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China Set To Usher In New Era Amidst Growing Demands For Reform

The 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress opens Thursday to elect the nation's new leaders as China's political and economic influence continues to rise.

Article illustrative image Partner logo Tiananmen Square, Beijing

BEIJING - In choosing its opening date as Nov. 8, two days after the American elections, the Chinese Communist Party Congress, a closed-door primary with results decided in advance, runs the risk of some embarrassing comparisons.

Yet even though the Chinese people have no voice in choosing their rulers, it does not keep them from taking a keen interest in the transition at the top.

This is the first time that the candidate for party secretary general was not chosen by one of the founding fathers of the regime, as Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were by Deng Xiaoping. The succession ritual is also taking place at a time when calls for political reform have never been more strident. Although it has shrewdly adapted with the times and uses sophisticated means of control, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is confronting a legitimacy crisis. Challenges to its rule are growing, criticism is virulent, and the credibility of its anti-corruption struggle has been eroding.

The changing of the guard in November should lead to a replacement of the top leadership in the party, including the supreme group, the Permanent Committee. Only two of the current members will be reconfirmed, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. These heirs apparent will accede to the posts of president and prime minister of the People's Republic in March 2013, when the Chinese parliament sits.

The choice of the other future members of the party's Permanent Committee has been the focus of intense speculation. One of the surprises of the 18th Party Congress could be the reduction of the Permanent Committee to seven seats, compared to the current nine.

"The nine-member system was an anomaly due to a last-minute decision by Jiang Zemin in 2002 at the 16th Congress. He wanted to put Jia Qinglin and Huang Ju, two men close to him, on the Permanent Committee," explains Willy Lam, professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Traditionally there were five or seven members, which is better for discussions and decision-making."

Moreover, the responsibility for propaganda and public security, which includes the justice department, could be given to the political bureau, which ranks below the Permanent Committee. This would avoid the problem of those domains becoming fiefs of those who control them. The current heads of the Permanent Committee, Li Changchun and Zhou Yongkang, are the two most unpopular Chinese leaders, according to Mr. Lam.

Similar hopes for change were felt in 2002, when there was a power transition from Jiang Zemin, associated with the 1989 Tiananmen repression, to the duo of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. The two have tried to limit the market economy's most damaging effects by promoting greater social justice. More efforts were made to enforce the rule of law, but these efforts have been limited by the Party's monopoly of the legal system; Chinese lawyers advocating for the rule of law have been persecuted.

Urgent reforms

Now the urgency of political reform is preoccupying the leadership. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has been saying so since 2010, in astonishingly explicit terms. "Political reform" is a term that has been tarnished by party jargon, where it often means only administrative reform. But it also implies a controlled democratization of the government, in the spirit of the reforms launched in the 1980s by then party leaders Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, before they were halted by the repression of 1989.

"The past 30 years of reform and opening have led to a major gap between economic development and the political system.  It is a contradiction," says economist Mao Yushi, well known in China for his books on the market economy and for his stance in favor of political liberalization. "All the problems we have with the economy are due to the lag in the political system. This is what most people think. So I believe we are at the beginning of a time when reforms become inevitable."

This feeling has surfaced several times recently in the official press. For example, a column published on Oct. 16 by the Central Committee's magazine Qiushi, whose name literally means truth-seeker, urges "energetic progress toward restructuring the political system." The article warned that China was at a "historical turning point," where "standing still or going backwards are not options."

At the beginning of September, Deng Yuwen, assistant editor-in-chief of Xuexu Shibao (Study Times), the weekly newspaper for the Party's central school, assessed the departing administration in harsh terms. Among the 10 problems that urgently need solutions from the new leaders, Deng noted that "the moral and ideological systems established during the revolutionary period are close to collapse," and that the rule is "the pursuit of profit without any moral reference." 

He says the most pressing problem the Party faces is "a legitimacy crisis" brought about by its incapacity to halt "the growing gap between rich and poor," as well as by "corruption."

"The essence of democracy is the way in which the power of the government is restrained.  This is why today’s China needs democracy so badly. A monopoly of power without checks and balances is the cause of many of our social problems." Deng Yuwen's essay caused a great stir in China. It was soon censured, but not before it was picked up by the website Caixin, one of the most influential news media in China.

“Get rich and shut up”

"You might say that the necessity of political reform has become a consensus in China," believes Xiong Peiyun, an intellectual. "But the people cannot make it happen. The opening of China to the world, or of the world to China, is all very well, but the problem is China opening to itself!" Xiong is alluding to the closed political system, which allows no opposition. The tacit social contract after Tiananmen-- prosperity above all in return for no political discussion, as in the phrase "Get rich and shut up!"-- is no longer widely accepted.  The legal, economic, and environmental insecurity caused by the Chinese method of government is resented by the population.

No one, moreover, shuts up these days in China. The blogosphere has become a real outlet for public opinion, which the authorities, unable to muzzle it, have had to tolerate. The issue is not that the government is "too big" compared to a small market sector or to society, says Xiong Peiyun. The problem is that "the party is too big." This explains Wen Jiabao's weakness. Although he is nominally head of the government, his real power is extremely limited.

With its millions of party cells, its secret directives, and the allegiance which every administration has to give it, the Chinese Communist Party has created a very effective method of government, in the sense of fulfilling its own objectives.  By its very nature, it is above discussion, partly opaque, and above the law. The power of the party allows all kinds of abuse.

This is true even though the CCP has largely been modernized, as Mathieu Duchâtel and Joris Zylberman, a scientist and a journalist based in Beijing, explain in their excellent book, Les Nouveaux Communistes chinois (The New Chinese Communists). "The party has tried to adapt its structure to a new social and international environment, while at the same time reforming its relationship to Chinese society," they write. Nevertheless, its aggressive strategies for co-opting party members have created "an environment where the benefits of political docility clearly outweigh the cost of dissidence."

Apparently this is no longer enough. The Bo Xilai affair no doubt has something to do with the change. It highlighted the impunity and predatory behavior of a top leader, Bo Xilai, who was a "red prince," a son of one of Mao's early companions. He is currently awaiting trial for massive corruption and abuse of power.  The affair has "shone a bright light on the need for political reform," wrote Hu Shuli, Caixin's editor-in-chief on Oct. 11. "The real lesson we can take from this case is that we need to act as quickly as possible."

Moderate optimism

Although many Chinese commentators speak of reforms, few discuss the nature these reforms might take. The subject remains taboo. In his article, Deng Yuwen proposes putting true local elections in place as quickly as possible. He does add that universal suffrage is neither realistic nor desirable at this stage in China. Deng was violently criticized on the Internet for this remark. In pro-democracy circles, optimism is only moderate.

"The CCP does not have the people's interests at heart. Everyone knows this. And the CCP cannot change itself," says Mao Yushi, the economist, who has a large audience in China. "In the long term, reform means abandoning the one-party system. Even if there were someone in China like Chiang Ching-kuo (Chiang Kai-shek's son, who tolerated the beginnings of Taiwanese democracy), he would not have enough power to impose reform. The main obstacles are the interest groups. Something outside the party will be needed to force it to evolve."

What should we expect from Xi Jinping, China’s future number one? On Oct. 23, the Xuexi Shibao published a long article by professor Song Xiongwei on the manner in which Singapore's People's Action Party, founded by Lee Kuan Yew fifty years ago and still in power, governs the country. "The reason the party maintains power is linked to the reforms they carried out themselves in regard to politics, the economy, social governance, and especially the method used to attain a government motivated by the idea of public service."

The Communist leaders have always viewed the Singaporean model favorably. In 2008, the party's central school, whose then-president was Xi Jinping, sent a study group to Singapore. In an article published in the school's weekly newspaper, the group discussed what it had learned from its stay. Members of the group wrote that they "felt a boundless admiration for the country," noted Duchâtel at the time in the magazine Perspectives chinoises.

"The Chinese are favorably impressed with the limited separation of power in Singapore." The group found that Singapore’s small political parties allow the population to "satisfy their desire to exercise a certain amount of control over the power of the majority party, creating a channel by which the population can express its dissatisfaction with the majority party, and thus diminish its anger toward that party." The group also liked the way in which Singapore "resolved the problem of corruption without recourse either to democracy or to control of the press, which is alert to every scandal."

Can Singapore's city-state model of moderate authoritarianism be applied to the Chinese continent? The proposition is worth considering. 

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This leading French daily newspaper Le Monde ("The World") was founded in December 1944 in the aftermath of World War II. Today, it is distributed in 120 countries. In late 2010, a trio formed by Pierre Berge, Xavier Niel and Matthieu Pigasse took a controlling 64.5% stake in the newspaper.

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