18th Party Congress Showcases Stunning Setback to Reform

Inside the Great Hall of the People During the 18th Party Congress

The most pertinent message of the just-ended 18th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress has perhaps come from Premier Wen Jiabao. This is despite the fact outgoing General Secretary Hu Jintao’s 101-minute Political Report to the 18th Party Congress (hereafter Report) has dominated Chinese and international media coverage of the seven-day mega-event. “We must strengthen and improve the leadership of the Party,” Wen said while talking to members of the Tianjin delegation to the Congress, “In particular, we must push forward the reform of the leadership system of the party and state” (Xinhua, November 9). It is true that Hu, who remains state president until next March, has devoted a good part of his Report to political and institutional reforms. Yet the most important function of the Congress—picking a new slate of Fifth Generation leaders—has been dominated by old-fashioned, non-transparent factional intrigue as well as the resurgence of the influence of long-retired party elders.

That the choice of the members of the 18th Politburo and its seven-member Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), China’s supreme ruling council, was the result of backroom skullduggery and horse-trading was evident from the first few minutes of the Congress’s opening ceremony at the Great Hall of the People. First to appear before the cameras was the 69-year-old Hu, who was followed closely by the 86-year-old ex-President Jiang Zemin. A distance of several meters separated these two putative “cores,” respectively, of the Third- and Fourth-Generation leadership collectives on the one hand, and two other groups on the other: the out-going members of the 17th PBSC and long-retired PBSC members. The oldest member of the latter group was Song Ping, 95, the one-time CCP organization czar who left the PBSC 20 years ago (Wen Wei Po [Hong Kong], November 9; Apple Daily [Hong Kong], November 9).

The appearance of the octogenarian and nonagenarian cadres was not just a symbolic gesture to demonstrate party unity. At least a couple of these past state leaders have played the role of kingmaker in the choice of PBSC members this year. For example, three of the seven members of the 18th PBSC are believed to be protégés of Jiang, who still heads the Shanghai Faction in party politics. They are new General Secretary Xi Jinping, who owed his promotion to the PBSC in 2007 to Jiang’s nomination; the soon-to-be-named Chairman of the National People’s Congress Chairman Zhang Dejiang; and the Executive Secretary of the Central Committee Secretariat Liu Yunshan. Jiang and former Premier Li Peng, 84, were instrumental in preventing two of Hu’s cronies, Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang, from making it to the PBSC. Both Li and Wang, who have reformist reputations, have managed only to hang on to their Politburo seats. Wang, age 57, the outgoing Party Secretary of Guangdong Province, is set to become a vice premier in March (Hong Kong Economic Journal, November 8; Sing Tao Daily [Hong Kong], November 8).

As in his Political Report to the 17th Party Congress of 2007, President Hu last Thursday, November 8, devoted two long paragraphs to “democracy within the party” (dangnei minzhu) as well as reforming the party’s personnel system—particularly fairer and more transparent ways for picking leaders. For example, Hu said the authorities must substantiate party members’ “right to know, right to take part [in party deliberations], electoral rights and supervisory rights.” Regarding the selection of senior cadres, Hu indicated the party must “comprehensively and correctly implement democratic, open, competitive and meritorious” goals. While discussing the issues of leadership five years ago, President Hu, however, laid emphasis on systems of “democratic centralism and collective leadership” and indicated the party must “oppose and prevent dictatorial [practices] by individuals or a minority [of leaders].” There were no more references to the dictatorial practices of strongman-like figures in this year’s report (Xinhua, November 8; People’s Daily, October 25, 2007). Hu’s failure to lash out at the apparent resumption of Mao-style “rule of personality” could reflect his frustration at the machinations of the likes of Jiang Zemin in the past few months.

It is in this context that Wen’s comment on the “reform of the leadership system of the party and state” seems as timely as it is hard hitting. Although Wen has in the past two to three years made dozens of appeals to speeding up political reform, including upholding the late patriarch Deng Xiaoping’s edicts on the subject, this was the first time that he made an indirect, but obvious, reference to one of the most celebrated speeches of the chief architect of reform. In a 1980 address entitled “On the Reform of the System of Party and State Leadership,” Deng cited the following daunting obstacles to political and institutional liberalization: “bureaucracy, over-concentration of power, patriarchal methods, life tenure in leading posts and privileges of various kinds.” Deng had this to say about the party’s “patriarchal” traditions: “Besides leading to over-concentration of power in the hands of individuals, patriarchal ways within the revolutionary ranks place individuals above the organization, which then becomes a tool in their hands” (People’s Daily, August 18, 1980). While there is no concrete evidence to show that Wen was zeroing in on the recent activities of patriarchs such as Jiang, his comments made to Tianjin Congress deputies were omitted inexplicably from CCTV’s evening news last Thursday. Xinhua News Agency also only reported his remarks one day later. Remarks made by other PBSC members during group discussions of provincial or municipal delegates, however, were publicized within hours by the official media (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], November 10; Hong Kong Economic Journal, November 10; CCTV News, November 8).

Fighting graft is another area where the Hu report seems to have fallen short. Hu echoed warnings sounded by ex-president Jiang in the late 1990s that the party’s failure to eradicate endemic corruption could “deal a body blow to the party and even lead to the collapse of the party and country.” “We must never slacken in fighting graft and in building clean governance,” he warned, “The alarm bells must be rung unceasingly.” Yet Hu has failed to introduce new measures such as party regulations requiring all senior cadres to publicize the assets of their close relatives—and to disclose whether the latter have foreign residency status. It is also significant that while reading out his speech, Hu omitted this clause that was in the printed version: “Senior cadres must not only discipline themselves stringently but also strengthen the education of and constraints over their relatives and close associates” (Xinhua, November 8; CableTV News [Hong Kong], November 8).

In the run-up to the Party Congress, Bloomberg and the New York Times have published detailed reports about the business activities of the relatives of Vice President Xi and Premier Wen. Despite immediate action taken by state censors to block these articles from Chinese cyberspace, millions of netizens are believed to have read them. While Hu’s warnings about the exacerbation of graft could be the party’s answer to growing criticisms about greed in high places, no investigations are believed to have been launched on the well-publicized business activities of the close kin of top officials. This is despite the fact that while participating in discussions among provincial and municipal deputies to the Congress, top cadres such as Wang Yang and Shanghai Party Secretary Yu Zhengsheng claimed effective steps had been taken to prevent their relatives from improperly making money (IFeng.com [Beijing], November 9; Hong Kong Economic Times, November 9).

In the Report, Hu also touched upon ways to restructure the economy. Reiterating that China’s growth had been “unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable,” the president vowed to “comprehensively deepen the reform of the economic structure.” He called on party cadres to pay more attention to indigenous innovation and, in particular, to boost consumer spending as a new pillar of GDP expansion. Perhaps due to the conviction that the CCP’s status as “perennial ruling party” is contingent upon the party-state apparatus’ tight control over major chunks of the economy, Hu indicated Beijing must “unwaveringly consolidate and develop the public sector of the economy.” Hu went further, adding “[We should] invest more state capital in major industries in key fields that comprise the lifeline of the economy and are vital to national security.” The Report contradicts the concerns of renowned economists, such as Mao Yushi of Beijing’s Unirule Research Institute, who have deplored the trend of “the state sector advances even as the private sector retreats” (guojin mintui) (Sohu.com [Beijing], November 1; Sina.com [Beijing], July 12). Moreover, Premier Wen recently had pledged to give more support to embattled private companies: “We must complete and implement policies and measures aimed at promoting the development of the non-state economy, break [state] monopolies and lower industry thresholds for new entrants” (People’s Daily, November 1; China News Service, July 16).

On the eve of the Congress, observers speculated the Hu-led leadership might signal its willingness to contemplate liberalization by removing Mao Zedong Thought, which is synonymous with conservatism, from the CCP Constitution. After all, it seems almost certain that disgraced Politburo member Bo Xilai, who spearheaded a vigorous campaign to revive Maoism, will be given a stiff prison term after his recent expulsion from the party. The only major constitutional revision approved by the Congress, however, was to elevate the “Scientific Development Concept” (kexue fazhan guan) which is Hu Jintao’s contribution to CCP canon, to the status of “guiding principle” of the party and state. This has put the “Scientific Development Concept” on the same level as ex-President Jiang’s “Important Thinking of the Three Represents” (san ge daibiao zhongyao sixiang) (Ming Pao, November 8).

In his Report, Hu urged party cadres and members to work harder at “innovation of the implementation [of policies], theoretical innovations, and the innovation of institutions.” Yet he also repeated this same point that he made five years ago: “While [the party] will not go down the old road of ossification, it will also avoid devious paths that will change the flag and standard [of socialist orthodoxy].” Given the predominance of conservatism in the Report—and the Byzantine fashion in which the new corps of leaders has been chosen—it seems unlikely that the leadership under General Secretary Xi Jinping will push reformist goals and policies in the foreseeable future.