The hardliners in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) appear to have taken over the central stage in China after a period which suggested some serious political arguments about what line the Party and country should take to face the rising challenges, which are mainly internal. There has been a rising challenge to the Party from inside China for some time now, and this challenge is getting even more sharp.
There is a concern that the dissidents are demanding “westernization” or “total westernization”. The demand for democracy and rule by clear laws may not be the only core of the demands by the liberals. They want a responsive government and a communist party which looks after the welfare of the people. Without freedom of speech and expression, the rulers will not know what is going wrong and address them. The democracy that the Chinese dissidents want is not necessarily the Westminster type. This is far from their minds. This was exactly the case during the 1989 students uprising, and the main tenor of the demands even today. But the CCP, after examining the demise of communism in the old Soviet Union and its breakup, and similar fate of East European communist bloc, is seeing a threat that calls for an end to the Party which would lead to the disintegration of the country as happened with the Soviet Union.
Despite its rise to the second largest economy in the world and an astounding foreign exchange reserve of $ 3 trillion, in per capita terms China remains in the spectrum between 94 and 104 in the world. Apparently, claims by the Chinese media, experts and some officials in China that it was an economic power house about to take on the US was the Maoist way of hiding weakness by glorifying achievements.
For at least six to eight years now, public protests from farmers to factory workers have risen from around eighty thousand a year to much over ninety thousand a year in 2010, an issue of very serious concern for the leadership. Even this year, the government has called on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to quell riots. The reason for these protests is high handedness from officials at middle to lower levels who continue to abuse the people’s rights. Punishment to protesters range from beatings, jail on false charges, and even killings in public in rural areas to warn other protestors. Party and government officials, local police and the land and business mafia are all together in these atrocities. The Party and government give directions and make laws, but disregarding them with impunity is the order of the day.
According to Gini coefficient, the measurement of income disparity, China stands at 0.47, very near the danger mark. The authorities failed to find an answer to the income disparity between the coastal areas and the hinterland and rural areas which continues to rise, defying any economic model the central government put forth. In fact, all policies including that of fighting corruption, a major issue with the dissidents, have failed. The Oriental Outlook (April 11, 2011) a weekly magazine under Xinhua, wrote that an important reason behind the corruption in state owned enterprises was the excessive power wielded by the top leaders – without an effective system to monitor them they can make major decisions arbitrarily. Despite joint ventures and private enterprises taking a significant role in the economy in recent years, the SOEs remain the back bone of the economy and are also the largest beneficiaries of the government’s largesse including the economic bail out package in 2009-10. And these are overseen by the Party and government representatives.
The CCP’s basket of woes is further weighed down by the simmering dissidence among its two largest minority population, the Tibetans in Tibet and the Turkic Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang. These are issues which the Chinese authorities perceive threaten the integrity of the country. The perception may be correct, but the Chinese authorities continue to handle them with coercion, clubs and guns.
In all these, the leadership is of the opinion that any soft handling will encourage the internal forces to attack the Party and the socialist system and the western powers led by the USA will exploit the situation. One cannot deny that there is some truth in this.
The Chinese leadership is fiercely fighting the internal challenges. They set up an internal security apparatus with a budget of $ 95 billion, more the PLA declared budget of $ 92 billion for 2011-2012. The budget betrays the sense of public anger the leadership is anticipating. Importantly, this new security apparatus will be led by the PLA again suggesting that the authorities do not believe that the various security agencies including the People’s Armed Police (PAP) may be capable of dealing with a public deluge if it comes. The intelligence network under this organization has been established in residential buildings in cities like Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere.
The debate on political reform is over for now. Premier Wen Jiabao started his campaign for political reform and freedom of speech in August 2010 from Shenzen, the very place from which Deng Xiaoping really forced his policy of reform and opening up. Wen’s views were blacked out from the media in the country, as was his interview on the issue in the US subsequently. But his talk to the Chinese Embassy staff and representatives of the Chinese community in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in April this year, found some resonance among a section of the top leadership in China. Wen’s basic plank was that without political reform and “independent thinking” China’s economic development will not be sustainable.
The spirit of Wen Jiabao’s political philosophy was followed by an unusual commentary in the Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily which started with a quote from French philosopher Voltaire “I may not agree with what you have to say, but will defend to death your right to say it”. The commentary sharply criticised officials of intolerance of dissenting views and chastised them for using their powers to suppress dissenting views. A commentary in the party mouthpiece reflects the view of a section of the top leadership. But that was the last time the People’s Daily carried such a commentary, and Premier Wen has not been heard on the topic since.
Wen Jiabao was not trying sabotage the Party. He is an intrinsic part of the system and has gone through the ups and downs including the persecution during the Cultural Revolution. He apparently tried to rejuvenate Deng Xiaoping’s policies, which are being discarded quietly in many areas including foreign policy. He apparently broke from the consensus line of the Party centre.
Politburo Standing Committee member and No. 2 in China’s hierarchy, Wu Bangguo, made it emphatically clear in March that there will be no westernization and western type democracy in China, though Wen persisted with his views even after that.
The Party centre, given their perception, came out with a commentary (May 25) titled “Resolutely Safeguarding the Party’s Political Discipline”, written by Zhong Jiwen, apparently a pseudonym for the Central Discipline Commission of the Party. It made clear that however high a Party member may be and however good their reputation, they will be subject to the Party’s political discipline. It went to reiterate that there is inner-party democracy where members can air their views, but they will have to abide by the final decision of the Party whatever their individual views may be. Wen Jiabao had transgressed this cardinal line.
Very interestingly, the People’s Daily commentary which carried Zhong Jiwen’s views, also carried a comment of Xie Chuntao, a professor of the Party school of the Central Committee of the Party. Xie recalled that Mao Zedong was deprived of his leadership position over Party and military affairs during the Chinese Soviet Republic period for dissenting from the Party policy at that time. But Mao did not rebel against the Party, and his views were proved at the Zunyi conference. Mao returned to leadership.
This one comment included in a Party decision to cut down Wen Jiabao is an important and loud statement from a section of the Party hierarchy. What it appears to say is that Wen Jiabao and his like minded leaders may be right, but they have to bide their time as the situation is not right for such policies.
Several articles in the recent past and a stream of internet bloggers are raising a clamour, in essence demanding a further roll back of whatever political reforms were achieved up till 1989. Following the Tiananmen Square incident, political reform was basically halted. Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin deserves some credit for small efforts to get around some leading dissidents, and initially praising the Falun Gong meditation group. But he failed because of the strong hard line forces around him like Premier Li Peng.
Under Deng Xiaoping, part of important political reform was rehabilitating leaders and historical figures purged by Mao Zedong and the Gang of Four. Figures like Sun Yat-sen and his 1911 Democratic Revolution, which formed the basis for the “May 4“ movement, were rehabilitated. So was President Liu Shaoqi and others. But they are being condemned by the neo-Maoists now.
The Beijing Communist Youth League had to cancel a debate forum to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the “1911 Revolution” which students from 16 universities were to attend. This was in April, 2011. An article in the Global Times (May 29, 2011), a subsidiary of the People’s Daily, carried a scathing article condemning liberal intellectuals and editors who have positively assessed the 1911 Revolution as a precursor to China’s communist revolution.
Yet, contradictions remain. In the memory of the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (July 1, 2011) and the 100th anniversary of the 1911 Revolution, the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chine, has organized June tours for about 500 overseas Chinese to revolutionary areas of Jiangxi province. This was published on June 03 on the Website of the United Front Works Department (UFWD) of the CCP. Obviously, there exists a difference between the neo-Maoist hardliners and organizations like the UFWD who aim to gather together Chinese people across the world among its other responsibilities.Words and expressions like “jasmin”, “Arab spring”, “democracy”, “political reform” among others were censored from the internet in China in the last two months.
The Chinese authorities are extremely concerned with the rare possibility of the Arab democratic movements influencing an already incensed population to explode in the country. They have failed to completely sanitize the internet, though they succeeded in stifling the spread of the idea of the jasmin revolution on the streets in China in March and April. The situation is so palpable that even “rare” possibility is viewed as a “major life and death struggle” for the Party, an expression used during the Maoist campaigns. Therefore, any element that can offer itself as an embyo around which a liberal movement could form must be crushed. This happened with Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, artist Ai Weiwei, some liberal lawyers, and many other dissident voices who have been incarcerated in recent months.
This year is the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party. Celebrating such events, every 10th year is very important and every five year is a little less.
Twenty-fifth, fiftieth, seventy-fifth, and 100th anniversaries are even much bigger occasions. But in the current context, the 90th anniversary has a special place. Therefore, this year, nothing should be out of place. However, in pursuit of this objective, the hardliners are trying to bury whatever space exist for political freedom.
Simultaneously, this year is the run up to the 18th Party Congress in September 2012, when the 5th generation of the CCP leadership will come into power.
This is the period for intensive jockeying for power position through ideology and development in today’s China. This is clearly on.
A princeling, Bo Xilai, politburo member and the Party Secretary of the vast Chongqing municipality is in the fore. By eradicating the triad groups, building affordable homes for the people and an iron grip, he has got the support of the people. He appears to have discovered his trump card in Maoist revolutionary ideology, promoting Red Songs and revolutionary operas. Putative Party General Secretary Xi Jinping and some other top politburo standing committee members have visited him and praised his work. Maoism pays in China if used to benefit the people who are otherwise suffering.
His formula is being challenged among others by Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang, another princeling, who has acquired his own popularity with high wages and prosperity, using Deng Xiaoping’s theory. Bo Xilai and Wang Yang will clash, but a seriously fall out is unlikely.
But there may be a different challenge altogether for the Chinese. If the wider spectrum of the neo-hardliners or neo-Maoists grows along with the ultra nationalist elements, they may swallow Bo Xilai’s carefully orchestrated Maoist line.
On the other hand, if the Wen Jiabao supporters with “hide your strength, bide your time” advice a la Mao at Zunyi have real hidden strength, they will show their hand at and after the 18th Party Congress, unless they are very hard pressed to fight back earlier.
The Chinese are living in “interesting times”. For China’s neighbours, it is time to watch carefully. Unlike in 1989, any major upheaval, this time around may not leave China’s neighbours undisturbed. The PLA’s role must be factored in.
(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent analyst based in New Delhi.Email:firstname.lastname@example.org)