Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (right) said today that he was returning money donated by supporters after exhausting legal channels to contest a huge tax bill widely considered official punishment for his rights activism.
In stark contrast to Ai’s principled commitment, China’s leadership transition will produce a power-hungry elite bereft of ideals, says a former senior Communist Party official.
“There’s no ideology, there’s no socialism, there’s no communism. All that’s left is power,” says Bao Tong, a former aide to CCP General Secretary Zhao Ziyang. The party’s suffocating monopoly on power is stifling prospects for reform, he suggests.
“The party is more powerful than an emperor. No emperor could mobilize and organize 80 million people. Every company and every law court has a party branch. They’re all under the party’s control, including lawyers and newspapers. What emperor could do that?”
“They need to be pro-active,” he says. “If they admit that many mistakes were made in the past, the people would immediately forgive them.”
Tens of thousands of supporters donated funds in solidarity with Ai after the Communist authorities levied a $2.4 million tax bill on his art and design firm. But the dissident artist said he will now return the money to donors after losing a final appeal.
“We have no more options to keep trying. We’ve done what we could, and the court’s decision has been made. So we should repay the money,” Ai said in a phone interview.
One of China’s leading artists, Ai has denounced human rights abuses and urged the Communist authorities to adopt democratic reforms.
The regime is ostensibly committed to promoting local, village-based democracy, but observers and participants alike contend that the measures are largely cosmetic and unlikely to act as a safety valve in the face of growing social tensions.
“Large-scale protests have increased in China, reflecting anger over corruption and the lack of government accountability and transparency – the kind of unrest that experiments in grassroots democracy….were meant to help short-circuit,” Reuters reports:
China has experimented with limited democracy since the 1980s, holding nationwide village chief elections and giving people a voice in low-level government budgeting in some locales.
But China experts say most of these efforts have fizzled because of opposition from within the Communist Party, and that mass protests are still frequent. Some experts such as Sun Liping of Tsinghua University estimate there could have been 180,000 mass protests and riots in China in 2010.
Although the ruling party tries to present itself as a disciplined, unified entity, a behind-the-scenes power struggle is heating up in the run-up to the leadership transition, CDT reports.Intra-party tensions have led the leadership to deny or defer the need for fundamental reform, say China-watchers.
“Most people I know and meet know change is going to happen, but I don’t think anybody knows what kind of change and I don’t think anybody really knows how to initiate change,” said Tony Saich, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
“You can only push a ball down the road so long before it runs out of control.”
Democratic reform would enhance China’s domestic stability and economic development, while reassuring its neighbors, says a leading analyst.
“Government suppression of information has stymied indigenous technological breakthroughs,” while “its system of bureaucratic authoritarianism creates incentives for corruption and repression, as the Bo Xilai drama revealed,” he notes:
Should China become a democracy – in a gradual rather than a revolutionary fashion, giving institutions time to mature – its most pressing challenges would become more manageable. Moreover, the strategic threat the country poses to its neighbours, the US and the global order would also diminish.
A democratic transition could increase popular nationalism, leading to more pressure on China’s leaders to forcibly reunify Taiwan. But it is equally true that a democratic regime in Beijing would be a more appealing interlocutor for Taiwan to consider peaceful reunification.
“In short,” Pilling concludes, “the qualities of China’s autocracy will increasingly constrain its ascent. China’s rise over coming decades may actually require a democratic opening. Such an opening would, in turn, pave the way for China’s elevation to the top tier of global politics.”
Pressure is building outside the party too, says Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College in California.
“That’s a political reality we cannot ignore,” he said, adding China’s new leaders must push through reforms or pay a high price.
“If they don’t push, where they end up is lots and lots of Wukans, lots and lots of Shifangs and Qidongs,” he said, listing sites of recent large violent protests.
China Digital Times is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.