China’s Debate over Vietnam’s Reforms

A debate is raging within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over whether it should emulate the relatively bold structural reforms that the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) had introduced earlier this year. The VCP’s reforms have included the “multiple-candidate” election of the party chief, meaning that more than one cadre is allowed to contest the post of general secretary during major party congresses. Nevertheless, CCP Chairman and People’s Republic of China (PRC) President Hu Jintao, currently busy laying the groundwork for the 17th CCP Congress next year, has already indicated that Beijing will be sticking to its own path.

Embraced By the Liberals

Discussion among liberal scholars and CCP members first emerged in closely monitored Chinese websites and blogs after the VCP held its 10th Congress in April to pick its new party chief. Keeping with Leninist tradition, all such “elections” had in the past, involved only one candidate, with the ballot casting a mere formality. Yet for the first time in the April conclave, then party boss of Ho Chi Minh City Nguyen Minh Triet, well known for his stern anti-corruption campaigns, ran against the incumbent, veteran Politburo member Nong Duc Manh. Manh, thought by some to be a son of Founding Father Ho Chi Minh, fended off the challenge. Yet, at a plenary session of the 11th National Assembly held in June, the reformist Triet was elected state president by a large margin. In the same meeting, most government leaders above the age of 60 voluntarily retired. This made possible the early accession of Vice-Premier Nguyen Tan Dung, 56, to the post of prime minister (BBC News, June 27).

Among the well-known Chinese intellectuals who have applauded the reform experiments in Vietnam was liberal theorist Zhou Ruijin, a former editor of the People’s Daily and Shanghai’s Liberation Daily. Zhou wrote a piece for an electronic magazine entitled, “We Should Pay Attention to Reforms in Vietnam.” Zhou, who became famous for expounding on Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the early 1990s, asked in his article whether the VCP had already overtaken the CCP in “intra-party reform.” Referring to the Chinese cadres’ usually patronizing attitude toward Vietnam, Zhou wrote, “The student has surpassed the teacher.” In addition to urging the CCP leadership to consider holding “multi-candidate elections” to select its general secretary at the upcoming 17th Congress, Zhou praised the high degree of transparency within VCP deliberations as well as the party’s willingness to entertain the views of non-party members (Yazhou Zhoukan, Hong Kong, July 30). Since the mainstream Chinese media was instructed not to report on the VCP’s liberalization moves, the debate on whether to “catch up with Vietnam” has been confined to relatively narrow circles of scholars and cadres in the big cities. Nevertheless, the Hu-led CCP leadership has gone to great lengths to douse the perceived flames of heresy.

Top Conservatives Strike Back

Top party organs such as the CCP Publicity Department have mobilized hard-line ideologues and scholars to counter Zhou. For example, one former colleague of Zhou’s at the Liberation Daily, editor Luan Baojun, openly called upon Zhou to “take a lower profile” and “to be more careful in handling himself.” Most of the salvoes against “learning from Vietnam,” however, have taken the form of affirmations of the Chinese experience in reforms. One of the most eloquent of these propaganda salvoes was an interview that the Vice-President of the Central CCP Party School (CCPS), Li Junru, gave to the People’s Daily’s popular Strong Country web-forum in late July.

A colleague of President Hu when the latter was the president of the CCPS in the late 1990s, Li is an erudite custodian of party dogma. He argued that the “Chinese should not belittle themselves in the area of political democratization.” The senior ideologue then recycled the familiar argument that each country must follow its own model of democratization, which, in the Chinese context, consisted of a mixture of “elections and consultations.” By “elections,” Li meant mostly indirect elections of deputies to various levels of people’s congresses. “Consultations” referred to the CCP’s practice of consulting and working together with members of China’s eight so-called democratic parties (the eight entities, which are financed by the CCP, are comprised of mainly “patriotic” intellectuals who have agreed to observe Communist Party leadership). “I believe that when our unique democratic system has come into fruition, it will be better than existing Western models,” Li said (People’s Daily, July 24).

Given the still limited nature of Vietnam’s reforms, it may be difficult for outsiders to understand why the CCP leadership was so nervous about being left behind by the VCP. After all, Vietnam continues to remain a one-party dictatorship that employs draconian measures to harass dissidents and outspoken journalists. Seasoned political observers in Beijing, however, said that Hu was disturbed by Hanoi’s reforms because he had contemplated the implementation of similar measures when he had become party chief at the 16th CCP Congress in late 2002. Yet, for fear of “rocking the boat” and giving the “wrong signal” to liberal elements within the party, the ever-cautious Hu has been unable to deliver the changes that he was supposed to have swept in.

In 2003, for example, Hu introduced the practice of each plenary session of the CCP Central Committee (CCPCC) beginning with a work report delivered by the Politburo to the plenum; a gesture that was supposed to demonstrate the Politburo’s accountability to the CCPCC, whose 200-odd members cast their ballots to pick a new Politburo every five years. In reality, however, power remains concentrated in the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, whose operations continue to remain opaque. Perhaps Hu’s only concrete achievement in the area of “intra-party democratic reform” is the reduction of the number of vice-party secretaries at the provincial, municipal and county levels in the interest of bureaucratic streamlining. Thus, in the recent spate of personnel reshuffles in the Jiangsu Province, governed by Hu protégé Li Yuanchao, the number of vice-party secretaries at the municipal and county level was cut by 181 (Xinhua, July 22).

Compounding Hu’s problems is that while he has been faulted by the CCP’s liberal or “right” wing for inaction on political reform, he has, at the same time, been assailed by quasi-Maoist “leftists” for pushing excessively capitalist policies in the economic field. In a widely read article entitled, “The Socialist Market Economy Also Requires Planning,” noted conservative economist Liu Guoguang pointed out that state planning and government interference were needed “to rectify the mistakes and flaws of the marketplace.” Noting that “it’s a myth that the market can ensure equal competition,” Liu called for an adequate dosage of state intervention to ensure that socialist values (e.g. fair deals for disadvantaged sectors) be upheld (China Economic Times, Beijing, March 24). Since Hu’s administration has prided itself on its efforts to decrease the wealth gap between the rich and the poor and between prosperous coastal provinces and impoverished western regions, Liu’s views amounted to an accusation that Hu’s experiments in promoting a “harmonious society” had failed.

Hu Stays the Course

There is, however, little doubt that President Hu and close ally Premier Wen Jiabao—both of whom are likely to keep their posts after the 17th Congress—will continue with their somewhat contradictory goals of relatively bold market reforms coupled with a continued centralization of power. Regarding the calls by “leftists” (e.g. Liu) that the CCP’s quasi-capitalist reforms have gone too far, Hu and Wen have reiterated that only through globalization and integration with the international marketplace can China maintain its fast-paced economic growth as well as the concomitant expansion of its diplomatic and military clout.

As for the challenge from Hanoi, political sources close to the Hu camp have noted that Hu has responded to the VCP’s reforms by referring to how late patriarch Deng reacted to much more cataclysmic changes in the Communist Bloc—the demise of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communist parties in the Eastern Bloc during the early 1990s. After much soul-searching, Deng and his disciples concluded at the time that only by redoubling its economic reforms and at the same time centralizing its political and military power could the CCP avoid the fate of the Soviet Communist Party. Moreover, while Hu was President of the CCPS in the late 1990s, he had formed a special study group to look at the “formula of success” of a dozen-odd long-standing ruling parties worldwide. The group’s conclusion was that “democratization” was hardly a prerequisite for the maintenance of power by several successful political parties in different parts of the world. The sources said that forward-looking scholars and cadres had already given up hope of Hu announcing dramatic steps in “intra-party democracy” when he delivers his all-important political report to the 17th Congress next year.