Is China about to launch political reforms?


On the 50th anniversary of the purging campaign launched in 1957 by Communist China’s founding father Mao Zedong to terrorize and silence people labeled as rightists, and the 18th anniversary of the death of the reform-minded secretary-general of the ruling Communist Party Hu yaobang, China seems to be heading towards some political reforms.

While Chairman Mao’s campaign between 1957 and 1976 had resulted in the targeting of more than half a million intellectuals, many of whom died or hopelessly ended in the shadows, Yaobang’s attempt two years after Mao’s death to end such a campaign and depart from the latter’s suppressive policy had inspired thousands of students. These students later became the fuel of the 1989 pro-democracy uprising in the Tiananmen Square.

There have been many indications in recent months that China’s ruling party is about to change its longstanding anti-democracy policy. In March, for example, both President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao praised Hong Kong’s democratic system, pledging Beijing’s full support to such a system. This was followed by allowing two dissidents associated with the Tiananmen uprising to visit mainland China and speak freely to the media. Moreover, numerous articles have recently appeared in state-controlled newspapers talking about democracy and political reforms, including one by Prime Minister Wen himself, in which he stated that socialism and democracy were not mutually exclusive.

In a country where the word ‘democracy’ is taboo, and the media is highly censored, such developments have unsurprisingly led to many speculations. However, what has fuelled such speculations more was a press conference held by Wen last month, in which he answered at length questions concerning his article. He was quoted as saying “Socialist democracy, in the final analysis, is to enable the people to govern themselves. This means that we need to ensure people’s rights to democratic elections, democratic decision-makers, and democratic management and oversight”. But he was quoted also as adding “In a country as large and complex as China, the development of democracy would be a gradual process and in line with the creation of a sense of social and economic justice among citizens”.

Based on these promising sings, some observers expect that the 17th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) this autumn will witness heated debates on political reforms. The Congress, which convenes every five years since 1977, has often been an occasion not only for changes in the country’s leadership but also for changes in domestic and foreign policies. While President Hu and Premier Wen are most likely to remain in power for another five-year term until 2012, more than 60 percent of the current members of the CCP’s Central Committee and about 50 percent of the politburo’s members are expected to vacate their seats for younger men who are in their 50s and, therefore, differ in their experiences, education, political socialization, administrative backgrounds, foreign contacts, and world views. In this context, Vice President Zeng Qinghong (68), a heavyweight figure in Chinese politics, is expected to go.

In fact the CCP and government have already taken some steps towards replacing aging officials belonging to the fourth generation with members of the fifth generation. This included a reshuffle late last year of regional leaders, with many younger officials being appointed as provincial party secretaries. It also included a reshuffle late last month of the cabinet, with younger men being appointed as ministers of foreign affairs, science and technology, water resources, and land. For example, Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing (67) was replaced with his deputy Yang Jiechi (57), who had served as China’s ambassador to the United States from 2001 to 2005.

Also in preparation for the upcoming Party Congress, new criteria for promoting officials at the Congress have been set, including the application of a more democratic way to the election of the 2,200 deputies to the Congress.

However, there are many who hold the opinion that the aforementioned talks and steps about political reforms are not genuine and are only aimed either at improving China’s image ahead of next year’s Summer Olympic Games in Beijing or at strengthening President Hu’s position ahead of the 17th Party Congress.

*Academic researcher and lecturer on Asian affairs

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