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China: Can Coming Political Conclave Resolve Internal Contradictions?

The third plenary session of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is to be held from November 09 to 12. One will have to read the report of CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping and come to some conclusion. Gradually, the CCP will edit and make available some more information through party and state controlled media. Finally, there will be some crucial issues discussed and personalities involved that will not come out anytime soon.

Notwithstanding this, the people of China and the world are eagerly awaiting the policies that emanate from this conclave. Whatever happens in China today affects the world. Therefore, it shoulders a heavy responsibility. The third plenum has also become a watershed meeting. The architect of China’s modernization, Deng Xiaojping, unveiled his “reform and opening up” at the third plenum of the 11th Central Committee in 1978. Since then, the two “third plenums” consolidated this policy and rolled it to the world. History was made.

Xi Jinping took over as the party chief last November in the midst of a major scandal involving the Chongqing municipality party chief Bo Xilai and his wife. His wife was found guilty of murdering a British business partner and sentenced with suspended death sentence. Bo Xilai was finally sentenced to life imprisonment recently on charges of corruption. This, however, was not a simple case of corruption. Otherwise, Bo Xilai, a powerful princeling and son of Bo Yibo, one of the popularly known “seven immortals of China” which included Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun, could not have been brought down. He was already a member of the party’s politburo and was expected to rise to the core Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC).

Bo Xilai had scant respect for the political acumen of his seniors and colleagues. He brought back Cultural Revolution style of culture in Chongqing, moved in the Maoist direction, and reportedly was planning a coup. His more than normal contacts with some senior military officials were also viewed with suspicion. He was also tapping telephone conversations of senior leaders visiting Chongqing.

The Bo Xilai issue is not over yet. Xi will have to deal with the leftism that has been spreading. A decision would have to be taken if Bo’s mentor, Zhou Yanqkang, PBSC member who retired at the 18th Party Congress should be prosecuted or not, and the effect it would have. It was an unwritten law that PBSC members would remain beyond the reach of law. Till date only up to politburo members have been punished, that too rarely. Although the main reasons have been political, on paper they have been shown as corruption. This issue is expected to remain in discussion in the party central committee and above.

The third plenum is expected to establish economic reforms more firmly, though there is a call from some sections that without political reforms real economic reforms will be near impossible, and anti-reformists will drag the country to the Cultural Revolution era. The main votary for this line was Premium Wen Jiabao who retired in March. There would be other supporters like Guangdong Party Chief Wang Yang, who could not make it to the PBSC this time.

Two other categories of major challenges include strengthening the party and maintaining a political balance. It is well known the communist party has become very corrupt and must be cleansed and consolidated. This is easier said than done. People see the party as a means to enrich themselves. The party-government-corporate nexus especially in acquisition of land from farmers has been the cause of numerous protests, sometimes violent. The party center and the central government have given several guidelines but to little effect. The lower levels nod to acknowledge the directions, and the higher levels nod having passed down the directions. That is where it starts and ends.

Two major campaigns have been launched to rectify the party. One, launched in June, is to address the “work style”. The term “work style” refers to political loyalty, ethics, integrity and professional competence of party officials. In conjunction is the “mass line” campaign which is similar in content to the “work style” campaign.

The ‘mass line” campaign is to get party officials re-tuned to the needs of the people and be in touch with them. A finger on the pulse of the people is crucial for the party. All the seven members of the PBSC have been visiting different provinces to personally give a push to the project. Xi was in Hebei recently where he personally witnessed criticism and ‘self criticism’ sessions of senior officials. It may sound a little like the Maoist version of such sessions, but the similarity ends there.

How does Xi Jinping’s ideological propensity relate? Five members of the seven member PBSC are princelings, that is children of senior revolutionary cadres. All of them saw the Cultural Revolution and its devastation in their youth. Some even participated in it. Bo Xilai was also one of them, but he apparently felt that the sacrifices of the communist revolution were being rejected by new leaders. But one thing common among them is that they are determined to fight corruption. Politically it appears that Xi does not want to disconnect from the old totally, because that would impact extremely negatively on the Party and the People’s Republic. He appears to be looking for a merger for balance and stability.

Last December, immediately after taking over as Party General Secretary, Xi visited Guangdong. This was his first visit outside Beijing to a province which served as the launch pad for Deng Xiaoping’s reform. This visit was taken as a signal outside China that he may at least be a closet liberal.

In July, however, Xi visited Xibipo, a revolutionary base just outside Beijing, where Mao Zedong and the rest of the leadership had stopped to draw up a blueprint for their new role as the ruling party. There, Mao had called upon the party members to work hard, live frugally, be modest and prudent, while avoiding conceit and impetuosity.

There are indications that Xi’s think tank may be drawing a connectivity between the first thirty years, to get the best out of both. The first 30 years were experiments with some exceptionally bad results; but it was an experimentation stage. The next 30 years were the post-Mao era when Deng Xiaoping introduced the scientific concept of Marxism, developed Marxism to suit China’s conditions and expounded the theory of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. This opened the road to reform and opening up.

The official news agency Xinhua (Nov.04) said that the third plenum would introduce further political restructuring, and the reform package “will concern economic, political, cultural and social systems, as well as those on ecological progress and the institutional construction of the CPC”. Deriving from Xi’s speech at the APEC summit (Oct. 07) in Bali, that a political system report was not on the cards, though political structural reform, that is, restructuring of ministries and enterprises were on. The old closed door system will be abandoned gradually, but western political system would not be replicated. Essential ingredients of the west could be adopted. Basically, the major red lines have been drawn.

In a speech on July 28, Xi Jinping said that barriers from entrenched groups must be broken, otherwise China cannot go forward. What he was referring to was interest groups in the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) including the petroleum group which had become a power unto itself to dare to interfere even politically. Since then, he has cracked down on the petroleum group which goes up to former party chief and President Jiang Zemin, but the entity as such remains. Dismantling this monopoly and independence of SOEs will not be easy. It would include the restructuring of the banking system simultaneously. It is the banks who give the SOEs unsecured loans, a huge portion of which have to be written off. A former Premier Zhu Rongji had partly succeeded in some reform of the SOEs in the 1990s, but retired before completing his aim. There is also political risk. But Xi Jinping appears determined to take the fight to the entrenched forces. According to Hong Kong media, Xi and Premier Li Keqiang had drafted a proposal earlier this year saying even PBSC members should not be outside the law. This report is yet to be confirmed.

More recently, an ideological rift emerged over “constitution”. Should the constitution be used to check the party’s power and rule according to law? Soon after taking over as party chief, Xi Jinping spoke in December in support of constitution and rule of law. Chinese officials and diplomats claim that China is a country ruled by law.

One view was that China had reached a critical juncture. The 18th Party Congress held out hopes for democratic reform and it was time to introduce political reform to promote political rights of the citizens, and allow them to participate in policy making. Another view opposed constitutional rule as it was founded by the USA and the west to defeat socialism. It was argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union was brought about by “democratic socialism” and “constitutionalism”. In August, Prof. Zhang Xueshong of East China University was dismissed for his article “The Origin and Perils of Anti-constitutionalism Campaign in 2013”. In March, Zhang published a book titled “The New Common Sense-The Nature and Consequences of One Party Rule”.

Another Beijing University Professor, Xia Yeling was also dismissed for championing free speech and rule of law. The party has issued instructions to educational institutions banning the teaching of the following seven sensitive subjects known as the “seven speak-nots: universal values, civil society, citizens’ rights, judicial independence, freedom of press, past mistakes of the communist party, and the privileged capitalist class”.

The independent Hong Kong daily Ming Pao (June 12) said the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), the Chinese government’s prime think tank, had done a survey which said 38.1 percent of Chinese society were leftists, 51.5 percent centrists, while 8 percent were rightists. In a manner, the leftists, who are forceful hold an advantage because the centrists are generally averse to taking risks. Where do Xi Jinping and his PBSC stand? Nationally, the word “constitution’ has not been banned. Some instructions are issued from lower levels. But there is a huge pressure on the media. The party propaganda department had earlier issued commentaries that the media serves the party only. Tinkering with the quality of media reporting is being demanded. There is a call (from the left) to mould the thinking of citizens to the party line.

At the moment it appears that the leftists or conservatives are being given some space to air their views. The time is not propitious for battling them. The top leadership led by Xi is concentrating on corruption eradication without unleasing political reactions both from the targets and the citizens/netizens.

The netizens have to be controlled but also given space to vent their feelings. Party rectifications will be done by the party and within the party despite the weakness of this line of work.

It is obvious that Xi Jinping will continue to follow Deng Xiaoping’s policy of one center (economic development) and two basic points (reform and opening up, and overall control by the party). The plenum will bring about some technical changes and shifts to curtail the power of the “Tigers”. If this exercise is successful in the next one year, Xi’s “Chinese Dream” will return to the front pages of the People’s Daily.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail grouchohart@yahoo.com)

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