SUN WUKONG Xi's rise shows democracy off the menu
By Wu Zhong, China Editor
HONG KONG - A smattering of fizz emerged from the dour proceedings of the
recent fifth plenum of the 17th central committee of the Chinese Communist
Party (CCP). Apart from setting policy principles for economic development, at
least two political events were significant.
One was the confirmation of Vice President Xi Jinping, 57, as the successor to
President Hu Jintao in the 18th party congress in 2012. The second was the
affirmation of the party's consistent gradualist approach toward political
reforms - which rules out the possibility of radical change that many had
sniffed in the winds.
Taking these two decisions together, it is reasonable to conclude
that Xi is set to continue the party line regarding political reforms, meaning
that democratization and liberalization are unlikely to occur in the
Xi's political appointment as vice chairman of the party's Central Military
Commission (CMC) makes him the the second civilian member of the CMC, after Hu,
who serves as chairman. According to the party's adopted practice, only the CMC
chairman and his potential successor can be civilian members of the supreme
command of the country's armed forces, including the People's Liberation Army
(PLA) and the People's Armed Police (PAP), all other members being career
military officers. The CMC chairmanship is a post that the general secretary of
the party takes to uphold the principle of "the party commanding the gun".
Hence, it is almost certain that Xi will succeed Hu as the party chief at the
18th party congress and then the state president at the National People's
Congress (NPC), China's parliament, in early 2013. It is also expected that,
following past practice, Hu will remain as CMC chairman for a couple of more
years after he steps down as party chief and president.
The plenum's appointment of Xi as CMC vice chairman is but further and somehow
long-awaited confirmation that he is poised to succeed Hu. In fact, when Xi's
political star rose with his election in 2007 to the nine-member Standing
Committee of the Politburo - the very core of the party's leadership - and as
vice president a few months later in 2008, he was already set to be groomed as
Hu's successor. The party is clearly satisfied by his performance over the past
At this stage, however, one cannot say with 100% certainty that Xi will succeed
in 2012. To become party chief, he must first win a majority of deputies' votes
in the 18th party congress to become a member of the new central committee, and
then a member of the new Politburo. The possibility of Xi being voted out is
extremely slim. But there is a precedent in which a party-prearranged candidate
for the Politburo failed to get enough votes even for alternate membership of
the central committee. That was at the 13th party congress in 1987, when the
majority of party deputies defied a party pre-arrangement and cast their votes
against Deng Liqun, a revolutionary veteran and hard-line ideologue.
While confirming Xi as Hu's successor, the communique of the fifth plenum also
affirmed the party's long-lasting gradualist approach toward political reforms,
saying the party would "positively, safely and steadily promote restructuring
of the political system". This seems to damp hopes, boosted particularly by
Premier Wen Jiabao's nicely worded but rather empty talks about political
reforms since late August, that the current party leadership led by Hu might
pave the way for introducing democratization and liberalization before the
power transfer two years later.
But more importantly, the party's reaffirmation of this line taken together
with Xi's appointment delivers a clear message that under Xi, as a worthy
successor to Hu, there will be no political reform leading to democratization
and liberalization for the foreseeable future.
As if to elaborate this party line, the CCP's flagship newspaper, the People's
Daily, carried commentaries after the conclusion of the fifth plenum to
unequivocally rule out the possibility of China introducing Western-style
democracy and liberty.
On October 20, two days after the conclusion of the plenum, the People's Daily
carried a lengthy commentary on its front page, insisting that China must
develop "socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics". It stressed that a
distinction must be drawn between socialist democracy with Chinese
characteristics and Western capitalist democracy, and said that China must go
along its own road of political development. Distinguishing one from the other
was important so that "our cadres and masses can conscientiously resist against
hostile elements' plot to Westernize or divide" China, according to the
The commentary put forward "four adherences", saying that China must adhere to:
socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics; the system of the National
People's Congress; the CCP-led multi-party cooperation and consultation system;
and combining consultative democracy with electoral democracy.
We "must unswervingly insist on taking the political road to develop democracy
with Chinese characteristics ... draw a demarcation from Western capitalist
democracy, and positively, safely and steadily develop democracy with Chinese
characteristics," it said.
Through some tongue-twisting words, the commentary was in fact an attempt to
elaborate the party's long-lasting gradualist approach. The message was that
the current political system, though not perfect, works well for China, so it
must be stuck to and improved, rather than replaced.
Thus, in CCP terminology, "political reform" has a different meaning and goal
from what is commonly understood at home and abroad. Instead of introducing
democracy that gives all people the right to choose their government and
leaders, "political reforms" for CCP are to consolidate and strengthen its rule
by gradually improving the existing political system. From CCP's point of view,
it has indeed been pushing forward "political reforms", including restructuring
the administrative system to have a better division of labor between the party
and the government, giving the NPC greater autonomy in legislation and
supervision, piloting electoral democracy at the grassroots and inside the
party, and painfully probing for a more effective anti-graft system.
Many at home and abroad also understand the political reforms are meant for
liberalization to give people freedoms of speech, assembly and the press. Such
hopes may be dashed.
On October 21, the People's Daily carried another commentary saying freedoms of
speech and the press must be governed by law. "Freedom of the press and freedom
of speech cannot be separated from abiding by the law. In other words, such
freedoms must not be taken as one can say whatever he wants to say," it said.
"The rule of law is an important hallmark of a modern society. In any country
with the rule of law, the dignity of the law is not allowed to be violated ...
A citizen must abide by the law in exercising his freedom of speech or freedom
of the press," it went on, adding that even in the United States there are
strict laws to restrict freedoms of speech, assembly and the press.
Apparently, the commentary is the party's answer to growing calls for
liberalization. In particular, before the fifth plenum, 23 party veterans
including Li Rui, a former secretary of Mao Zedong, and Hu Jiwei, former
editor-in-chief of the People's Daily, signed an open letter to the NPC
Standing committee calling for restoring citizen's constitutional rights to
free speech and publication.
Implicitly, the commentary also serves a justification for continuing the
imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Liu was
jailed after he initiated the Charter 08 movement, appealing for the
constitutional rights of citizens to be restored. According to the People's
Daily commentary, he deserved to be punished as his speech and publication
violated Chinese law.
All in all, what the two commentaries of the People's Daily are trying to tell
us is that there are no such universal values in the world as "democracy" and
"liberty". Hence, from now on, one must try to understand "political reforms"
by the definition in the CCP terminology.