Political reform in China unavoidable

Published: October 3, 2013

As China marks the 64th anniversary of the Communist Party coming to power, the country is facing growing uncertainty. The time approaches when confronting the contradictions in its political and social lives can no longer be avoided.

It looks inevitable that there will be political reform in China within the next few years. The only question is whether the shift from a one-party state to some form of representative and accountable political system comes about through a reform program initiated by the Communist Party, or by revolution.

The first moves by China’s new President and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, as he establishes himself in power, suggest he has no interest in promoting political reform. Instead, Xi has embarked on a “Rectification Campaign,” a program of reasserting Communist Party orthodoxy, in phrases reminiscent of those used by the dynasty’s founder, Mao Zedong.

“We must uphold the correct political direction, stand firm on political views, and resolutely make propaganda for the party’s theories, lines, objectives and policies,” Xi said in a speech in August.

Officials are eagerly following orders and have re-energized censorship of the media to erase any expressions of liberal or reformist sentiments, especially on the Internet and social networks.

Xi’s response to the endemic corruption among Communist Party officials, which he himself has said represents the greatest threat to the survival of the dynasty, is also Maoist.

Last week Xi appeared on television, overseeing public sessions of “self-criticism” by local government cadres in Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing.

The echoes of the terrors of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s were muted, however. The confessions by the officials were almost all for minor mistakes of thought and deed.

This campaign will do nothing to re-establish the party’s legitimacy in power in the eyes of the Chinese people or have any effect on corruption by officials. What it will do is create tension within the Communist Party, and provide the opportunity for cadres to purge their enemies and rivals. And, like all previous attempts at curbing corruption by reasserting party discipline, it is unlikely to last long.

It might be that Xi, in his early months in power, is cleaving to the hard-line wing of the party in order to give himself the political credibility to pursue political reform later on. There is, however, no evidence from Xi’s record to back that view, or reason to imagine that political reform in China will be initiated by the party under its current leadership.

A key contradiction facing the party is that Xi’s reaffirmation of communist orthodoxy does not sit comfortably with what he and his prime minister, Premier Li Keqiang, have said is one of their major objectives: restructuring China’s economy to spur the next phase of development.

China’s economy is now based on growth led by investment and revenues coming predominantly from exports. This approach is increasingly unsustainable, and the idea is to shift to an economy relying mainly on domestic demand and consumption, the model presented by most fully-developed, industrialized economies.

But, this cannot be done while the party continues to insist on controlling banks and lending, coddles inefficient and often technically bankrupt state-owned corporations, keeps private enterprise hamstrung, and does nothing effective to narrow the socially explosive gap between a tiny minority of rich party officials and their relatives and everyone else.

Questions about the Xi administration’s enthusiasm for this task have been raised by the ceremony last weekend launching the much-touted Shanghai Free Trade Zone (SFTZ), a 29-square kilometre green field project intended to create a free-wheeling financial services hub rivalling Hong Kong.

However, neither Premier Li, the architect of the SFTZ, nor any other senior government or party official, turned up for the launch. Foreign companies eager to get an early foothold in the SFTZ report getting absolutely no help or encouragement from responsible officials.

If Xi and his men are not prepared to diminish the party control over the economy in order to allow for economic reform and expansion, they will exacerbate the danger to the one-party state that the economy already represents.

When former Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping began the opening up of China’s economy 30 years ago, the average annual salary for a Chinese worker was $318. Today it is about $6,100, which many academic studies say is the danger zone for authoritarian regimes, when the people start demanding a representative and accountable system in return for paying taxes.

As has been seen in the Middle East in the last two years, revolutions can be sparked by unpredictable and seemingly unimportant incidents. Hundreds of thousands of people have died, revolutions continue to rage through the region, and regimes have been toppled with more to come, after a fruit seller in Tunisia killed himself in protest at official harassment.

In China there are on average nearly 500 “mass incidents” a day as thousands of people protest corruption by officials, mostly involving the theft of land, grossly unfair working conditions, or the pollution of air, soil and water by rapacious industries.

So far repression by police on the streets, the detention of activists, and media censorship have ensured these remain local incidents. But like the case of the Tunisian fruit seller, any one of China’s protests could become a national gathering point at any time.

Without any signs of the Communist Party being open to managing meaningful political reforms, the most likely alternative is some form of revolution. The question is what type of revolution.

It is possible the Communist Party might be taken over by a reformist faction, as happened in the Soviet Union when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the 1980s. But, Gorbachev’s reforms were too little and too late. They led to the chaos of the Boris Yeltsin years and now the heavy-handed “guided democracy” of Vladimir Putin.

The other alternative is a full-blown popular uprising, probably involving the defection from the Communist Party of the People’s Liberation Army.

In either case, if examples from elsewhere are any guide, China will enter a prolonged period of social upheaval, economic chaos, and inter-ethnic violence that eventually produces a low-quality democracy, which will take years to evolve into anything worthwhile. Jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe