Hu Leadership’s Third Wave of “Thought Liberation” Sidetracked

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 13

Apart from the Olympics, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership’s biggest challenge this year is to lay out a road map for “the next stage of reform.” The CCP will this December be marking with much fanfare the 30th anniversary of the start of the reform era, which was unveiled by late patriarch Deng Xiaoping soon after he had shoved aside the ultraconservative Maoist faction. As befits their carefully nurtured image as worthy successors of the Great Architect of Reform, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are expected to unveil a substantial agenda for change that suits the requirements of the new century.

The mantra of “pushing forward with thought liberation” was sounded first by Hu in his Political Report to the 17th CCP Congress last November, and by Wen in his Government Work Report to the National People’s Congress in March. Yet Hu and Wen being cautious bureaucrats rather than trail-blazing visionaries, decided early this year to let provincial rising-stars such as Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang take the lead in propagating what was billed as “the third wave of thought liberation.” The first tide of liberalization refers to the 1980 campaign called “practice is the sole criterion of truth,” which laid into the Maoist doctrine that “whatever Chairman Mao said is correct.” The second crusade, which was launched during Deng’s celebrated “Southern journey” (nanxun), or tour of southern China in 1992, was about boosting productivity through the unfettered adoption of market mechanisms in the economy.

It is important to note here that neither the Beijing leadership nor their provincial protégés are interested in sponsoring political reform as is understood in the West. What the Hu-Wen team–and Wang, a senior member of Hu’s Communist Youth League (CYL) Faction – has in mind is a faster pace of economic reform in addition to the so-called “intra-party democracy.” The latter is shorthand for enhancing the accountability of CCP leaders through means including allowing grassroots members a bigger say in choosing medium- to senior-ranked cadres. Also envisaged is an incremental approach to expanding grassroots democracy. Wang, 53, nicknamed Young Marshal for his blunt, dare-devil style of problem-solving, began asking his colleagues in Guangdong to “hack out a blood path of reform” soon after he was transferred to the “before-the-times” province late last year. Reminding Guangdong cadres of the groundbreaking work that Deng had done in Guangdong, Wang said the avant-garde province must “attain a new leap forward in history” (Nanfang Daily (Guangzhou) January 14).

The main thrust of Wang’s “new thinking” is that Guangdong must acquire an “international outlook.” The reformist party boss specifically asked his colleagues to strengthen their capacity in “making innovation in systems and institutions” through learning from Hong Kong and other developed economies. Echoing Deng’s preference for no-holds-barred reform in the 1990s, the “Young Marshal” said: “It is permissible for leading cadres to make mistakes.” This means that if a particular new approach does not work, Guangdong can always shift gears and adopt other methods to push forward reform. Early last month [May], the Politburo member also indicated that “officials should boldly conceptualize and boldly experiment [with policies] as long as they are in line with the ‘scientific outlook on development’.” The latter was a reference to President Hu’s dictum about “putting people first” and striking a balance between seeking GDP growth on the one hand, and ensuring social justice on the other (China Newsweek magazine (Beijing), April 14; Nanfang Daily, May 6).

As for “intra-party democracy,” Wang has followed in the footsteps of experiments conducted in the past two years in Jiangsu Province under then party secretary Li Yuanchao, another fast-rising Hu protégé and CYL Faction affiliate. For example, Wang pioneered the “open assessment” of mid-ranking Guangdong officials. Two months ago, the 71 members of the Party Committee of Zhangjiang municipality conducted an assessment of the performance of 11 county and district chiefs within the city’s jurisdiction. The appraisal, including grading various kinds of endeavors, was broadcasted live on local TV and websites (Apple Daily, May 1). Wang and Li – who is now director of the CCP Organization Department – also mapped out early steps to turn the special economic zone (SEZ) of Shenzhen into an experimental city for grassroots democracy. Plans include allowing Shenzhen residents to choose district-level people’s representatives; and these local-level parliamentarians will subsequently be empowered to pick officials at the same level through cha’e xuanju (“competitive elections” where candidates – who are seconded by the CCP – outnumber the posts up for grabs). Up until now, district-level people’s deputies are designated by Shenzhen party authorities, who also nominate the heads of districts and other senior officials. The latter are then confirmed by the district-level people’s congresses via a ritualistic, pro forma show of hands (Southern Metropolitan News (Guangzhou), May 23; New Evening Post (Beijing) June 8).

Given their relatively limited and provisional nature, Wang-style “new ideas” on administrative and political change are not expected to make a dent on the political structure of the country, particularly the CCP’s monopoly on power. Wang himself was careful to note that the proposals he had in mind for Shenzhen would not turn the famous SEZ into a “special political zone” (Nanfang Daily website, April 1). Yet quite a number of affiliates of the party’s remnant “liberal wing,” mostly followers of two reformist former party secretaries – the late Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang – have invested the “third wave of thought liberation” with much more significance than what the Hu-Wen leadership had intended. Foremost among these free-thinking party veterans is Zhou Ruijin, a former deputy chief editor of People’s Daily. A one-time adviser of Deng’s, Zhou played a pivotal role in “making propaganda” for the pro-market dictums that were handed down by the late patriarch during his 1992 “Southern journey” (nanxun). In a much-noted article, Zhou wrote that the focus of the “third wave of thought liberation” should be “returning power to the people.” The famous theorist pointed out that the two previous liberalization campaigns were mainly about enhancing productivity and giving more material benefits to the people. Zhou indicated that “returning power to the people” followed naturally from the Hu-Wen slogan about “putting people first.” “Party central authorities have already made clear that the public should have the right to know, as well as the right to express themselves and to take part in politics,” Zhou wrote (Wenzhaibao (Beijing), April 10; Nanfang Daily, March 17). According to retired publisher Du Daozheng, who was close to late Party Chief Hu Yaobang, the current liberalization campaign should revolve itself around increasing “the rights of the people.” “The first step should be developing political democracy, including creating a tolerant environment for the media and for the expression of opinion” (China Newsweek magazine, April 14).

The initiatives of Wang and colleagues allied to the CYL, however, have run afoul of conservative party factions that consider even the cautious changes contemplated by the Hu-Wen camp as too ambitious and unorthodox. Thus, it is hardly surprising that the Beijing Daily, a mouthpiece of the party’s ultra-conservative wing since the mid-1980s, has the past few months been pouring cold water on what could be the beginnings of a modest Beijing Spring. In an article in Beijing Daily entitled “The high tide of the third thought liberation movement has hardly been formed,” commentator Shi Zhongquan argued that President Hu’s much-noted Political Report to the 17th CCP Congress could not be construed as a call to arms for radical liberalization. Shi noted that instead of speculating about a possible “third wave” of reform, “it will be more scientific to just say ‘we should continue with thought liberation,’ as pointed out in the 17th Congress report.” The author also castigated those who were overzealous in pushing political liberalization. “It is wrong to say that our country has not undertaken reform of the political structure in the past several years,” he added. “We have implemented major reform policies [in the area of political change” (Beijing Daily, April 28).

Irrespective of the impact of arguments made by “ultra-liberals” such as Zhou Ruijinor ultraconservatives such as Shi Zhongquan, it seems evident that the series of unexpected events this year–particularly the Tibetan riots and the Sichuan earthquake–have taken the wind out of the sails of the “third thought liberation movement.” Beijing intellectuals familiar with the thinking of the Hu leadership have indicated that the supremo has shifted his focus from breaking new ground on reform to preserving stability–and inculcating among all Chinese a sense of patriotism coupled with unreserved compliance with CCP edicts. The intellectuals say that the authorities have in internal party directives cited this new Hu dictum: “Maintaining stability is our unshirkable responsibility, our foremost responsibility.” On the surface, the CCP has been able to turn a series of challenges – unrest in Tibet and neighboring provinces, efforts by the West to “boycott” the Olympics, and the quake–into opportunities to harness waves of nationalism particularly among the young. However, particularly in view of possible disruptions to the August Olympics by “quasi-terrorist” elements from Tibet and Xinjiang, the Hu-Wen team is giving top priority to recentralizing power and to fostering absolute loyalty to party instructions.

Indeed, Party Secretary Wang himself has apparently begin putting caveats on Guangdong-style thought liberation. In a seminar on improving law and order held in the provincial capital of Guangzhou earlier this month, Wang hinted that the call for bold, unorthodox thinking should not be interpreted as carte blanche for running afoul of the law–or of CCP doctrines. “Thought liberation does not mean giving license to disobeying the law and going against [party] discipline,” he said (Nanfang Daily, June 12). In a broader context, the CCP leadership has taken back whatever liberties that they seemed to have given intellectuals and the media during the first ten-odd days after the May 12 Sichuan tremors. Several well-known net-based dissidents as well as NGO activists have again been harassed or arrested in the run-up to the all-important Summer Olympics (Associated Press, June 12). It is true that the Hu-Wen team still plans to hold an extravaganza of a conference in December to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the inauguration of reform. Since the disturbances in Tibet, however, the party leadership has been reacting to events and exercising damage control rather than kick-starting major changes in the economic or political systems. The bets are on that at the gala commemorative function by year’s end, President Hu will be focusing on the traditional values of stability and nationalistic fervor rather than issuing a bugle call for epoch-making liberalization.