“China’s outgoing leader and his likely successor are pushing the ruling Communist Party to adopt a more democratic process this month for choosing a new leadership in an attempt to boost its flagging legitimacy in the eyes of the public,” Reuters reports:
President Hu Jintao and his heir, Xi Jinping, have proposed that the party’s 18th Congress, which opens on Thursday, should hold elections for the elite Politburo where for the first time there would be more candidates than available seats, said three sources with ties to the party leadership. The Politburo, currently 24 members, is the second-highest level of power in China from which the highest decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, is chosen.
The “unprecedented” reform is an indication that the ruling Communist Party “is struggling to maintain its popular legitimacy in the face of rising inequality, corruption and environmental degradation,” observers suggest.
“This is a very, very important development,” said Cheng Li, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“It would provide a new source of legitimacy. It would not just be dark-box manipulation … The party’s legitimacy is so low that they must do something to uplift the public’s confidence.”
China’s Gini coefficient, a key indicator of inequality, will remain “dangerously” high for the coming decade, said Li Shi, dean of Beijing Normal University’s China Institute of Income Distribution. The gauge will stay around 0.5, above the 0.4 risk level for triggering social unrest.
Party reformers are showing signs of anxiety that the performance-based legitimacy underpinning China’s authoritarian model is fraying.
“The next administration doesn’t have a lot of time to dilly-dally,” said James McGregor, author of the book “No Ancient Wisdom, No Followers: The Challenges of Authoritarian Capitalism,” published this month. “To keep this economy going and keep this restive population happy, reform is the only answer. The party’s entire legitimacy is based on growth and making people’s lives better.”
China analysts believe that inner party democratization would likely benefit party reformists, including Wang Yang, Guangdong party chief, and Li Yuanchao, head of the CCP’s powerful organization department.
“It gives back a chance to leaders like Wang Yang or even Li Yuanchao to get elected, provided – and this is a big if – they are included on the candidacy list,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a Chinese politics expert at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Wang, “who has cultivated a following by denouncing ‘entrenched interests’ and promoting individual happiness over party perquisites, remains the reformist camp’s best candidate for counterbalancing the slate of colorless technocrats and conservatives who are likely to dominate the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee,” The New York Times reports:
In addition to a few pilot projects that reduced red tape and shrank an unwieldy bureaucracy, Mr. Wang’s most notable accomplishment was to ease the restrictions that hobble nongovernmental organizations in much of China.
The changes have led to a flowering of local civil society groups, but the reforms appear to have come with some caveats. In Shenzhen, labor rights advocates say they have been dogged by local officials who object to their work and who they say forced seven such groups out of their offices.
But anxiety among Mr. Wang’s followers has been heightened by the impending retirement of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, whose frequent pronouncements on democracy endeared him to liberal dreamers, even if his words proved to be largely empty talk during his 10 years in office.
“Wang Yang has become the main receptacle for the expectations and hopes of China’s reformers,” said Xiao Bin, a public affairs professor at Sun Yat-sen University here in Guangzhou, the provincial capital.
A lifelong party stalwart and a current member of the 25-seat Politburo, Mr. Wang would not be mistaken for a Western-style liberal, The Times notes. He does not call for free elections, and he rarely strays far from the agenda set by Beijing. But at a time when the party apparatus has embraced a clenched-fist approach to news media censorship, rural unrest and demands for social justice, Mr. Wang stands out for his paeans to political liberalization and the virtues of American-style individualism.
“We should eradicate the wrong concept that happiness is a benevolent gift from the party and the government,” he said this year.
Reformists like Wang realize that the status quo is unsustainable, say analysts.
The public’s “very widespread alienation from the leadership” means “a real danger of chaos” if Xi fails to initiate market-driven change, said Ezra Vogel, author of “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China.”
“The new leaders are very aware that their back is to the wall,” said Vogel, a professor emeritus at Harvard University. “There’s such a strong feeling in the country that they need bold reforms and big changes and to attack corruption. A lot of high officials will have to suffer.”
But the inner-party reforms could also benefit conservatives and the leftist factions associated with disgraced neo-Maoist Bo Xilai.
“If you extend the (number of candidates) then the level of uncertainty opens the game up and allows people to compete and maybe coalitions to form within the party,” said Cabestan of Hong Kong Baptist University.
“It opens the game in both directions – for friends of Bo Xilai as well,” he added.
Some observers believe the inner-party factions supporting the status quo will triumph over both radical and reformist elements.
“The men near the top in China don’t want an innovator, a reformer, a boat-rocker like Bo Xilai because their collective interest is to keep the power-elite’s boat afloat,” said Perry Link, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, and co-editor of the “Tiananmen Papers,” an account of the 1989 massacre in Beijing.
Reformers also confront powerful and wealthy conservative factions with a vested interest in resisting change.
“When everybody had nothing back in the late 1970s, there may have been ideological resistance to reform but there wasn’t personal-property, personal-wealth resistance to reform,” said McGregor. “Now you’ve got a lot of people with millions, tens of millions and even billions of dollars riding on their position. That is an order of magnitude different.”
But China’s authoritarian model has reached its limits, says Tony Saich, a professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
“The defenders of authoritarianism in the developmental phase are really beginning to reach the ends of their arguments,” said Saich, whose program to train senior and mid- level Chinese officials counts Communist Party Organization Department head Li Yuanchao amongst its alumni.
The Communist authorities have cracked down on any sign of dissent in the run-up to the leadership transition.
The regime recently sentenced Cao Haibo, the founder of the Zhenghuahui online network that advocates for constitutional democracy, to several years’ imprisonment for “inciting subversion of state power.”
The judgment was procedurally flawed, said Cao’s lawyer, Ma Xiaopeng.
“Cao’s family members were not informed of the verdict and did not receive a sentencing notice; for them, the whole process was opaque,” he told Human Rights in China (HRIC). The “trial procedure was certainly incorrect.”
Such repression is one reason why many Chinese dissidents remain wary of the reformists’ democratic credentials.
“His words sound sweet to the ears, but they are hollow,” human rights activist Guo Feixiong, who was recently released from a five-year prison term, said of Mr. Wang.
China Digital Times and Human Rights in China are grantees of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.