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China: ‘Left’ Ideology on Rise.

As 1 July 2011, the date of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s 90th founding anniversary draws nearer, the party’s authoritative organs are bringing out articles sponsored from high levels at regular intervals to commemorate the event and in particular, to discuss the party’s future strategy in, what it describes as, an era of ‘prominent social contradictions’.  Out of them, worth paying attention are some commentaries and editorials with a ‘liberal’ outlook and other write-ups with a ‘leftist’ approach.

First to be noticed was a ‘liberal’ comment  (April 2011) contributed by Zhang Lihua, a county-level party official in Fujian province, in the paper “Southern Week End” (Nanyang Zhoumo) which justified criticisms against the party as acts of ‘patriotism’ and called upon the authorities to ‘tolerate’ non-conformist (‘yizhi’) thinking.  A series of five People’s Daily editorials followed, giving a central message – the CCP should listen to the voices of the people, though they may differ from the party’s declared positions. One captioned “ cultivate mentality”(21 April 2011) asked the leadership to pay attention to ‘visible’ social problems like lack of opportunities, difficulties faced in sectors like housing, education, healthcare etc and the next (28 April 2011) appealed for “ tolerance to different ideas” in the society. The third (5 May 2011) stressed the need to take care of the ‘under-privileged in the society having a vulnerable state of mind’ and the fourth (19 May 2011) demanded creation of ‘effective mechanisms’ to deal with problems like rich-poor gap. The last editorial (26 May 2011) wanted the authorities to “listen attentively to the unheard voices” in the society.

It was a surprise that the People’s Daily around the same time chose to come out with a hard-hitting   article on the subject of ‘political discipline’, which had all ingredients of a rejoinder to its own editorials mentioned above.  Its raison d’etre was to declare that party’s directives would override people’s voices. The contribution of CCP’s Central  Discipline Inspection Commission(CDIC) (People’s Daily, 25 May 2011), captioned “Firmly Safeguard Party’s Political Discipline”, evinced worldwide interest for its political significance. It described the safeguarding as a ‘serious political campaign’ and accused a ‘tiny minority’ of cadres of making irresponsible remarks on party’s basic theory. It warned that “any party member, no matter how high their reputation and position are within the party, will be subject to disciplinary punishment, if they violate political discipline”.

Erupting in this period have been serious cases of social unrest like triple bomb attack in Fuzhou, Jiangxi (26 May 2011) and protests by ethnic Mongols (Inner Mongolia, last week of May 2011). The CCP Politburo’s meeting (30 May 2011) held under the chairmanship of Hu Jintao in such an atmosphere, discussed ways to “strengthen and innovate social management’ and released a report. The linkage spelled out on the occasion between the party’s social management performance and its ‘ruling status as well as the country’s long term stability and prosperity’ signalled the CCP’s realisation that if steps on a war footing are not taken to effectively mitigate social problems, the party and country will face a serious survival crisis. Interestingly, the state media covering the occasion did not refer to speeches by any individual leader; instead they stated that the report was based on a ‘consensus’.  There was no indication by them on whether the subject of ‘political discipline’ was discussed.

The  ‘opinion column’ write up  (Xinhua, 31 May 2011 and People’s Daily, 1 June 2011) entitled “Why CPC Resolutely Safeguards Political Discipline” which appeared immediately after the politburo meeting, sounded as one intended to explain and perhaps soften up the party’s stiff position otherwise conveyed through the People’s Daily Article of  25 May 2011. It implicitly admitted that the party workers had rights to raise issues similar to what was seen in the five editorials. It however ruled that in the ultimate sense, the decision of the party would be supreme. Reiterating specifically the provision in the party constitution giving rights to cadres to ‘disagree’ with party policies, it categorically pointed out that ‘once the Party makes a resolution, all cadres   must absolutely submit to it despite their reservations’.

Worth mentioning were also three more signed comments. A senior official of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), Li Shenming, writing in the party theoretical journal   ‘Qiu Shi’ (March 2011) justified the continued relevance of a ‘Stalinist Model’ and attributed the collapse of the former Soviet Union to the ‘betrayal of Khrushchev and Gorbachev”. Another comment of the journal captioned “Strengthen and Systemise Education on Loyalty to the Party” (10 June 2011) identified erring cadres who should be asked to ‘leave’ the party – workers who are with the party only physically, but not ideologically; members who spread mistrust among masses on the party policies and others who hope for East Europe-type ‘colour revolutions” in China. Also on the same day, the journal “Studies on Marxism” (‘Ma ke si zhuyi yanjiu’) launched a scathing attack on unnamed ‘scholars’ in China who advocated ‘privatisation of the economy’ and ‘abolition of public ownership system’, along with a serious accusation that what they conduct are not mere scholarly discussions, but are also aimed at ‘subverting’ the CCP’s foundation and ‘changing the socialist character of the country’.

Following immediate questions arise   – what is the significance of reference to punishment to those in ‘high position’ violating the party discipline? Will there be fresh political purges from the party? Finding a clear answer to the first can be hazardous; but what cannot be ignored are speculations which are rife on the target being Premier Wen Jiabao who definitely nurtures a liberal thinking on the subject of political reforms in the country, unlike other leaders.  Being seen in this context are his praise of reformist party leader Hu Yaobang last year, speeches given at Shenzhen (August 2010) as well as abroad (New York, September 2010) and remarks made during his recent visits to Malaysia and Indonesia (April 2011). Also, speaking to a Hongkong politician, Wen reportedly held two political forces responsible for holding up of reforms- ‘remnants of feudalism and representatives of residual poison of Cultural Revolution’ (Hongkong journal, Ming Bao, 27 April 2011). However, notwithstanding his liberal mindset, on no occasion, the Chinese Premier questioned the party’s ultimate authority to make decisions. He also seems to enjoy the confidence of President Hu Jintao. Wen’s position as such appears safe. On the second aspect of party purges, given the identification of the category of persons to be targeted by ‘Qiushi’, it is probable that some expulsions may take place. In February 2011, China’s Railways Minister Liu Zhijun was removed from his position on corruption charges. He was the senior most official punished since the law caught up with former Shanghai Mayor and politburo member Chen Liangyu in 2006. Both Liu and Chen were loyalists of former party boss Jiang Zemin. There is a belief that the two cases symbolised Hu-Jiang rivalry.  The moot question is whether purges in future, if happen, will also have similar political over tones.

How to explain the phenomenon of contradictory opinions emanating from the same paper- the People’s Daily? It can certainly be perceived that the paper’s five editorials   represented the views of a ‘liberal’ faction within the party; ‘liberal’ views are also being noticed in articles published by two other journals, the  Central Party School paper  “Study Times” and “Yanhuang Chunqiu”,  On the other hand one cannot miss the ‘left’ opinions contained in the People’s Daily’s  other two articles (25 and 31 May 2011)and the  observations of ‘Qiu Shi’ and “Studies on Marxism”. An ideological confrontation is thus visible, in which the party’s ‘left’ wing seems to be emerging as a winner against the backdrop of the CDIC, the top party body in charge of discipline, endorsing a hard line as given in the preceding paragraphs.

Looking beyond the media, there is no doubt that a ‘left’ ideological wave is presently permeating the overall political atmosphere in the country.  Under its influence, the authorities have taken severe action against activists like Ai Weiwei, those championing civil rights and liberal writers. Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo has been put in prison. Side by side, a campaign to return to Maoist values is in progress in which the Chongqing Party chief and a likely contender to a place in the next politburo standing committee, Bo Xilai is playing a leading role. Top leaders like Vice President Xi Jinping (who is expected to succeed Hu Jintao as party head, during next year’s CCP congress), Li Changchun, He Guoqiang and Zhou Yongkang have supported Bo Xilai, even visiting Chongqing for the purpose. Statements being made by important personalities have also confirmed the ‘left’ climate prevailing in China. Vice-President Xi Jinping has called for building up ‘politically reliable’ cadres and the CASS Director and Vice-Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Chen Kuiyuan, a known hard liner, has expressed strong reservations on the demand of liberals for ‘tolerance’ to differing ideas.  Also, attacks have been stepped up on the widely publicised remarks of the economist Mao Yushi exhorting the intellectuals to assess Mao’s ‘mistakes’. As other ‘leftist’ symptoms, the government has come out with firm rejections of the plans of some Chinese intellectuals to register themselves as candidates for elections to grass root level organisations, thus exposing its wariness to possible negative implications of such plans to the CCP’s “socialist democracy”. ‘Leftism’, as witnessed in the past, may also, in the immediate sense, result in adoption of  a tougher position by the government on domestic issues like Tibet and Xinjiang; significant is the recent increase in the allocation of funds for internal security (US$ 95 billion), exceeding that for defence for the first time. The present ‘left’ line may also impact on China’s foreign policy approach, which is already aggressive.

To sum up, it can be said that in ideological terms, a clear division has come to exist within the CCP’s present leadership- a  ‘liberal’ group which appears to be in a minority, standing for a participatory political system under which people can enjoy rights to dissent (a la ‘socialism with human face’ model, pursued by communists like Milovan Djilas of former Yugoslavia) and a  ‘leftist’ group which is apparently in majority and at the helm of affairs now, holding views against any excessive political liberalisation under  fears that it   may lead to the CCP’s collapse, as happened to  the ruling party in  former Soviet Union.  What the two have in common however is their stand rejecting Western democratic models for China. This being so, it can be assessed that the ‘leftist’ surge now, particularly the revival of Mao cult is a development of only limited significance; it may not mark a revival of the type of ‘leftism’ witnessed during the cultural revolution but at the best may constitute a tactical move of leaders like Bo Xilai with aim to win domestic popularity and gain support as they jockey for key leadership positions in the forthcoming party congress next year.

The existence of personality-based factionalism in the CCP is another matter. Sinologists see two party factions (Brian Tratner, China Elections and Governance, 17 Match 2011)- a  ‘populist’ one consisting of former Chinese Communist Youth League members including President Hu Jintao and an ‘elitist’ one comprising ‘princelings’, i.e off- springs of retired senior Chinese leaders, like Vice President Xi Jinping and others who had work experience in Shanghai. While the ‘populist’ faction, with its members coming from humble surroundings, lacks experience in economic administration and follows a ‘people oriented’ policy, the latter possesses expertise in the economic field and concentrates on achieving GDP growth as well as integrating China into the world economy. It cannot be denied that the two factions have been able to coexist and work together on the basis of a consensus so far. An important question will be whether or not such a balance can be maintained in future. Much would depend on the selection in the next year’s congress of   personnel for posts in the top party body- the politburo standing committee. As Professor Willy Lam of the James Town Foundation puts it (‘China Brief’, 20 May 2011), any ‘diminution of checks and balances within the CCP leadership carries inherent risks for China’s political future’.

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

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