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    Greater China
     Oct 27, 2010

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 foreseeable future.

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 few years.

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 newspaper.

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.

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