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China: Democracy with Chinese Characteristics

China watchers outside the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are now busy in speculating on the exact meanings of two recent speeches, one made by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and the other by the PRC President Hu Jintao; fuelling their attempts to conjecture are the apparent differences in emphasis in the speeches, not to speak of the reported failure of some central organs to report Wen’s speech in full. Whether or not the two leaders have developed a perceptional gap among them on the subject of political reforms in the country appears to have emerged as a key question, at least for some of these analysts.

Taking first the speech of Premier Wen, given on the eve of the 30th anniversary of establishing the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (Shenzhen, 21 August 2010), its identification of “Four Musts” for the PRC looks important  – (i) 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, (ii) political system reforms must protect the democratic and legal rights of the people including in respect of  managing the affairs of the State, (iii) the problem of over concentration of  and unchecked power must be resolved at systemic levels and (iv) a fair and just society, judicial impartiality in particular, must be built. 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.”[1] 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.

President Hu Jintao who was also in Shenzhen to mark the anniversary, has given a call in his speech (6 September 2010) for ‘expanding socialist democracy’ in China; echoing what Premier Wen has said, he has laid stress on ‘resolutely upholding Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’, building a society under rule of law, granting the people rights to supervise the government’s work and take part in decision making.[2] As per reports available, Hu made no mention of political reforms in his speech and it is this particular point, which is at the centre of speculations mentioned above.

A reality check however gives a correct picture. Hu-Wen differences on democracy seem unthinkable judging from their steadfast subscription to the approved line of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) providing for rejection of Western democratic models and instead for maintaining ‘Multiparty Cooperation and Consultation under the leadership of the CCP’.[3] Notwithstanding his skipping the subject of political reforms at Shenzhen, Hu Jintao, in the past, has been unequivocal in supporting political reforms; his call for giving ‘equal’ emphasis to both political reforms and economic restructuring in 2008, received wide  publicity in China.[4] Ideologically, it is true that Hu Jintao’s usual thrust on ‘Sinification of Marxism’ is not generally prominent in Wen’s speeches. But this does not suggest differences among them, considering that responsibility to address issues concerning principles lies with Hu, in his capacity of party chief and a theoretical master, but not with Wen who is in charge of only economic matters.

Regarding Wen Jiabao’s position, his speech at Shenzhen does not appear at all to mark a departure from the CCP’s traditional policy on democracy.  The Premier had been taking similar positions in the past. In February 2007, he wrote in the People’s Daily that China would remain in ‘primary stage of socialism’ for 100 years and that therefore during this period economic construction would be the main goal, thus creating an impression that political reforms may have no place in that stage; but he clarified later (23 March 2007) that political reforms are compatible with the requirement of that stage also, as part of ‘universal values’ (pushi jiazhi) and a ‘common achievement of human civilization’.

In the current period, as late as in March 2010 when China’s National People’s Congress met, Wen has underscored the need for upholding ‘socialist democracy’ and like what he did in Shenzhen, has cautioned that economic reform could risk a failure without political restructuring. The Premier’s support to ‘socialist democracy’, a cornerstone of the party’s policy, is a meaningful indicator of his being on the same side with Hu on the democracy issue. Eyebrows were indeed raised when Wen subsequently praised former reformist party leader Hu Yaobang in April 2010[5] and called upon the students in the following month to cherish ‘spirit of democracy.’[6] But there has still been no evidence suggesting the Premier’s deviation from the party line.

Putting together all expositions of Wen on democracy and political reforms, including his latest speech at Shenzhen, it becomes clear that the Premier has no quarrel with the party chief on the subject; his wish is for China achieving much more, that too faster, in the matter of implementation of political reforms in the country.

The foregoing is however not meant to deny the existence of differing perspectives in the Chinese society, over further expanding political reforms in the PRC. Influential groups in China are coming out openly with their views either for or against political reforms. Those giving direct or indirect support for Wen’s ideas on reforms and views on the place for “universal values” under socialism, include some authoritative organs[7] as well as former cadres and ex-officials.[8] Also in tune with Premier’s views, is the spirit of the opinions of ‘neo-liberal’ groups, like the one which brought out a “Declaration of Human Rights”, known as “Charter 2008” outside China, demanding a new Constitution for China providing for competitive elections.

More importantly, adding strength to the Wen’s stand are also the evolving positions of personnel close to China’s establishment, like the one adopted by a senior Central Party School official Zhou Tianyong foreseeing  completion of political reforms by 2020 under a 12-year plan,[9] by Professor  Yu Jianrong of the influential Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) challenging the monopoly of the CCP in the country and by Lt Gen Liu Yazhou, son in law of former Chinese top leader Li Xiannian, Political Commissar of the National Defence University and a member of the Central Discipline Inspection Commission, visualizing an end to the ‘ the  current authoritarian political system in China in the next decade’.  Some in China are even going beyond what Wen has said, by asking for freeing the army from political control.[10]

Critics of   speeding up of political reforms, especially Wen’s “universal values” principle include Maoist groups like Mao Flag. Also nurturing ideas against Wen’s line are “Neo-left’ groups which want State-regulated market economy and oppose privatization, marketisation and globalization[11] and some other well connected scholars and former party officials.[12] Some of them argue that China’s economic success so far is a proof by itself for the efficacy of the prevailing political system in the country[13]; the  ‘China Model’ as perceived by them by implication is thus in the nature of questioning the need for deepening political reforms. Reservations on political reforms are also being expressed by other quarters and whether their target is Wen appears unclear, for e.g an opinion in the People’s Daily [14] has castigated those within China for having ‘hidden ambitions’ and ‘instigating the so called political reforms in the country’; such actions are meant to create ‘political upheavals in a disguised form’ with the objective of ‘overthrowing’   the regime and make the PRC  to ‘plunge  into chaos’.

To sum up, it will be pertinent to note that Premier Wen Jiabao’s views on political reforms are not basically in conflict with the declared party policies on the subject and that there are no real signs of a power struggle between the Premier and President or of any ideological rift within the CCP, contrary to the interpretations being given by some overseas media analysts.[15] The top CCP leadership, functioning on the basis of a consensus, appears united. Of course, an open debate among intellectuals on democracy and political reforms is in progress, but it is being managed well and kept within limits by the authorities, in contrast to the inability of the leaders in the past to prevent tensions when struggles between political lines were taking place. In fact, the government is now taking advantage of different opinions emanating from the fast emerging plural society, for the purpose of policy making, for e.g incorporation of some ‘neo-left’ ideas into the 11th Five Year Plan framework.

Taking up the question as to how political reforms will progress further, it can be said that the impact of the government’s agenda designed for the purpose is already being felt in China; evidences include village and county elections, freer media and promotion of intra-party democracy. However, the leadership is expected to be very much careful while expanding political reforms further in the interest of required stability in the run up to the scheduled 18th CCP Congress in 2012; it is unlikely to take any dramatic initiatives. At the same time, meriting focus from now on will be the positions likely to be taken on the issue of democracy by the fifth generation leaders.

Wen Jiabao is not China’s Gorbachev; no body knows whether such a personality will rise in the future. Having said so, judging the situation as of now, it looks beyond doubt that the political atmosphere in the country is free from any major challenge that can threaten the one party – led political system in China.

(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. Email:



[1]  China Media Project, Hu Shuli,former Editor in Chief of Caijing magazine, 29 August 2010; China Brief, the James Town Foundation, Volume No.10/18 dated 10 September 2010

[2] Xinhua, 6 September 2010; China Brief, James Town Foundation, Volume No.10/18 dated 10 September 2010

[3] PRC State Council’s ‘first ever’ White Paper on Political Party System, Xinhua, 15 November 2007

[4]  Hu Jintao’s Speech at 30th anniversary of holding Third Plenum of the 11th CCP Central Committee, Beijing, 18 December 2008

[5] Wen Jiabao’s article on “Returning to Xingyi City and Remembering Yaobang”, People’s daily, 15 April 2010

[6] “ Wen Jiabao Discusses ‘spirit of democracy’ at meeting with Peking University Students, Beijing’, 4 May 2010, as reprted by Xinhua of 4 May 2010

[7] for e.g  Southern Week End (Nanyang Zhoumo), “China Through Ages” ( Yan Huang Chun Qiu)

[8]  for e.g Du Guang, a former cadre of the Central Party School, Zhou Ruijin, a former Deputy Chief Editor   of the People’s Daily, Du Daozheng, former Director of the State Press and Public Administration. Prof Shen Minde of Communications University of china, Prof Xue Tao of Renmin University who wrote the book “ Only Democratic Socialism Can Save China”, as reported in BBC Monitoring Service, 1 March 2007.

[9]  “ Senior Party Official: Democracy in China by 2020”China Digital Times, 4 May 2009

[10]  “Upholding the Absolute Leadership of the Party over the Army”, Gen Li Jinai, ‘Qiu Shi’, 1 April 2009

[11] Like  Professor Wang Hui of Tsinghua University as reported in  “China’s New Left and its impact on political liberalization”, by Li He, East Asian Institute of the National  University of Singapore, Background Brief, No 401, 26 August 2008;  the “Rise of China’s Neo-left”,  Far Eastern Economic Review, No.170, 3/2007.

[12] Like Professors Fang Ning,  Hou Huqing and Chen Kuiyuan, all from CASS; Zhang Deqin,formerly of CCP Policy Research Office May-June 2009.

[13]  Like Yu Keli, Advisor to President Hu Jintao, who wrote the book entitled “ Democracy is a Good Thing”, as reported by Foreign Affairs, May-June 2009

[14]  “ Three Breakthroughs to Make, on the Road to China’s Rise”, People’s Forum column,  People’s Daily Online, 8 September 2009

[15]  Like Quincy Yu of Epoch Times of 1.9.2010,  Willy Lam of James Town Foundation, ‘China Brief’, Vol 10/18 dated 10 September 2010

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