Limited Reforms: Status Quo at the 17th Party Congress

The liberal faction of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is doing eleventh-hour lobbying to have genuine political reform included in the agenda of the upcoming 17th Party Congress. Yet all signs point to the fact that General Secretary and President Hu Jintao will only promote the kind of “intra-party democracy” that will not spoil harmony in the party and country. A key reason behind Hu’s caution is that while his heir-apparent Li Keqiang is likely to be appointed to the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), the “Hu Faction’s” bid to dominate the Politburo and the PBSC is coming up against significant challenges from within the CCP.

Much of the CCP’s future will be laid out in Hu’s “Political Report to the 17th Party Congress,” to be delivered as the conclave opens on October 15. A draft of the keynote address began circulation among senior cadres in late August, and sources in Beijing who had read the draft stated that Hu would stick to the “safe” goal of constructing a harmonious society through ensuring that disparate political blocs and social-economic groupings would be able to share the fruits of economic progress. Owing to a lack of consensus on defining the next stage of political reform, the party chief is not expected to go beyond expressing vague platitudes, such as “pushing forward the construction of democratic politics,” and “boosting the people’s participation in politics in an orderly and incremental fashion.”

Repeating almost verbatim sections of a speech that he had delivered to the Central Party School in late June, Hu is expected to underscore the primacy of the so-called “four insistences.” This is a reference to the CCP’s “unswerving insistence” on four goals: “thought liberation,” the reform and open-door policy, the theory of scientific development and constructing social harmony, as well as “the materialization of comprehensive prosperity” for the entire nation. The “four insistences,” which could eventually be written into the CCP Charter, is deemed a liberal substitution of the orthodox “Four Cardinal Principles”—Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, party leadership, the socialist road, and “democratic proletarian dictatorship”—first put forward by late patriarch Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s. Hu Shuli, editor of the influential Caijing magazine, said there was a “special significance” to Hu’s citation of “thought liberation” as the first of his “four insistences.” She noted that this was “clearly aimed at breaking the constraints of the political ‘left,’” meaning remnant Maoism and other forms of conservatism (Caijing, July 13). After all, “thought liberation” was associated with the teachings of the late general secretary Hu Yaobang, one of the CCP’s most liberal leaders and President Hu’s mentor.

According to Du Daozheng, publisher of the liberal journal Yanhuang Chronicles, a number of liberal cadres, including those who had served under Hu Yaobang and the late Zhao Ziyang, another reformist party chief, are lobbying the party leadership to make significant commitments to political change. A retired, ministerial-ranked cadre, Du noted that Hu’s “Political Report” should at least include forward-looking statements made by Hu ally Premier Wen Jiabao earlier this year (Hong Kong Daily News, September 9). In an article carried by the official Xinhua News Agency in February, for example, Wen indicated that “science, democracy, the legal system, freedom and human rights are not something peculiar to capitalism.” He added: “Rather, they are common values pursued by [all] mankind.” Wen also spoke highly of “the philosophical precept of ‘harmony without uniformity,’ and the belief that ‘people are the foundation of the nation.’” (Xinhua, February 26). Similar statements were made by Wen when he talked to the international media after the plenary session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) in March.

It should be noted, however, that Wen’s views, while seconded by Hu, represent but one voice within the current Politburo and PBSC. Even though the premier’s NPC press conference was broadcast live on national TV, for instance, several of his remarks about democracy could no longer be found in the official transcript subsequently carried by Xinhua and People’s Daily. More importantly, there are indications that the PBSC had arrived at a consensus earlier this summer stating that if only during the run-up to the 17th Party Congress, the state propaganda and police machinery should adopt tough tactics to muzzle dissident intellectuals and NGO organizers. The Wen cabinet reportedly earmarked 10 billion yuan ($1.3 billion) to boost the nation’s already formidable internet police squads (Open [Hong Kong], September 2007). And beginning last month, scores of China’s relatively outspoken websites and blogs have been closed down.

In light of the tense atmosphere in the capital, analysts have cast doubt on the extent of “intra-party democracy” that will be showcased at the Congress. Since late spring, liberal members of official think tanks have cited improvements, such as more leeway being given to the 2,217 congress delegates when they choose the 200 or so Central Committee members next month. At the 16th Party Congress in 2002, the “margin of elimination” was 10 percent, meaning that Central Committee candidates nominated by the PBSC outnumbered the slots up for grabs by 10 percent. There is strong speculation in Beijing’s political circles that this time around, the delegates can eliminate up to 15 percent of the Central Committee nominees when they cast the ballots (Wen Wei Po, August 3). No other reforms along the lines of empowering congress delegates or boosting the transparency of top-level decision-making, however, are in the works. For example, it is unlikely that Central Committee members will be given any “margin of elimination” when they pick the new Politburo members. Instead, as in the past, they will simply endorse the entire list of cadres nominated by Hu and his PBSC colleagues.

Beijing cadres familiar with preparations for the Congress have pointed out that Hu will not upset “intra-party harmony” by venturing beyond the common denominators—what officials call the “core values”—of the CCP. This is due to Hu’s interest in consolidating his hold on power by building bridges to other factions. This atmosphere of conservatism was illustrated by a recently concluded meeting of the heads of the propaganda departments of major provinces and directly administered cities. The conclave reiterated that all cadres must conscientiously learn from Hu’s Central Party School speech. Politburo member and Director of the CCP Propaganda Department Liu Yunshan called on party members to “even more tightly rally around party central [authorities] with comrade Hu Jintao as General Secretary.” Xinhua quoted the propaganda specialists as saying that the party must raise its guard against “non-Marxist ideological trends” as well as other “cacophonous and impure noises.” The meeting concluded with the following call to arms: “We must loudly glorify the leitmotif [of socialist orthodoxy], seize the initiative in fighting the major warfare [against impure thoughts] and build up a strong base” (Xinhua September 8).

Meanwhile, Hu seems to have succeeded in ensuring the promotion of a key protégé, Liaoning Province Party Secretary Li Keqiang, to the PBSC. Li, 52, is a former first secretary of the Communist Youth League (CYL), which Hu headed in the mid-1980s. And since Li will be the sole Fifth-Generation cadre in the PBSC, his status as heir-apparent is assured. In preparation for Li’s elevation, since early this year, the media has highlighted Liaoning’s achievements in spearheading the reinvigoration of the economy of the entire northeastern region. Recent reports have also focused on the World Economic Forum’s “Summer Davos” conference in Dalian. Premier Wen was on hand to woo potential investors in the fast-growing region. The WEF meeting also provided opportunities for Li to meet with foreign leaders and the heads of multinational corporations (www.channelnewsasia.com, September 6).

Despite the concerted efforts by the leadership and the official media to improve Li’s repute, negative elements of his track record since leaving the CYL in 1998 have continued to been made public. A case in point is Li’s handling of the AIDS crisis during the six years he spent first as acting governor and then governor and party secretary of Henan, China’s most populous province. Recent reports by NGOs and AIDS activists, such as the world-renowned Dr. Gao Yaojie, have revealed that the number of Henan farmers who had come down with HIV in the course of selling blood exceeded 1 million, and not the 23,000-odd cited by Henan authorities. It is true of course, that this horrendous scandal took place during the tenure of Li Changchun, an incumbent PBSC member who was governor and party secretary of the province from 1990 to 1998 (Yazhou Zhoukan, September 16). Li Keqiang, however, is at least partly responsible for the harassment of NGO volunteers and journalists after he became governor in 1999. The Hu protégé also failed to penalize senior Henan province officials who had made huge profits through operating the tainted blood-collection centers.

Partly in return for the other factions’ support for Li’s ascendancy, Hu has agreed to the PBSC induction of less favorable cadres. The latter includes Guangdong Party Secretary Zhang Dejiang, who, at 60, is the second youngest member of the current Politburo. While Zhang is usually given credit for the continued prosperity of the Pearl River Delta “world factory,” he is deemed an old-style, conservative cadre who rose through the hierarchy due in large to the patronage of ex-president Jiang Zemin. A graduate of Kim Il-Sung University in Pyongyang, Zhang had vehemently opposed allowing private entrepreneurs to join the party. Since taking up his post in Guangdong in 2002, he has played a big role in suppressing the relatively liberal media in the “progressive” province just north of Hong Kong. Zhang’s rumored replacement of the late Huang Ju as PBSC member and executive vice-premier, along with Hu’s lack of enthusiasm for democratization, does not bode well for the future of either economic or political reform.