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    Greater China
     Apr 4, 2012

A brush with reform
By Wu Zhong, China Editor

HONG KONG - Over the past few years, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has advocated political reform, but he has been laughed at for "empty talk" without taking any real action.

At last, however, some subtle changes seem to be taking place toward political liberalization, following the downfall of Bo Xilai - said to be the spiritual leader and financial supporter of the anti-reform new leftists or conservatives.

Bo was fired last month from his position as head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Chongqing, a western interior municipality, apparently over problems with his police chief. He remains a member of the CCP's politburo.

In China's lunar calendar, the Qingming festival (which normally


falls on April 4 or 5) is traditionally a holiday for people to pay tribute to their deceased families and ancestors. But in past 30 years, Qingming, also known as the grave-sweeping festival, has become a politically sensitive holiday.

On Qingming in 1976, hundreds of thousands of people flocked into Beijing's Tiananmen Square to mourn late premier Zhou Enlai, who had died three months earlier, and to condemn the "Gang of Four" headed by Mao Zedong's wife Jiang Qing.

Mao, leader of the country from 1949 until his death in 1976, branded the protests as "counter-revolutionary" and ordered a crackdown. Deng Xiaoping - who later became paramount leader of China from 1978 to 1992 - was purged as the "black hand" behind this "Tiananmen Incident". But a couple of years after Mao's death in September 1976, the CCP had to vindicate the protest, calling it a "revolutionary movement", which paved the way for Deng to make his third and last political comeback.

On April 15, 1989, shortly after the Qingming festival, Hu Yaobang, disgraced party general secretary for his open-mindedness, died. The next day, a small-scale demonstration took place in Beijing to commemorate him and demand that the government reassess his legacy.

A week later, the day before Hu's funeral, some 100,000 students marched to Tiananmen Square, leading to the two-month Tiananmen Square protests that were ended by a bloody crackdown on June 4. The then-general secretary of the party, Zhao Ziyang, regarded as a reformist, was purged for tolerating the pro-democracy protests, and replaced by Jiang Zemin, handpicked by Deng.

Since then, the authorities have heightened vigilance at the time of Qingming in fear that protests might take place. The name of Zhao Ziyang has become taboo, not to be mentioned or talked about in public.

This year, Qingming falls on April 4. In the run-up, a number of web sites dedicated to mourn Zhao have emerged in cities such as Beijing, Shenyang, Hangzhou and Hefei, without being blocked by the "Internet police".

Netizens have been able to freely visit these websites and leave messages to mourn and praise Zhao. Even messages calling for the rehabilitation of Zhao and for political reform have not been deleted. Also, more and more people have begun to visit Zhao's native village in Huaxian in central Henan province, without being stopped by authorities, as before, according to Hong Kong media reports. [1]

In major Chinese Internet search engines, "Zhao Ziyang" is now not completely blocked (as of the end of last week, at least). On Baidu.com, China's largest search engine, if one keys in Zhao's name, over a million pages pop up, including many of his speeches, (although some are still blocked).

Many Chinese political analysts say this shows Beijing wants to test the water for pushing for more political liberalization. Their argument is that Zhao was a firm advocate for political reform, so a vindication of his verdict on a public consensus would make it easier to start political reforms.

But some other analysts warn not to over-interpret the relaxation, saying it is probably just timed for Qingming, though they fail to explain why in previous Qingming holidays there has been no such relaxation of control.

It is noted that the relaxation of control took place shortly after Wen reiterated that China needed not only economic reform but also political structural reform, especially reform of the leadership system of the CCP and the government.

Wen warned at a press conference on March 14, a day before the announcement of the removal of Bo, after the conclusion of the annual session of the National People's Congress, that "now reforms in China have come to a critical stage ... Without successful political reform, it's impossible for China to fully institute economic reform and the gains we have made in these areas may be lost, and new problems that popped up in Chinese society will not be fundamentally resolved, and such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution [1966-1976] may happen again in China."

Wen said he had addressed the topic of political structural reform in China on many occasions in recent years, giving his views on the topic in full and in detail. He said his long-standing interest in political reforms came from "a strong sense of responsibility". [2]

A week later, the Financial Times of London reported:
According to people close to top-level internal party discussions, Mr Wen was tentatively laying the foundation for a move that would blow apart the established order in China and kick-start the political reform he has agitated for in recent years.

That move would be the rehabilitation and re-evaluation of the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests and the massacre that followed on June 4, when party elders ordered the People's Liberation Army to open fire on unarmed demonstrators.

To this day the party officially regards the democracy protests as a "counter-revolutionary riot" and the entire episode has been painstakingly scrubbed from the collective consciousness of the nation.

In calling for a re-evaluation of the Cultural Revolution, Mr Wen was in fact signaling his intention to do the same for Tiananmen in order to finally begin the healing.

Mr Wen has already suggested this on three separate occasions in top-level secret party meetings in recent years, according to people familiar with the matter, but each time has been blocked by his colleagues.

One of the most vehement opponents of this proposal was Bo Xilai. [3]
Whether Wen had really formally proposed a revaluation of the June 4 crackdown at "top-level secret party meetings" is yet to be independently verified. However, it is almost certain that Bo would be a strong opponent of such a move and political reform.

Bo's father Bo Yibo, a veteran revolutionary, was known as one of the "eight immortals" in the late 1980s and early 1990s, who held honorary or no official positions but practically ruled the country behind the scenes - their offspring are known as the princelings.

It was said that Deng, leader of the "eight immortals", was urged by the others to purge Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. After the June 4 crackdown, unconfirmed reports at the time had it that the "eight immortals" reached a secret consensus on a proposal by then-vice president Wang Zhen to let the princelings gradually take key posts in the party and state. Wang reportedly said, "After all, our children are more trustworthy successors to what we have fought for," given the lessons of Hu and Zhao. Bo Xilai's fast rise could be said to have been a result of this decision, if it indeed existed.

Although both Bo and his father suffered during the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, Bo Xilai sought to return to a "worship" of Mao in his rule of Chongqing - launching massive campaigns to crack down on gangsters and sing "Red Songs" (a scene of "singing Red Songs" in Chongqing today is not much different from those of the Cultural Revolution), and practicing some sort of socialism by seeking "common prosperity".

No wonder Bo is regarded by the new leftists, a minority of Chinese intellectuals advocating a return to socialism, as their spiritual leader. It has now been established that Bo spent public funds of Chongqing to support the activities of the new leftists.

Kong Qingdong, a die-hard new leftist and Peking University professor who openly denounced the dismissal of Bo as a "counter-revolutionary coup", admitted in his mini-blog on March 24 that he had accepted $1 million yuan (US$159,000) from the Chongqing government to promote the so-called "Chongqing Model". Detained by secret police for investigation after Bo's dismissal, Kong was released five days later after giving back the money.

Chinese netizens now identify at least two dozen other new leftists who allegedly accepted money from Bo to help propagandize the "Chongqing Model". These claims have not been confirmed.

It would be strange for a person like Bo Xilai to support a re-evaluation of the June 4 crackdown and political liberalization. Hence, his dismissal has removed a big obstacle to the possible rehabilitation of June 4 and political reform.

But Bo was just a highly visible obstacle on the rough road ahead. There are hidden obstacles. In the case of the re-evaluation of June 4, the relaxation of control on people mourning Zhao Ziyang may be a good beginning, but there is still a long way to go.

Some retired leaders who rose after the crackdown, such as Jiang Zemin, or former premier Li Peng, who still retain certain influence, may not be happy to see this happen. Even party officials admit that a major obstacle is the vested-interest groups inside and outside the current political establishment.

At the National People's Congress annual session in March, reform-minded Guangdong party chief Wang Yang, who is tipped to move up to the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee - the power core of the CCP - pointed out that resistance against the deepening of reforms often came from central government departments with vested interest.

"Now enterprises have difficulties, we [Guangdong government] are considering waiving some administrative charges, but relevant central government departments say you cannot take the lead to do this or other provinces will follow. And then 'where can we find money'?" Wang said some effective laws and regulations had also become obstacles to further forms.

Any change to such laws and regulations would need the cooperation of the National People's Congress, but it has become a house of representatives of vested-interest groups. [4]

Wang Yang currently is one of the 25 members of the politburo. If he feels it is difficult to make changes in Guangdong - which is under his jurisdiction and which has always spearheaded reform and opening up - then it is not hard to imagine how strong the resistance against changes is nowadays in other parts of the county. And all he wants to do is push for some economic or administrative reforms - not political reform in the proper sense.

Wen Jiabao may be sincere and eager to push for political reform, and he may have the backing of President Hu Jintao, as many in China believe, but he retires in less than a year and he may not have time to start the process.

However, by addressing the issue repeatedly he seems to have successfully drawn public attention to it. After the removal of Bo, discussions about political reform have become pretty much free, even fashionable, on Chinese media and among people.

In this way, a favorable atmosphere is being created for the new leadership to be endorsed at the party's 18th congress in October to start making some changes.

This certainly will be the first tough challenge to the new leadership to be headed by Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang who are tipped to succeed Hu and Wen as president and premier, respectively.

Notes 1. For instance, click here for a Chinese-language report.
2. Wen says China needs political reform, warns of another Cultural Revolution if without, Xinhua, Mar 14, 2012.
3. Wen lays ground for Tiananmen healing, Financial Times, Mar 20, 2012.
4. NPC: A house of non-representatives, Asia Times Online, Mar 13, 2012.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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