The “Latin-Americanization” of China’s Domestic Politics

The good news is that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has finally recognized the need to rein in the exploitative practices of the “new classes” in Chinese society. The theme of the recently concluded plenary session of the CCP Central Committee, “Constructing a Harmonious Socialist Society,” indicated that the party and government leadership will no longer stand idly by when “disadvantaged sectors”—peasants and migrant workers—are being bullied by the “new classes”—business interests that are often collaborating with corrupt officials. The bad news, however, is that President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have once again chosen insufficient measures to deal with the challenges instead of more effective and comprehensive steps such as political liberalization.

The concept of “Socialist Harmony with Chinese Characteristics” is central to the statecraft of the Hu-Wen team. It is intimately tied to many of the populist slogans that the Fourth Generation leaders have coined since coming to power in November 2002, including “put people first,” “pursue a scientific theory of development,” “construct new socialist villages” and “raise the party’s governance ability.” These rallying cries stem from Hu’s realization that the CCP’s mandate of heaven is being jeopardized by growing schisms, if not full-fledged class warfare, in Chinese society. The “unholy alliance” between the fast-rising business sector, on the one hand, and the opportunistic cadres on the other, has spawned a new class that has carved out for itself a disproportionately big share of the pie.

The “Latin-Americanization” of China—a label that has been popular with Western Sinologists since the late 1990s—is by no means a far-fetched phenomenon. In fact, it is now being used more and more frequently by Chinese commentators. Take, for example, the views of experts at the Central Party School (CPS), which doubles as a public-policy think tank for the Hu team. Professor Wu Zhongmin pointed out earlier this month that while China is going through a “golden era of development,” it is also facing “a period of exacerbated contradictions” among disparate power blocs and social groupings. Wu, who heaped lavish praise on Hu’s “harmonious society” concept, warned that China could become like “some countries in Latin America if [the leadership] fails to come up with appropriate measures” (People’s Daily, October 4). Another CPS academic, Xin Ming, noted that the goal of harmony presupposed benevolent and symbiotic interactions among China’s disparate interest blocs. “Different groups can realize the goal of win-win or become multiple winners,” he said, adding that these blocs can, through cooperation, “make the cake bigger so that each can have a bigger share” (People’s Daily, September 27).

To address this challenges, the Central Committee plenum adopted a landmark “Resolution on Certain Major Questions Concerning the Construction of a Socialist Harmonious Society.” It spelled out specific measures for narrowing the rich-poor gap, as well as that between the rich coastal region and the disadvantaged, primarily rural hinterland. These have included mechanisms to lower the exorbitantly high education, housing and health-care costs that peasants as well as urban workers have to contend with. Moreover, the Central Committee discussed the ways and means to curb the growth of “groups with special interests and privileges,” a euphemism for the business sectors that enrich themselves through preying upon the public. As renowned Chinese Academy of Social Sciences sociologist Lu Xueyi noted, “Special interest groups easily emerge at a time when the structure of the market economy is far from perfected.” As examples, Lu cited largely state-held conglomerates that enjoy monopolistic powers in areas such as energy, transport and telecommunications (Wen Wei Po, October 5).

Moreover, the CCP leadership pledged that economic development would be pursued in tandem with safeguarding social justice. Central Committee members, particularly those from the central and western provinces, urged that legal and other means be used to ensure that all social sectors and groups are able to count on “equality in [socio-economic] rights, equality in opportunities, equality in [the degree to which they are being protected or constrained by] regulations and equality in distribution [of national resources].” Thus, in addition to setting up a social security net, the Hu leadership is thrashing out a mechanism to enhance social justice (Xinhua, October 7). To this end, the Central Committee vowed for the first time to create a level-playing field by “constructing scientific and efficient mechanisms for mediating among different interest [groupings] and for handling contradictions [among them]” (Xinhua, October 19).

Yet even as the CCP attempts to play the role of a fair mediator or arbiter, many of its party factions and senior cadres have become patrons as well as joint-venture partners of semi-monopolistic business groups and other interest blocs. To dissociate the party from powerful commercial conglomerates, the Hu-led Politburo decided in mid-year to launch a nationwide anti-corruption campaign, which climaxed in the dismissal of Shanghai party secretary and Politburo member Chen Liangyu last month. Shanghai, whose streets seem to be paved with gold, offers the best opportunities for businessmen—especially those in the real estate and securities fields—to make obscenely high profits thanks to their sterling connections with corrupt local officials. After Chen’s disgrace, dozens of other provincial officials have also been arrested for colluding with real-estate businessmen in property-related racketeering. Isolated actions to penalize high-ranking corrupt officials, however, cannot whitewash the CCP’s large-scale involvement in businesses that at times take advantage of society’s disadvantaged sectors.

The big question, therefore, remains: Can a harmonious society be constructed in the absence of democracy, or at least a pluralized socio-political structure? On the issue of political reform, the plenum resolution merely repeated the well-known cliché: “We will expand [ways in which] citizens take part in politics in an orderly manner.” During the past year, both Hu and Premier Wen have reiterated that “Western” democratic ideas and practices are unsuitable for China, and that most Chinese lack the economic and educational standards to experiment with institutions such as universal-suffrage elections. To forestall criticism from Western governments and scholars, however, members of Hu’s think tanks have claimed that the CCP is open-minded enough to learn from the socialist-democratic parties in Europe.

CPS sociologist Qing Lianbin alleged that there were similarities between Hu’s views on social justice on the one hand, and principles advocated by socialist democratic parties in Europe on the other. Qing noted that in Western Europe, quite a few political parties championed the precepts of ensuring that citizens would have “equality in the starting points [of their careers], equality during the process [of competition], and equality [regarding opportunities for achieving] results” (China News Service, October 7).

Qing and other Hu publicists, however, have failed to mention that in Western Europe, it is only through democratic systems and institutions, including multi-party politics and the liberal media, that social justice is guaranteed and exploitative “special interest groups” can be reined in. The bitter Chinese reality was illustrated graphically on October 8, when the plenary session opened at the well-guarded Xijiao Hotel, a People’s Liberation Army facility in western Beijing. Dozens of members from disadvantaged sectors—mostly peasants with grievances against either corrupt officials or unscrupulous businessmen—had gathered there to try to deliver petitions to Central Committee members; they were all taken away by police and paramilitary People’s Armed Police officers (Ming Pao, October 9).

For decades, CCP leaders ranging from Mao and Deng to ex-president Jiang Zemin and Hu have taken “stability” and “harmony” to mean the entire country subserviently toeing the line from the CCP’s dominant faction. After sacking Shanghai’s party secretary Chen, President Hu is certainly much better positioned to fill top central and regional posts with more of his protégés. Another key theme of the just-finished party plenum was the discussion of personnel movements in the run-up to the 17th CCP Congress next year, which will elect a new Central Committee, Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). To some extent, the Hu-Wen leadership will observe the CCP’s long-standing tradition of picking younger leaders from the proverbial “five lakes and four seas.” This means that for the sake of stability—and harmony—even cliques competing with Hu’s dominant Communist Youth League Faction will be awarded at least a token number of slots in the Central Committee and Politburo.

For the same reason of maintaining a façade of unity to the outside world, Hu has for the foreseeable future decided not to incriminate another cadre with as high a rank as Shanghai’s Chen. This is despite the rising expectations among cadres and ordinary Chinese alike that the CCP leadership should adopt a comprehensive anti-graft campaign. Since the 1990s, widespread rumors and allegations have linked two PBSC members—Executive Vice-Premier Huang Ju and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Chairman Jia Qinglin—to real estate and other rackets in the cities of Shanghai and Beijing. Both Huang, a former Shanghai party boss, and Jia were close to the Shanghai Faction led by ex-president Jiang. Political analysts in Beijing said, however, that Hu was able to remove Chen only with the acquiescence of Shanghai Faction-affiliated Politburo Standing Committee members. Moreover, as long as Huang and Jia agree to step down at the 17th CCP Congress—and not interfere with his plans to elevate his protégés to the top—Hu will observe the rules of “intra-party harmony” and allow let them to quietly retire next year.