Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 20

Less than one month after becoming China’s undisputed supremo, President Hu Jintao has confirmed what the country’s liberal intellectuals had feared all along. The 61-year-old Fourth Generation leader is much more concerned about firming up the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) grip on power than fostering pluralism and creativity, seen as indispensable for the success of thorough-going reform on both the political and economic fronts.

In one of his first public appearances after succeeding ex-president Jiang Zemin as Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), Hu told reporters covering the China tour of French President Jacques Chirac that he saw “no reason” to revise the official verdict that the 1989 pro-democracy movement was a “counter-revolutionary rebellion.” Hu noted that the party leadership’s “correct and resolute” decision then to put down the challenge to CCP rule was a key reason for the country’s rapid economic growth in the past 15 years.

Political sources in Beijing said Hu had underscored his conservative beliefs in unpublicized talks during the Fourth Plenary Session of the CCP Central Committee last month, which endorsed Jiang’s full retirement. The sources quoted Hu as supporting the decision made by his mentor, late patriarch Deng Xiaoping, to use the army to crush the Tiananmen Square demonstrators. “We must be firm against infiltration and sabotage by hostile foreign forces as well as bourgeois-liberal elements at home,” Hu reportedly said at the high-level conclave.

Hu’s conviction that the foremost task of his administration is to perpetuate the proverbial “long reign and perennial stability” of CCP rule was fully reflected in the watershed “Resolution on strengthening the construction of the party’s governance ability” (hereafter Resolution), which was passed by the Central Committee and made available to the public late last month.

The Resolution indicated that under “a scientific leadership system and leadership method,” the party was in a position to “put forward and implement correct theories, lines, goals, policies and strategies” to run China well and to maintain the CCP’s mandate of heaven.

Unlike the Long March generation of leaders, Hu and allies such as Premier Wen Jiabao do not take for granted the CCP’s status as ruling party. Since coming to power at the 16th CCP Congress in late 2002, the Hu-Wen team has introduced populist concepts such as “building up the party for the public good and putting people first.” Compared to predecessors Jiang and ex-premier Zhu Rongji, Hu and Wen have spent a lot more time and resources on closing the income gap between eastern and western China – as well as providing a basic social insurance network for the country’s disadvantaged sectors.

Indeed, the Resolution, which is to date the most comprehensive statement of Hu’s statecraft, vowed that the party leadership would “govern the country in a scientific manner – and run the administration democratically and according to law.” The word “democracy” was cited many times in the Resolution, such as in the context of implementing “democratic elections, democratic decision-making, democratic management and democratic supervision [of the government].” However, in practice, the Hu-Wen team has pretty much halted exciting experiments in grassroots democracy carried out from 1998 to 2002 in a few provinces, which expanded elections at the village level to that of townships.

In fact, President Hu has never once mentioned political reform in the sense of an equitable power-sharing between the CCP and other political groupings or socio-economic blocs. For example, the Resolution merely revived the hackneyed – and largely meaningless – shibboleth of “the multi-party cooperation and political consultation system under CCP leadership.” This is a reference to the CCP holding regular “consultation sessions” with the country’s eight so-called democratic parties, which were formed in the 1950s. These eight entities, however, are controlled by the CCP’s United Front Department – and almost all of them are dependent on state financial support for survival.

Particularly disturbing for the Chinese intellectuals looking for signs of a post-Jiang thaw is the fact that in both the Resolution and other statements this year, Hu has laid the utmost store by party supremacy. The Resolution indicated, for example, that “the party should strengthen leadership over legislation work.” The document also noted that relevant CCP committees should “fulfill the function of the leadership core in organizations such as people’s congresses, [different levels of] administrations, and people’s political consultative conferences.” This insistence on the party leadership of the legislature runs counter to the ideal of “rule by law” and “administration according to law” that the Hu-Wen leadership has propagated since late 2002. Moreover, just as predecessor Jiang, Hu has forgotten that through the 1980s, late patriarch Deng himself had proposed an adequate degree of the separation of powers between the party on the one hand, and the government, the legislature and economic entities on the other.

The Resolution did not play up the “Four Cardinal Principles,” a reference to Deng’s doctrine about rigid obeisance to Marxist-Leninist precepts, Mao Zedong Thought, the socialist road, total CCP leadership, and the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” However, not unlike predecessors including Deng and Jiang, the Hu team has asked fellow cadres and party members to raise their guard against “the plots of hostile foreign forces to try to Westernize and divide up China.”

Perhaps the only new initiative unveiled at the Central Committee plenum was the leadership’s eagerness to “build a socialist harmonious society.” Going one step further than the ideal of “putting people first,” the Hu-Wen leadership vowed to “adequately mediate among the interest relationships of various sectors, and to correctly handle inner contradictions within the people.” According to party insiders, the new-found stress on harmony has grown out of a “neo-Confucianist” strain of thinking within the Hu-Wen leadership. Senior cadres ranging from Hu to former Politburo Standing Committee member Li Ruihuan are convinced that under the guidance of “wise rulers,” socio-political harmony can be attained through caring for disadvantaged sectors and through reconciling differences among power blocs and interest groupings.

Thus the Resolution indicated that more resources and efforts would be put on “resolving contradictions and lessening the hardship” of disaffected sectors of society. While the CCP leadership stopped short of pledging not to use force against demonstrations and other protests staged by disgruntled groups such as unemployed workers or over-taxed peasants, it promised to employ legal and economic methods as well as “consultation and reconciliation” to defuse the masses’ complaints and grievances.

Sources close to official think tanks in Beijing said President Hu was anxious to mark his ascension to near-absolute power by introducing a form of “socialism with a harmonious face.” It is interesting that the Hu-Wen team chose to make its first gesture of tolerance and reconciliation while meeting a delegation of 200-odd Hong Kong politicians and businessmen on the eve of the October 1 National Day celebrations. Among the representatives from the Special Administrative Region (SAR) were several democratic legislators who had protested against Beijing’s decision not to allow Hong Kong residents to choose their chief executive. In his address, however, Hu indicated he fully understood that there were “figures with different opinions” in the SAR. The president said he hoped all parties in Hong Kong would “uphold [the spirit of] tolerance, help each other, and promote harmony.”

Hu has also floated balloons of good will on the Taiwan front. In a closed-door meeting on Taiwan-related strategies held a few weeks before the 4th Central Committee Plenary Session, the president, who also heads the CCP’s Leading Group on Taiwan Affairs, pointed out that there should be no time-table for the “liberation” of Taiwan. He indicated that since the majority of Taiwan residents preferred the status quo – not formal breakaway from the mainland – Beijing should work harder to convince Taiwanese compatriots of the advantages of reunification. Moreover, Hu reiterated that cross-Taiwan Strait dialogue was possible under the one China principle. Analysts said the “harmony card” played by Hu vis-à-vis Hong Kong and Taiwan showed the new administration wanted to present itself as more flexible and conciliatory than the ancien regime.

Public relations about “harmonious governance” aside, there are no concrete signs that the CCP leadership has relaxed strict control over intellectuals and dissidents within China – or that it is offering a substantive olive branch to democrats in Hong Kong or pro-independence elements in Taiwan. Following the Central Committee Resolution’s line that “the principle of the party management of the media must be upheld,” CCP commissars and censors earlier this month closed down a number of popular academic websites run by Beijing-based scholars and students. Peking University journalism professor Jiao Guobiao, who became famous for penning a diatribe against the CCP Propaganda Department last spring, was forbidden to teach for at least one year. Surveillance on disgraced cadres who had opposed the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, such as Bao Tong, the secretary of former party boss Zhao Ziyang, has remained very tight.

Meanwhile, there has been no slowdown in intensive preparation for a possible “liberation warfare” against Taiwan. CMC Vice-Chairman and Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan spoke last week about the imperative of civilian economic sectors being always ready to serve wartime needs. For example, General Cao said, the vast transport and communications establishment must steel itself for a “military struggle” against unnamed enemies. He also cited one of the favorite slogans of Chairman Mao Zedong: “We must uphold the synthesis of peace and war, and interchangeability between soldiers and civilians.” And should the CCP leadership put the entire country on a military footing, the suppression of internal dissent would be more vigorous than ever.