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Consensus Eludes China’s Internal Debates

Whenever the Chinese propaganda machinery emphasizes all is well, problems burst out despite their best efforts to hide them. The world remained uninformed when the disasters created by Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward (1958-60), and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Millions of Chinese people dying of starvation and the excesses of Mao’s political militants, the Red Guards, were kept under wraps. In many parts of the world the so-called steel mills in every backyard, the positives of the commune system were praised. People outside China swallowed the concocted figures of grain and steel production, while, in fact, starvation deaths were widespread, workers in communes were abused by party cadres, and the backyard steel mills were a sham. Mao, himself, used to host hundred-course dinners in the Great Hall of the People, and foreigners attending them came away awed.

Things have changed greatly today. But the propensity to hide the truth to maintain the Communist Party’s inviolability remains. The globalised world has prised China open to an unbelievable extent where, social issues impacting the lives and aspirations of the people are concerned. Everything was moving smoothly towards the 18th Party Congress (Nov. 2012) when the Bo Xilai incident broke out. That opened the floodgates of political power struggle leading to questions on corruption at high places, ideology, and politics. The debates as seen in Chinese official media confirms that leaders in very high places are arguing their differences. The top level official and authoritative media can be used only -2- by the politburo and its Standing Committee members, and the heavy weights in the Party’s Central Committee.

Bo Xilai, the secretary of the Chongqing Party Committee and a powerful leader of the fifth generation of the Chinese Communist Party leadership, was destined for the high office of the 7-member Politburo Standing Committee. He was a ‘princeling’, that is, son of a senior first generation leader, Bo Yibo. The senior Bo fought along side Mao in the Long March. He became a Vice Premier under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership and contributed to the reform and opening up policy of Deng. He was also a member of the unofficially designated “seven immortals” which included Deng Xiaoping at the top. He was a member of the politburo, too.

Bo Xilai is in police custody now, charged with “bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power”. His powerful wife Gu Kailai, has been convicted of the murder of a foreigner who was a business partner. The powerful Bo and his ambitious wife would have still got away had he not tried to reverse the political mantra laid down by Deng Xiaoping after defeating the core of the leftist forces. Deng had stated “guard against the right, but be vigilant against the left”. According to Deng the right was a political problem, but the ideology of the left was an unmitigated disaster for China.

Bo Xilai reintroduced the banner of the left prominently and emphatically. He reintroduced the Cultural Revolution songs, plays and slogans. He reportedly interacted with like minded PLA leaders. Most important, he was discovered planning against the leadership.

-3- But again, Bo Xilai has not been charged with ‘treason’ which is punishable by death. This could suggest one of two things or both: (i) extreme punishment to Bo could lead to a strong challenge from his compatriots and disturb President and Party General Secretary Xi Jingping’s vision for China, (ii) extreme punishment could also further weaken the Party’s standing among the people. Respected Hong Hong newspaper Ming Pao (June, 13) carried an extract of a survey by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) on political and cultural qualities of the Chinese, which showed that leftists constitute 38.1 percent of the Chinese society, centrists constituted 51.5 percent, while rightists were 8 percent. If this survey is even 75 percent correct representation of public and party opinion, there will be trouble for Xi Jinping’s “China dream”/ “Chinese dream” vision. On the other hand, the centrists who maintain a low profile and are not very vocal, can quietly influence policy from within. But the leftists, who remain married to conservative ideological views of the Maoist era, could hold up the resurgence of reform and opening.

Apparently anticipating rising ideological debates the General Office of the Party’s Central Committee issued a circular in May pointing out seven areas of problems in ideology, and prohibited discussion of the forbidden topics in universities: universal values, freedom of the press, civil society, citizen’s rights, the Party’s historical errors, the bourgeois elite and judicial independence. (Ming Pao, May 14). Immediately on election as the party General Secretary last November, Xi Jinping unveiled his “China dream” propaganda. All Chinese Party Chiefs -4- starting from Mao Zedong to Hu Jintao have left their imprints through visions which are recorded as part of scientific development of Marxism or sinicization of Marxism. Deng Xiaoping was the only one who was not a Party Chief, but his power and influence went far beyond that of the others. Known as the architect of modern China, his vision still forms the base of important guidelines. They include for example ‘reform and opening up” and “building socialism with Chinese characteristics”. Both remain the underpinning for China’s future development. But post 18th Party Congress political developments revealed that there existed a simmering opposition to some of these ideological and political platforms alleging they encouraged and provided avenues for corruption and privileges for a few. Correspondingly, a section has been demanding faster reform including political reform, greater transparency in party and government work and equal opportunity. These views came mainly from the centrists.

Political reform was quite forcefully pioneered by Premier Wen Jiabao, who retired in March, this year. Since then, the Chinese media or leaders have gone silent over this specific subject. At least, political structural reform is mentioned at times to supplement economic reform.

Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and the other five colleagues of theirs in the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) are hard pressed to maintain the balance between the leftists/conservatives and the rightists/liberals, something Deng Xiaoping had foreseen two decades ago.

The party core, that is the PBSC, is fully cognizant of the challenges presented by the ideological and political cross currents. There is no -5- indication of any difference among the PBSC. Xi Jinping is leading the charge from the front. He signalled his preferred ideological path when he traced the footsteps of Deng Xiaoping’s visit to the south in 1992 to energize market economy when challenged by the conservatives/leftists. But subsequently Xi also visited Xibaipo outside Beijing, the county Mao waited at before establishing the Party and himself in Beijing. Xibaipo represents a temple for the revolution. Former Party Chief and President Hu Jintao made his first visit as general secretary to Xibaipo. Xi jinping is, therefore, walking a Rnife’s edge, trying to balance between ideological factions.

Setting his sights firmly in the nation’s direction, Xi started to address the most talked about problem, corruption. Xinhua (June 25) reported that at a special meeting of the politburo the same day, Xi lectured that the politburo must give top priority to ideological and political work. He especially urged the members to study Deng Xiaoping’s theory and other concepts like Jiang Zemin’s “Three Representatives” (what is good for the people) and safe guard the reputation of the Party the state and policies.

The Hong Kong monthly journal, Qianshao (June 25 issue) reported that at an expanded meeting of the PBSC Xi and Li Keqiang proposed action against the “big tiger” in its anti-corruption drive. Xi also proposed abolition of the rule that no investigation be initiated against a PBSC member.

There are speculations that the “big tiger” referred to former PBSC member and head of the country’s intelligence and security apparatus, Zhou Yangkang. Zhou who retired last November at the end of his tenure, was an -6- ardent supporter of Bo Xilai. Bo’s was not only a case of corruption, high handed governance and leftism, but more importantly that of a nest of conspirators to overthrow, with some PLA assistance, the leadership of the time. Bo’s disparaging comments in private about the leadership have been reported. There were allegations that he also tapped telephone conversations of top Beijing leaders. Some of Bo Xilai’s officers have already been removed and punished. But there would be “big fish” involved with Bo. It is difficult to say how far the present leadership can go without destabilizing the system. The current charges levelled against Bo suggest a more accommodative approach.

Notwithstanding the “development arresting” nature of the leftists, it is obvious that without placating them to an extent and taking them on board at the political level, implementations of forward looking polices would be difficult. The PBSC launched the “mass line” campaign in June to introduce some amount of transparency, empathise with the people, and seek opinions and criticism to cleanse the old official practice of having the best of both worlds.

Xi Jinping’s visit to Hebei province and Xibaipo (July 11-12) emphasized work hard, serve the people wholeheartedly to “ensure the colour of red China will never change”. Leveraging Mao Zedong’s Marxist policy has apparently become imperative with increasing distance between the people and the Party. It is a “must” to repair this damage. Therefore, also the emphasis on “work style” of the cadres and officials. This refers to

-7- political loyalty, ethics, integrity and professional competence of Party officials.

People’s support is also required to break the Party-government-business nexus, as well as the entrenched interest groups who continue to resist reform of the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs). Xi Jinping said “China must break these barriers from entrenched interest groups to further free up social productivity and invigorate creativity” (Xinhua, July 28).

On the one hand there is the land mafia creating a housing bubble, while on the other hand are SOEs which mop up most of the government subsidies and loans and continue to remain inefficient. The “iron rice bowls” of the past have become “iron banquet tables”. These vested power centers which include forceful land grabs by the land mafia with local government and police assistance from poor rural people are being reflected in the national media as these practices have the potential to cause instability. “Deepening reforms” which generally refers to clean practices going down to the grass-roots level, are likely to be dealt with in detail at the next plenum of 18th Congress to be held in September/October, this year.

Another political debate that surfaced recently suggests that the rift inside the party on “westernization” cannot be contained within the four walls of the Communist Party. The party mouthpiece the People’s Daily (August 06) and the Study Times, a Central Party School publication, clashed on the issue of “constitutionalism”, that is, restraining of the government’s power by law and ensuring the rights of the people. The People’s Daily warned -8- that constitutionalism and laws above the government was a conspiracy to impose western ideals on China. It went on to say that “democratic socialism” and “constitutionalism” were two weapons the US intelligence used to destroy the Soviet Union.

On the other hand, the Study Times, which is considered somewhat liberal, argued in favour that it was necessary to proceed with political reform because waiting further will harm the country. The constituencies of the newspapers are obvious.

This debate has also brought in a linked controversy on the sins and virtues of the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is one view that after the collapse of the unwieldy Soviet Union, Russia, after the initial pains was beginning to develop better. The contrarian view form the left is that along with collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had lost its super power status. The cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resultant, global value continues to be studied in China. They are wary that after sabotaging the Soviet Union the US intelligence has fixed its sights on China. Deng Xiaoping described the 1989 students uprising as an American intelligence operation known as Peaceful Evolution strategy of the Americans. There is genuine fear in China that the US may be working at sabotaging China’s political ideology as well as the territorial integrity of the nation.

This is a very serious worry among the Chinese because if one province secedes there will be a domino effect. The conservatives believe that only an unquestioned strong party can hold China together and achieve a super

-9- power status. This is irrespective of whether the country develops at a fast pace or not.

With such potential for political ideological confusions Xi Jinping remains hard pressed to guide the fate of China. One thing is clear-that he will not allow any dilution of the Party’s total command. Critics both foreign and Chinese describe the China Dream as a road to national rejuvenation. Even more than that, the China Dream is to engage the imagination of foreign nations in the current situation. The China Dream is still a work in progress and the Party has asked for more ideas and suggestions.

The Party propaganda Chief Liu Qibao recently came out with a theoretical article on the “Theoretical System of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” (People Daily on line, July 12). Interestingly, building Socialism with Chinese Characteristics is seen as a long series of developments from 170 years ago (Qing collapse), through the first 30 years of Communist China to the present continuous. Mistakes have admittedly been made especially in the first 30 years. The Chinese Dream is to take this system forward.

( 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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