The debate regarding the need for political re-structuring in China as a follow-up to the economic re-structuring undertaken since 1978 started during the 17th National Congress of the Communist Partry of China held at Beijing in October,2007. The report presented by President Hu Jintao, in his capacity as the Party Secretary, to the Congress contained 60 references to the expression "people's democracy". This expression also figured repeatedly in the subsequent discussion on the report.
The 17th National Congress was held 10 months before the Beijing Olympics of August,2008. The party was, therefore, keen to shed the image of China as an authoritarian State and to project its image as a State with a democracy in Chinese colours and not in Western colours. During the Congress, the Chinese Party leaders sought to convey to their own people and to the rest of the world that what one saw in China was not the rule of the few over the many, but the rule of the many through the few. They projected China as a State where decisions were made and power was exercised not in darkness, but in full sunshine.
For China's progress and stability in the future, political development was as important as economic and social development. That was what Hu sought to underline in his report. What should be the political characteristics of the Chinese State would be decided by the Chinese people through their party in accordance with their genius and experience. It would not be imposed from outside. The Chinese media quoted Yang Guangbin, Professor of the Renmin University of China. as saying: "With more individual freedom, gradual shaping of unique concept of democracy and solid forming of institutional arrangements, China-style democracy is emerging."
In his report, Hu drew attention to the following aspects of democracy in Chinese colours: The supremacy of the Constitution and the rule of the law, avoidance of arbitrariness in decision-making and governance, collective leadership through the party tempered by a division of individual responsibilities, democratic centralism moderated by inner party democracy, decisions based on information and intellectual support to the decision-making process, self-management, self-service, self-education and self-oversight. He emphasised that "power must be exercised in the sunshine to ensure that it is exercised correctly".
The key points in his report were:
- Public hearings must be held for the formulation of laws, regulations and policies that bear closely on the interests of the public.
- The most effective and extensive way for the people to be masters of the country was that they directly exercise democratic rights in accordance with the law to manage public affairs and public service programmes at the primary level, practice self-management, self-service, self-education and self-oversight, and exercise democratic oversight over cadres. Such practices must be emphasized and promoted as the groundwork for developing socialist democracy.
- The Party organizations at all levels and all Party members should act under the Constitution and laws on their own initiative and take the lead in upholding the authority of the Constitution and laws.
- The functions of the government must be separated from those of economic enterprises, matters requiring administrative examination and approval must be reduced, procedures must be standardised and Government should not intervene in microeconomic operations.
- Laws and rules of procedure should be improved to ensure that state organs exercise their powers and perform their functions within their statutory jurisdiction and in accordance with legal procedures.
- The need for continuous political re-structuring in order to improve political management.
It was stated during the discussion on Hu's report that while China would continue to be a one-party State, the Party should avoid any pretension of a monopoly of wisdom. Non-party intellectuals and technocrats would have an increasing role in policy-formulation and governance. One need not have to be a party member in order to be associated with the Government, but those associated with the Government--whether they were party members or not-- must accept party supervision over their functioning.
Liberal democracy has two important features: The right of the people to elect their leaders and to question in open the wisdom of the decisions taken by the Government. The Chinese-style democracy would not have these features. The leaders would be elected by the party cadres in accordance with party procedures. While there would be a widest possible public contribution to decision-making by the leadership, once a decision was made, its wisdom cannot be challenged. The expression of any reservations or dissent should be in the darkness of party corridors and not in open sunshine. However, it was stated that the party had decided to experiment with direct elections of Party chiefs in more than 200 townships in Chongqing, Sichuan and Hubei.
The debate on the need for political re-structuring and how to undertake it continued during the session of the National People's Congress (NPC) at Beijing in March 2010. Among the views expressed during the NPC session were: After successfully carrying forward and implementing the policy of economic reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, the time had come to think in terms of initiating a policy of political reforms to give a greater voice to the people and the media in articulating their views on the policies and performance of the Government. At a time when the Internet had registered a spectacular expansion in China and thousands of blogs provided the netizens with an opportunity to express their frank views on the problems confronting the country and the performance of the Communist Party and the Government, it looked absurd to project rubber stamp bodies such as the NPC, as the genuine voice of the people. The time had come for a genuine political restructuring of the country without damaging its political stability.
Among those who expressed themselves in favour of political restructuring was Prime Minister Wen Jiabao himself who told the NPC on March 5, 2010, while delivering the annual report on the work of his Government: “China's modernization drive and economic reforms could risk a failure without political restructuring. The Government would create conditions for the people to criticize and supervise the Government, and let news media fully play their oversight role so as to put the authorities under sunlight.”
Commenting on his remarks which did not receive outside China the attention they deserved, the Government-owned Xinhua news agency said: “Observers took the remarks as a significant signal for the nation to advance political restructuring.”
It quoted Professor Wang Wei of the Politics School of the Chinese Academy of Governance, as commenting as follows on Prime Minister Wen’s remarks:
“Wen's statement reflected the Central Government's confidence although the nation faced a complex internal and external environment. If the Government gets carried away by achievements and thinks the system unparalleled, the nation will be thrown into danger, as the nation can hardly sustain its economic prosperity if political restructuring trails."
It also quoted Prof. Yu Pei, head of the World History Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, as saying that advancing political restructuring would help China better address its thorny domestic concerns and bring closer the ties between the Government and the people. He added: “’If China wants to seek a bigger role in the global arena, it must grow stronger and have its economic and social problems well addressed first. In his work report to the National People's Congress Wen admitted the Government's work still fell considerably short of public expectations. Wen also admitted that the transformation of Government functions is incomplete and there is too much Government interference in the micro-economy, and public administration and services are relatively weak. Efforts should be made to focus on transforming Government functions, deepening reform of the administrative system and working hard to make the Government devoted to service.”
Among the envisaged political reforms mentioned by the Prime Minister were:
- The Government will earnestly deal with serious infringements on public interests related to enterprises' conversion to a stockholding system, land expropriation, housing demolition and resident relocation, environmental protection, labour disputes, and legal and litigation issues.
- It will also improve handling of public complaints.
- It will develop socialist democracy and effectively safeguard the democratic rights of people as "masters of the country."
- China will further expand primary-level democracy and strengthen primary-level self-governing bodies so that people can better participate in the management of local affairs.
- An amendment to the Electoral Law, adopted in 1953, during the session would ensure equal electoral rights between urban and rural residents.
The emphasis in Wen’s speech was still on China continuing as a socialist democracy. He ruled out Western-style liberal democracy. There will be greater freedom to criticize Government’s policies and performance, but not political dissidence. The criticisms should seek to improve the party and the Government and not weaken and undermine their primacy. That was the message which he sent across to the people through his statement in the NPC.
But in an editorial carried on March 4,2010, the party-owned Global Times, which seeks to project itself as more independent and objective than other party and Government-owned media, said:
“On the long-winding path toward democracy, muzzled "people's representatives" would undoubtedly take the nation nowhere. China is a conventionally centralized society, where consensus seems so easy to reach, and dissenting opinions are so rare. That explains why the delegates' courage and savvy to speak the truth can play a crucial role in properly addressing the concerns of the vulnerable social groups and laying a solid foundation for a civil society. Caught in the "deep water zone" of reform, China finds itself confronted with many pressing economic, political and social problems. Past achievement can at best serve as a morale booster, though at times they may inspire solutions. While they provide a record for going forward, it is problems that demand attention. Only when the people's representatives can freely express their concerns and frankly moot suggestions can the problems be solved efficiently while social justice is delivered. Given the domestic and international scenarios of the "most complicated year," there is a particularly strong case for the authentic voices of representatives to be heard. Riding the wave of rising expectations, both at home and abroad, China can only go forward when the people's representatives are truthful and outspoken at the people's sessions.”
This debate was further taken forward during functions held in Shenzhen in August-September to mark the 30th anniversary of the setting up of the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) under the directive of Deng. In a speech delivered by him at Shenzhen on August 21, 2010, Wen, according to the Xinhua news agency, made the following points: China has to pursue political reform to safeguard its economic health. "Without the safeguarding of political restructuring, China may lose what it has already achieved through economic restructuring and the targets of its modernization drive might not be reached. People's democratic rights and legitimate rights must be guaranteed. People should be mobilized and organized to deal with, in accordance with the law, state, economic, social and cultural affairs." Wen also wanted to "create conditions" to allow the people to criticize and supervise the government as a way to address "the problem of over-concentration of power with ineffective supervision."
In an analysis, D.S.Rajan, Director, Chennai Centre For China Studies, has underlined that the remarks of Wen identified the following "Four Musts":
- both economic reforms and political system reforms must be promoted as without the latter, economic reforms will come to nothing and the modernization drive cannot be achieved,
- political system reforms must protect the democratic and legal rights of the people including in respect of managing the affairs of the State,
- the problem of over concentration of and unchecked power must be resolved at systemic levels and
- a fair and just society, judicial impartiality in particular, must be built.
According to Rajan, also notable has been the Premier’s warning on the occasion that “staying put and regressing will not only doom the achievements of 30-year old reforms and open door policy, but will also eventually lead to a road of perdition and suffocate the vitality of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” Do Wen’s remarks imply a veiled criticism of those in China who, in his view, are wavering on speeding up political reforms? There is no firm answer on this count, at this juncture, says Rajan. Please see Rajan’s article of September 24 titled China: Democracy With Chinese Characteristics
Ming Xia, Professor of politics at the City University of New York, commented as follows:
“Wen appears to be following in the footsteps of late reformist leader Deng Xiaoping, who used Shenzhen as a launchpad for economic reforms. Wen Jiabao probably wants to continue to use Shenzhen as a testing ground. In fact, Wen is continuing a train of thought that began with Deng Xiaoping, who always said that economic reforms should come first, and then political reforms should follow. He is using the power of Deng's words as a means of warding off the pressure being put on him by the new left and conservative forces [in the Party]."
In an article published on August 23, the Global Times commented on Wen’s speech as follows:
“Wen's remarks about political reform came 30 years after the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping first raised the issue during an important speech on August 18, 1980, which was regarded as "the programmatic document for China's political restructuring.". After three decades of reform and opening-up, China is expected to overtake Japan to become the world's second largest economy this year, but the country is facing mounting pressure during its social transition including frequent attacks on vulnerable groups, aggravating pollution, serious corruption, inequality of distribution and a widening income gap. Mounting social unrests in recent years have proved costly. In 2009, the government earmarked 514 billion yuan ($76 billion) to maintain stability, much more than the 480 billion yuan for national defense.”
The article added:
”Zhang Liangui, a professor at the Party School of the CPC Central Committee, noted that the root cause of growing social conflict is the slow pace of political reform that seriously lags behind unprecedented economic reform. The consequence is problematic social development along with serious bureaucracy that hinders productivity. To prevent corruption, the authorities have adopted various new regulations in recent years such as introducing a property declaration system and monitoring of "naked officials" or those whose spouses and children moved overseas. However, they're not enough to address the growing conflicts, which pose challenges to social stability, Zhang said.”
It further said:
“Du Daozheng, former director of the State Press and Publication Administration, said little progress was made in the past three decades and concerns about political risks and competing interests were to blame. Du argued that political restructuring wouldn't bring chaos to China because most Chinese support the current reform and opening-up policy and they expect a steady life and a government that is honest, transparent, efficient and which represents their views. He suggested that political reform should begin with pilot projects in some regions and the first step should be to create an open opinion environment inside the Party and across the country. Mao Shoulong, a professor of administrative management at Renmin University, said that we will "cross the river by touching each stone" during political reform, just like economic reform in the past 30 years, and it should be carried out under the framework of the current political system, which is dominated by the CPC. Democracy would probably be promoted at the grassroots level, especially with the election of lower-ranking officials, Mao added.”
The message from the article was clear: Yes, China must embark on political reforms, but they should be carried out under the leadership of the Communist Party. The measures undertaken should reform the functioning of the Government and the Party without weakening them.
In his speech at Shenzhen on September 6, Hu Jintao avoided the use of expressions such as political re-structuring etc. Hu’s emphasis was on Shenzhen as a trigger for the Chinese economic miracle. He said: "The Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (SEZ) created a miracle in the world's history of industrialization, urbanization and modernization, and has contributed significantly to China's opening up and reform. The central government will, as always, support the brave exploration of the special economic zone as well as its role of testing and carrying out reforms ahead of others." Hu urged the SEZs to be bold in reform and innovation in their roles as the "first movers". But Hu’s speech was not devoid of references to the political system as made out by some analysts. He said that the SEZs could experiment with reforms in economic, political, cultural and social systems.Hu called for "expanding socialist democracy" and speeding up the construction of "a socialist country under the rule of law." He said efforts should be made to carry out democratic elections, decision-making, management and supervision in order to safeguard the people's right to know, to participate, to express and to supervise.
In September, Wen was in New York to attend the UN General Assembly session. He was interviewed by Fareed Zakaria for CNN's Global Public Square programme. Zakaria asked him about freedom in China: "Can you be as strong and creative a nation with so many restrictions on freedom of expression, with the internet being censored?" Wen replied: "I believe freedom of speech is indispensable, for any country, a country in the course of development and a country that has become strong. Freedom of speech has been incorporated into the Chinese constitution. I often say that we should not only let people have the freedom of speech, we more importantly must create conditions to let them criticise the work of the government. It is only when there is the supervision and critical oversight from the people that the government will be in a position to do an even better job, and employees of government departments will be the true public servants of the people."
From Wen’s comments at Shenzhen and from his subsequent interview on the CNN, many analysts have jumped to the conclusion that Hu and Wen are probably not on the same wavelength as regards the need for political restructuring in China and greater respect for the freedom of speech. But if one reads and analyses carefully the statements and comments made by Hu and Wen since the 17th National Congress of the Party in October 2007, it would be evident that both in their own respective style are reflecting the party line on the need for political restructuring and how to go about it. Both reflect a party consensus that the time has come to undertake changes in the political structure, but such changes should not affect the continuity of the functioning of the State and the Party. The Party will be the innovator and the driving force of the political re-structuring as it was of the economic re-structuring after 1978. The individual freedom of speech advocated by Wen will be freedom in Chinese colours. It will be a freedom to criticize constructively and not freedom to promote destabilizing dissidence. The introduction of the political reforms will be gradual just as the introduction of the economic reforms were. China’s mushrooming community of netizens--the largest in the world-- would make control over the process of political restructuring difficult, but the party leadership seems confident it can manage it. But can it? The answer to that question will determine whether China will remain politically stable or go the way of the USSR and other East European countries despite its economic miracle.
In conclusion, it must be underlined that Wen’s seeming outspokenness when travelling abroad, as he was in his interview to the CNN, could make conservative Chinese leaders who believe in reticence uncomfortable. But would their discomfort with Wen’s style of articulation create problems for Wen in the party? One has to wait and see.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai