Democracy in China — Wen Jiabao

About the same time as Liu Xiaobao was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Chinese Premier was making a number of speeches calling for political reform.In a rare interview, aired on CNN, he said: “I believe I and all the Chinese people have such conviction that China will make continuous progress, and the people’s wishes and need for democracy and freedom are irresistable. I hope you will be able to gradually see the continuous progress of China.” He added: ” in spite of some resistance I will advance within the realm of my capabilities, political restructuring.” In regard to censorship Mr Wen said: ” I believe freedom of speech is indispensable for any country.”

He insisted there was freedom to criticise the Chinese government on the internet, ” I have read sharp critical comments on the work of the government on the internet….” On freedom of expression, he said “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. And it is only when there is supervsion and critical oversight from the people that the government will be in a position to do an even better job.”

Any reforms, he added, ‘must be conducted within the range allowed by the constitution and the laws so that the country will have a normal order”.

The interview is the third time in recent weeks, the Premier has raised the topic of political reform.

At the beginning of September, on a visit to Shenzhen, he said that “without the safeguard of political reform the fruits of economic reform would be lost and the goal of moderenisation would not materialise”. He also called for a loosening of the “excessive political control” of the Communist Party. In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September he said that “while deepening economic restructuring we will also push forward political restructuring.”

One is struck by the similarities of the Premier’s comments and the proposals in Charter 08  for which Lu Xiaoboa is serving 11 years imprisonment and the sad irony which that indicates. ” Mr Wen admitted there is inner party isagreement over political reform” said Victor Shih, a Professor of Chinese politics at North Western University.

What John Garnaut described as the Premier’s ” bold campaign for political reform” has emerged in the mainstream media. The Southern Weekend, a popular newspaper featured Mr Wen on the front page and quoted him as saying “the will of the people for political reform is irresistible”. ” I will not fail in spite of the strong wind and I will not yield till the last day of my life.” The CNN interview remains ‘blacked out’ indicating it was made without full leadership consensus.

Some leading comentators say Mr Wen’s push for reform has the backing of the President, Hu Jintao in the face of stiff internal opposition. The source of domestc reports of Mr Wen’s reform comments have come from outlets associated with Mr Hu’s Communist Youth  League, including the southern stable of newspapers and The China Youth Daily, but not outlets more tightly controlled by the Propaganda Department.

It should be noted that Mr Wen’s views are not new.In 2006 , at a meeting with a delegation from the Brookings Institution he said that “when we talk about democracy we usually refer to three key components:elections, judicial independence and supervision based on checks and balances”.At the National People’s Congress in 2007 he said that “developing democracy and improving the legal system are basic requirements of the socialist system”.

Comment and views on recent developments:

John Garnaut: Under the title ‘Wen’s comments on reform are compelling’, John Garnaut argues that ” the longer China’s economic structural problems remain  the same,despite years of talk, it seems they may never be resolved without political reform … it is this nexus between politicl reform and the whole Chinese economic enterprise that makes’ Wen’s reformist comments so compelling.” Certanly, Wen himdelf draws that conclusion –“without the safeguard of political reform, the fruits of economic reform would be lost” . Whilst the nexus between political and economic reform has some a priori appeal, it has not been spelt out explicitly, or at least in detail, by  either by Mr Wen or John Garnaut.The clearest link is with the absence of reform and the endemic corruption which afflicts China.  Garnaut draws out the connection in the following comment:”Unfettered administrative power and a market economy are proving a heady combination. Officials at all levels of China’s enormous bureaucracy have huge incentives to stonewall against economic reform because the status quo works to their personal advantage. They have little incentive to increase accountability to those they govern, to invite greater media scrutiny or to support the semblance of an independent justice system.” A Wen supporter, economist, Professor Xu Xianian said,”these are very dangerous conditions for developing a market economy. This is the way of Suharto… and also the way of Marcos”.

Mr Wen, himself, adds, ” my view is that a political party, after it becomes a ruling party should be somewhat different from the one when it was struggling for power. The biggest difference should be that this political party should act in accordance with the constitution and law.”

Final comment:

What will become of all this?  If, as some say, Mr Wen has the backing of Mr Hu, that, on the face of it, suggests a formidable combination.

One does not know.It seems inconceivable that Liu, like Andrei Sakharov,another Nobel winner, should receive a phone call from a Chinese leader as Sakharov did fromGorbachev, and so mark a new stage in democratic reform in China.

At the moment the reaction to Liu is one of hostility and that is not the atmosphere likely to lead to a move to reform.

Timothy Garton Ash summed up the present reaction to the Liu award.”The fearful,offended reaction of the Chinese party-state testifies to its own insecurity, and its fundamentally Leninist inability to tolerate any genuinely autonomous sources of social and political authority — be they Liu and his tiny band,Falun Gong or Dalai Lama. It speaks of a deep and widely shared national humiliation at the hands of the west.”

My own view is that it is unlikely China will liberalise now or in the near future. One can only hope that in their different ways Liu and Mr Wen have contributed. But the near past provides little ground for optimism — both Hu Yaobang and Zhi Ziyang endeavoured and failed to liberalise.

The one major qualification is if  a major economic downturn should occur. None is on the horizon but I wonder if the fear of this , has prompted the note of urgency in Mr Wen’s comments. The foundation of  Communist Party authoritarianism is the enormous economic success, contradicting the frequently repeated and self-serving policy position of many, incuding Foreign Affairs, that ‘quiet’ diplomacy will do the ‘trick’. 

The grounds for my view is, first, the comprehensive control exercised by the Chinese Communist Party. It has been succesful not only in stamping out alternatives — as, for example, the China Democracy Party — but in maintaining internal stability. Whatever quarels between factions they have been contained so that the Presidency lasts or 10 years and no President openly sought to subvert that and stay on. The internal stability of the Party is indicated in the willingness of the Military to make no ‘grab’ for power. Next, is the Party membership which enables valuable and frequently corrupt personal relations to be established between its members an, finally, the is the Orwellian thought-control which it exercises as, for example, in the case of the Internet.

Beyond Party control,the underlying factor among the people is an intense Han Chinese  nationalism, particularly among the Young,which is very extreme and reminiscent of the fanatacism of the Red Guards.

Published in: Uncategorized on October 25, 2010 at 4:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

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