been the theory of
Antonio Gramsci, the founder of the Italian
During his year in
fascist prisons in the 1920s, Gramsci elaborated
the idea that the party should model itself on the
Prince of Machiavelli. It must embody the spirit
of the time and be able to lead change. Gramsci
elaborated the idea as a self-criticism for not
being able to meet the demands of World War 1
veterans who were spurned by the communists and
ended up in the arms of the fascists.
Gramsci thus distanced himself from the
idea that the party should only represent the
proletariat. The proletariat was one of the forces
that represented change, and the new, but it was
not alone in that; moreover, conditions of the
time had to be considered.
This was, in a
nutshell, the idea of the Three Represents.
The theory reconciled Hu Yaobang's party
discipline and his drive for change. Furthermore,
it revealed that the tradition of Marxism held
within it a push for change.
paper on democracy, released in October, mentions
that political reforms will draw inspiration from
Marxist tradition. This seems to indicate the
tradition of the Italian Communist Party, which
upheld democracy in Italy in the 1970s, even
against the threat of the communist Red Brigades;
or that of the Marxists from the anti-Stalinist
school of Frankfurt, which stirred the European
students' movement of the 1960s.
theory protects the role of the party, but also
gives it new reasons to exist. In fact, it gives
party members positive reasons for being in the
party, and for being proud to be in it.
The memory of Hu Yaobang, and all that he
meant and stood for, could be a reason for people
to stick with the party, and ultimately trust that
it will give China what it expects.
could well be a form of democracy, even if it has
distinctly Chinese characteristics.
Francesco Sisci, based in
Beijing, is Asia Editor for the daily La Stampa.