Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 12

By Baopu Liu

The upcoming 16th Chinese Communist Party Congress, scheduled for September, will feature a top power transition in China and hopes for the long-anticipated political reform are therefore running high. The prognosis, however, remains grim.


The early political reform package of the 1980s was proposed by party chief Zhao Ziyang and included steps to curb the absolute power of the CCP. But although paramount leader Deng Xiaoping was indeed an early supporter of political reform, his objective was never to make China democratic. It was instead simply to improve the image of the Communist Party regime after the chaotic and brutal era of the Cultural Revolution. His 1989 decision conclusively demonstrated his intended limits for political reform, best expressed in his “four principles,” which tolerated no challenge to the CCP’s absolute authority.


There is no evidence suggesting that the 1989 student demonstrations were caused or catalyzed by political reform. Reform was at the time still in its preparatory stages. Many argue that the demonstrations were, to a large extent, more the result of double-digit inflation than anything else. Records show that none of the student leaders were especially aware that a reform program even existed. Neither did they at any point behave as though it had any relevance to the movement itself.

Later in 1989, Zhao Ziyang was purged for opposing the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. This has had an inevitable effect, that is, to associate Zhao’s political reform package with the Tiananmen verdict–the most guarded political taboo. The pairing created an immense political barrier and forced political reform to a standstill.


A dominant factor affecting the way Chinese view their political future is economics. “In the early 1980s, the income gap between urban and rural residents narrowed. In 1984, the income ratio dropped to 1.6 to 1, an historic, never-repeated low,” [1] as one study indicates. But in China, while urban dissatisfaction can cause political instability, the poor and less-educated rural population has historically been endowed with high endurance and few political demands. In 1989, when inflation ran at an annual rate of 18 percent, urban consumers rushed to spend their money before prices rose even higher. In the 1990s, when consumer prices were steady and incomes rose more rapidly, the urban populations did well for themselves. By 1999, as the world remembered the Tiananmen crackdown on its ten-year anniversary, the Wall Street Journal declared that “many Tiananmen demands have been met.” [2] China’s post-Tiananmen political stability hinges on the economically better-off urban Chinese releasing their tensions and shifting their priorities.


The collapse of the Soviet Union has evidently had the most negative effect on political reform in China. Long before 1989, there was careful fortification against “Peaceful Evolution,” which was seen as a threat to China’s national security and a part of the West’s hegemonic strategy. The showdown in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe confirmed this theory, and the collapse of those regimes had a shocking psychological impact. The state media, China News Agency, meticulously uncovered details of a tragic plot: Then Russian President Boris Yeltsin had decided, together with the presidents of Belarus and Ukraine, to dissolve the Soviet Union overnight on December 7, 1991 and to inform then U.S. President George H.W. Bush before Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Soon after–in the early 1990s–came a surge of approval for Deng Xiaoping’s violent solution to the Tiananmen demonstrations. The orthodox old guard was relieved that the crackdown had saved the CCP from the collapse suffered by the Soviet Communists. Many within the Chinese power apparatus who had previously doubted the hardline approach were then convinced that the solution was in fact the right one. The shift has forced the remaining pro-reform faction into either keeping silent or realigning behind the “gradualist camp.”


Many in China are now keen on “gradualism,” meaning delaying political change until after economic transformation. A shifting of priorities, however, does not signify that there is any less need for political reform. On the contrary, the problems the early reform package was supposed to address remain unresolved. Corruption, nontransparency and the absence of checks and balances persist as the prominent characteristics of China’s political system. But there has, in recent years, been an upsurge of calling for political reform from middle and lower level CCP cadres.

Last year, Pan Yue, deputy director of the State Council Commission for Economic Reform, argued that the Communist Party should convert itself from a “revolutionary party” to an “incumbent party.” Liu Ji, known as Jiang Zemin’s adviser, also claimed that political reform “is no good without [significant] action.” As an example, he pointed out the need to separate the administrative and executive control of companies and enterprises. Xiao Gongqin, a history professor in Shanghai, openly advocated a “democratic society with Chinese characteristics.” In 2002, Wang Guixiu, a retired official at the Central Party School, proposed “strengthening democracy within the CCP.” Hu Angang, a prominent economist, wrote: “The problem of corruption is overwhelmingly systemic rather than personal.”

The media too frequently implies a need for political reform, but does so cautiously, using euphemisms: “social transformation” instead of “political reform”, for example, or “a reliable system” instead of “checks and balances.”

Passive resistance to CCP policies is common. In February 2002, the CCP Central Disciplinary Commission issued a statement criticizing the behavior of “agreeing in open, resisting in secret” and ordering “The Three Nots,” [3] thus admitting that control within the CCP system was slipping.


Despite a growing acknowledgment of the need for political reform, however, we should not be too optimistic. Almost all of the current calls for reform are recognizably from the early package, and thus are–along with Zhao Ziyang–doomed. And those that have not been condemned outright have not been taken seriously.

Furthermore, one element in the line of reform-minded reasoning that uses the former Soviet Union as an example is missing: a powerful and convincing economic recovery in Russia (and the Chinese economy continues to show positive signs). On top of this, there has been, in the name of safeguarding political stability, a selection bias against reform-minded cadres. Officials with reform credentials are often marginalized. Only those who are determined to put off the issue indefinitely are promoted to top posts. Premier Zhu Rongji, several public gestures notwithstanding, is a good example. Top CCP leadership has, in short, become a bottleneck to political reform.

Some analysts point out that because the concentration of power lies within the CCP regime, pushing forward with political reform largely depends on the will of the top leaders. While this is true, there is no incentive to induce such action so long as there is no immediate crisis, economically or politically. The common mistake many analysts have made in assessing the fate of political reform in China has been to put too much weight on guessing at personal preferences and power dynamics among the CCP leadership. For many years, many have kept hopes high for Jiang Zemin, Qiao Shi, Zhu Rongji, Li Ruihuan and–most recently–Hu Jintao.

The best way to uncover the leadership’s intentions, which analysts have perhaps overlooked, is to watch how they handle the CCP itself. With 5 percent of the nation’s population, the CCP is all-powerful and perhaps includes most of the people with the skills and knowledge to administer the country. Any political reform must begin with changing the role and structure of the CCP in one regard only: It must withdraw from China’s economic and social scene.

Clearly then, party boss Jiang Zemin has no intention for political reform, because the purpose of his “Three Represents” and CCP reform policy is to make the CCP all-powerful again and more encompassing, to include even rich capitalists. The upcoming 16th CCP Party Congress should not be viewed as a new chance for political reform, because the Sixth Plenary Session of the 15th Central Committee paving the road for the party congress featured Mao-style disciplinary campaigns aimed at strengthening the CCP’s central leadership.

It is obvious to many that to achieve sustainable development, China must eventually modernize its political system. Even Chinese leaders admit that its regime is “stable but not secure.” Although it is only a matter of time, let us harbor no illusions about the intentions of those currently in power.

1. Zhao Manhua, “The Income Gap in China: Rural Areas Need a Lift,” World Bank Group Transition Newsletter (February-March 2001).

2. ibid

3. Namely, not to fabricate expressions undermining the image of the party and state, not to publish expressions against the policy of the CCP and not to participate in illegal activities and organizations.”

Baopu Liu–a specialist in Chinese politics and foreign affairs, and a Beijing native–writes political commentary for major publications in Hong Kong and the United States.