The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is undergoing its worst crisis of confidence since the Tiananmen Square crackdown 18 years ago. While President and CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao is currently preoccupied with the means by which to consolidate the power of his faction at the upcoming 17th Party Congress, a loss of faith in the party as well as a dramatic decline in probity and old-style “combat-readiness” has hit the nation’s 71 million party members. Yet, even as a number of retired cadres have proposed relatively radical solutions to these woes, such as the suggestion that the CCP gradually transform itself into a Western European-style socialist democratic party (SDP), Hu has instead chosen to implement Maoist-era ideological campaigns to revive the party’s fortunes.
Party morale has deteriorated to such a degree that even official mouthpieces have admitted that the quality of CCP members has declined to new lows. The journal Qiushi (“Seeking Truth”) noted earlier this month that some within the party “believe in gods and ghosts rather than Marxism-Leninism and they put their faith in personal [connections] rather than the collective.” The journal also stated that for an unspecified number of CCP officials and members, “their loyalty regarding the party’s nature, goals, programs and road-maps has become attenuated,” while others had become “decadent and degenerated, and [have engaged in] corrupt and illegal activities” (Qiushi, May 2007). The recent bullish growth in the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets has reinforced the mentality—prevalent among CCP members as well as among the public—of “looking at everything with only money in mind.” Moreover, the party’s disciplinary and anti-graft offices are investigating a record number of cases in which official funds have been diverted toward “playing the bourses”—the crime allegedly committed by former Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu and his associates.
President Hu’s response to this crisis of faith and confidence has been to recycle ideological movements formulated by his large group of political commissars and propaganda specialists. In 2004 and 2005, cadres of all levels were required to sit through weekly ideological classes on “how to uphold the advanced nature of a Communist.” The latest indoctrination sessions have centered on the so-called “education about the Three Consciousness.” This is a reference to Hu’s dictum that party cadres and members must raise “their consciousness of living in dangerous times, their sense of duty as public servants, and the virtue of thriftiness.” While talking to officials in Beijing and the provinces, Hu has stressed that party members must “further boost their awareness of [impending] hardships and dangers” and that they should “exemplify the spirit of ‘plain living and hard struggle'” (Xinhua, March 9). Indeed, during his four-and-a-half-year-old administration, Hu has conducted more propaganda campaigns than did former President Jiang Zemin—usually deemed more conservative than Hu—during his 13-year tenure.
Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao have also tried to purify the party by introducing several regulations with regard to moral standards, anti-corruption practices and politically correct behavior. For example, numerous statutes and codes have been issued forbidding the spouses, children and relatives of senior cadres from going into business. Late last month, Wen unveiled yet another set of penalties for cadres and civil servants who have run afoul of not only the law but also commonly accepted moral precepts. According to the new regulations, officials who have failed to render support to their ailing parents, or who have acquired “second wives” will be censured, and in serious cases, sacked (Zhongguo Xinwenshe, April 30). Earlier stipulations had already barred party cadres and civil servants from gambling, visiting nightclubs and bathhouses and worshipping in temples or churches.
The apparent failure of Hu and Wen to improve the quality and rectitude of CCP cadres and members has resulted in bold calls for the party to make a clean break with the past. The retired vice-president of the People’s University, Xie Tao, created a stir in the spring when he noted in a party journal that “the CCP’s only way out is through [embracing] democratic socialism” of the West European variety. “Only constitutional democracy can fundamentally solve the ruling party’s problems of corruption and graft,” he wrote in the respected journal Yanhuang Chunqiu [Across the Ages]. “Only democratic socialism can save China.” Xie cites Switzerland as a model for a largely egalitarian society with adequate welfare benefits as well as full protection of the rights of workers and farmers (Yanhuang Chunqiu, February 2007). After all, the central plank of the Hu-Wen administration’s “putting people first” platform is precisely raising the socioeconomic standards of the country’s disadvantaged classes, a goal that has remained illusory so far.
In a similar vein, Chairman Mao’s one-time secretary Li Rui has openly called for the adoption of Scandinavian-style democratic socialism. Li, one of President Hu’s early mentors, said he agreed with late patriarch Deng Xiaoping that most party members were not even sure what socialism meant. “Yet we can be sure of one thing,” Li wrote recently. “Socialism cannot do without democracy; and it cannot do without rule of law” (Wenzhai Bao, February 17). Like-minded professors and retired officials have also “resurrected” the sayings of liberal icons such as deceased CCP General Secretary Zhao Ziyang and the former head of the CCP Propaganda Department Lu Dingyi. Articles and talks by Zhao and Lu relating to comprehensive political reform, or at least allowing the people to speak freely, are being circulated on websites or blogs that have eluded the censors thus far.
Xie, Li and other liberal intellectuals have quite a few things in common. First, they are mostly second- and third-generation cadres who joined the CCP much earlier than did either Hu or Wen. While Hu has used draconian methods to prevent the pro-Western views of young or middle-aged intellectuals from emerging into the public sphere for debate, the president is forced to tolerate these occasional outbursts from the Long March veterans. Moreover, these progressive elders are not organized politically. They are not linked with political organizations or non-governmental organizations abroad, thus denying the authorities any pretext to silence them.
Therefore, to stem the tide of “bourgeois liberalization,” the propaganda and censorship establishment under senior Politburo member Li Changchun has given carte blanche to the party’s “leftists,” or remnant Maoists, to attack the likes of Xie and Li Rui. This is despite the fact that Hu and Li Changchun had clashed with the leftists only last year—and used means that included the closing down of a few of their websites—when these arch-conservatives attacked the Hu-Wen leadership for allowing private and foreign capital to purchase state assets and “exploit” Chinese workers. Since Xie’s article was released in February, leftist research institutes associated with the former director of the CCP Propaganda Department Deng Liqun have held four conferences to savage Xie for his “wholesale betrayal of Marxism and socialism.” The conservatives have also rallied behind prominent individuals, such as the former director of the CCP Organization Department, Zhang Quanjing. In a widely circulated article, Zhang charged that Xie had “openly gone against the state constitution and the party charter.” Zhang added that Xie’s article had made not only “political mistakes,” but also errors not befitting the former professor’s status as a senior retired cadre (Gongnong Zhisheng, April 9).
Yet, to convince the world of the CCP’s pro-reform inclinations, the Hu-Wen team has rushed through various measures in the period leading up to the 17th Congress in the fall. Last month, party and state authorities appointed Professor Wan Gang, a non-CCP member, to serve as the minister of science and technology (Shanghai Daily, April 28). This is the first time since the 1950s that a non-party member has been given a ministerial-level job. The leadership has also elevated several so-called “returnees,” or Chinese with Western post-graduate degrees, to top positions. Wan received his doctorate in Germany, and the new Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi studied in London for a few years. Moreover, through calculated leaks to the foreign and Hong Kong media, members of Hu’s personal think tanks have suggested the possibility of significant political reforms at the 17th Congress. There has been speculation, for instance, that the size of both the Politburo and the Central Committee would be slightly expanded to accommodate more sectors of the population, especially the fast-rising business community.
Liberal intellectuals who are disappointed by President Hu’s perennial foot-dragging on reform point to the fact that a few years before he became the head of the CCP, the then vice-president had demonstrated considerable interest in the socialist democratic party (SDP) model. Hu, who was also the president of the Central Party School at the time, had assembled a team of researchers to study the ideology and organization of a number of European SDPs. A retired party cadre noted that Jiang Zemin, Hu and current Vice President Zeng Qinghong have toyed with the idea of borrowing individual elements of the SDP model. Discussion on this topic among members of official think tanks petered out by 2003, however, and Hu is known to have privately scolded the likes of Xie Tao and Li Rui for “adding confusion to the political climate.” Political observers fear that if Hu and his associates remain single-mindedly focused on boosting the political fortunes of their own factions, the largest and richest political party in the world would degenerate into a hodge-podge collection of cabals interested only in power, perks and prerogatives, and little else.