Serious signs of political differences are emerging in China, with the 18th Congress of this Chinese Communist Party (CCP) scheduled for 2012. The particular importance of the 18th Congress is that it will usher in an almost total change in the top CCP leadership. In the last three years these new leaders have been working at the second level with their mentors who will leave the stage but would still wield some influence for some time. Where foreign policies are concerned, the Chinese leaders stand as one. But in internal policies there could be major differences with each political faction at the highest level differing from each other but with the common endeavour is to strengthen and save the CCP primarily, and follow on economic development. But strong differences could harm some of these objectives. On the one side there are hard line status quoists who are afraid that any political reform could threaten the party and the state. They base their views on the lessons learnt from the Soviet Union’s collapse and what it did to some of the Soviet bloc countries. The pro-political reformists, on the other hand, base their arguments from their experiences learnt from 1989 Tiananmen incident, and now around 90 thousand workers strikes and protests annually, sharp imbalances in income distribution, and the high handedness of the authorities using harsh methods to silence the honest critics of the government. They fear that with so much connectivity among the people across the country and access to the outside world, another pro-democracy uprising questioning their credibility of their party, would make the Tiananmen incident look like a protest by middle school students. Most striking has been the total censorship of Premier Wen Jiabao’s statement on the imperative need for political reform to continue development and even prevent its reversal. In a series of speeches starting from Shenzen, China’s reform and opening up flagship, to a talk to Chinese newspaper owners in USA in New York and a frank interview to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in the last one month, Premier Wen made it clear that the party and the government must act as per the constitution, which guaranteed freedom of speech. He defended his views stating he was following the policies and ideas of Deng Xiaoping. Outraged by the political audacity and insult to the Premier by the Party Central Propaganda Department (CPD), and group of former officials sent a rare, strongly worded open letter the National People’s Congress (NPC), called the CPD as the “black hand” with a clandestine power to even censor Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s repeated calls for political freedom, and depriving the people the right to know about it. The letter also called the lack of free speech, written in the 1982 constitution under the guidance of Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues, a “scandal of the world history of democracy”. Another cause of the letter was the arrest and dismissal of journalists who showed any independence of intellect or pointed out the corruption and highhandedness on the part of the authorities. The most recent case was that of investigative journalist Xie Chaoping who was arrested on the charge of “illegal business operations”. Xie had written and published a book on forced migration of over 2,80 thousand peasants since 1956 to build a dam which was disaster. Xie was detained for 30 days, tortured and humiliated to get a confession out of him, but released when no case could be made. But Xie is still not a freeman as his case has not yet been closed. Of the 23 signatories to this letter, two of them Li Rui and Hu Jiwei are veteran opponents of authoritarianism. Li Rui was Mao Zedong’s Secretary, but dismissed because of his opposition Mao’s disastrous economic policies. Hu Jiwei was the Director to the Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, but was forced to step down because of his support to democracy. That even serving officials from the Central Party School and other institutions have put their names in the latter suggests a strong churning within the party on the issue of political freedom. Most of these signatories to the letter are unlikely to be prosecuted given their old age and status. At the same time, a real effect of this letter on the current policy is doubtful. There is no connection of this letter with the award of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to jailed activist Liu Xiaobo, as the letter was drafted before the award (see SAAG Paper No.4093 dt.12-10-10). It is very possible, however, that the two events would merge with each other in due course. Liu Xiaobo was the author of freedom charter, Charter-08, which was in the same spirit of this letter, with support from the known pro-democratic activists. For exercising his right to freedom of speech, he was sentenced to eleven years in prison last year, very similar to journalist Xie’s case. Is there any suggestion that the hard line authorities are beginning to relent a bit? We have a long wait for proof. The most critical issue is the censorship of Wen Jiabao’s speeches on political reforms being blacked out from the Chinese media. The CPD could not have dared to oppose the Premier if it had not been ordered to do so. And the person who could do this is Party General Secretary Hu Jintao and his supporters in the CCP Politburo Standing Committee. It may be recalled that blocked by conservatives in the party, Deng Xiaoping quietly travelled to Shenzen in January 1992 to push reform and opening up. The event was initially censored in the mainland, but came back through Hong Kong, still a British colony. There was no stopping Deng’s “to be rich is glorious” call after that. Wen Jiabao is no Deng Xiaoping. Hu Jintao is still powerful with the dedicated Communist Youth League (CYL) structure behind him. It is Hu who is basically blocking political reforms especially from 2004, though this process started after Deng’s death. Even then, the whole of China has moved forward. The Wen Jiabao incident appears to have created a major division in the run up to the 18th Party Congress. No one is calling for the dissolution of CCP or multi-party democracy. But freedom of speech as guaranteed under the constitution is the cutting edge, and could avoid a political and social implosion. This is not likely to happen today, or even tomorrow. But the party will have to reinvent itself if it wants to hold on to power for a long time.
(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi.Email:email@example.com)