Smaller organizations may spur political evolution

Asia Times

BEIJING - There will surely be more democracy in China after the 16th Congress of the Communist Party next year. But as fierce debate rages among the leadership about the degree of democracy to be allowed, there is a deeper cause for concern in smaller social organizations challenging the Communist Party's monopoly.

Besides the Party, which is by far the largest social organization in China with almost 70 million members, there are other groups attempting to expand in the country. First are the religious organizations that can be roughly divided into two: traditional groups and the new religions. Among the traditional religions, various Protestant associations are growing very quickly, and particularly active are some Chinese interpretations of the Christian message. These, however, are only loosely organized and do not have a united leadership. The only theoretical exception to this pattern are the Catholics of the underground church, who, despite official unity under the Roman Pope are also divided between moderates and radicals. Their growth is far behind that of their Protestant counterparts. These new organizations have also taken extreme measures during protests extremely embarrassing to the Party such as staging demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Despite these protests, these organizations do not represent a massive threat to the Party.

In contrast, the new religions - of which the Falungong is the most famous - are tightly organized and possess underground networks, and are thus most feared by the government. Yet their cultish profile often makes it hard for many people to accept them. The latest in a series of Falungong doomsdays is now set at the year 2007, a date which strangely coincides with the 17th Party Congress when President Jiang Zemin is due to definitely retire from all posts. The Falungong is a direct challenge to the Party by having infiltrated it, and now the Falungong's people are being treated as political enemies. However, the Falungong challenge is now considered to be under control, their rank and file is shrinking, and they are no longer recruiting large numbers of new followers.

Another waning threat is that of the underground workers' unions opposing ongoing economic reforms that have laid off millions in the past four years. Their ability to mount effective protests declined in 2000 from peaks in 1999 and 1998. In fact, reforms have been setting in and these unions have been partly acknowledged by local authorities who have dealt with their leaders on a case-by-case basis. Coupled with the fact that these smaller organizations have not been able to attract intellectually sophisticated leaders, the authorities' minor concessions have impeded any real growth in these groups.

A much more serious threat is being posed by groups that until recently were underestimated - the triads, or "the black societies", as they are called in China. Police, army, and Party cadres have either been corrupted by them or have actively joined them. In the past year or so, when Beijing launched a series of campaigns against triads in several provinces, local gangs successfully used local state security agents (anquan ju) against national state security (anquan bu) investigations. Furthermore, the degree of reliability and trust among triad members is extremely high, far exceeding loyalty among Party members. Money-laundering takes place inside China itself with single people taking coffers of cash from the south to loosely-controlled Xinjiang or Inner Mongoliais banks.

As opposed to the Italian Mafia, which is largely based on family relations, Chinese triads are mostly knit together by friendship or common origin in a way that resembles the recruiting of Party members before 1949 or associations of bandits as seen in novels like The Water Margin. The drive for the success of the organization is sometimes even stronger than the drive for personal profit in these triads. There are also some overlapping features with religious organizations, especially new ones, that bolster the group. There is no national leadership and possibly not even a single gang commanding province-wide clout. However, their network is very efficient, enabling them to strike far from their home turf, and in some particular areas they are so deeply-ingrained into local society that it hampers any effective law enforcement.

In the past, the Party tried to limit triad development within certain levels. However, the growing arrogance of some local bosses who were also local party leaders spurred the Party to take action. The local triad power is a serious worry to the widening scope of local elections. In fact, a well-grounded triad gang could expand its influence and reach even to a national level thanks to local elections that the gang can rig or simply control. The expansion of triad power is against the interests of the Party and for once, international public opinion is willing to agree with anti-triad sentiment.

Making matters more complicated is the fact that there are growing interests without specific organizations. Those are the interests of various companies, both small and large, or different ministries or localities whose ambitions clash with each other. Those interests, despite what we could call their "capitalist nature", are expressed and settled through exhausting consensus processes within the Party.

The Party is thus interested in finding faster ways to reach decisions about its internal clash of interests and wants to move for some kind of expansion of democracy. The objective nature of the existing organizations in China, with its triads and cults, makes choices difficult. If the Party expands its internal democracy but the ensuing debate tears the party apart, then cults and triads would surface, gaining power and thus making China far more unstable. However, the Party could also be torn apart by oppressing internal debate. Triads could gain power in this case as well. Too fast and too slow are opposite risks, but there seems to be no way out for democracy without the existing Party, which, despite its de facto "capitalist" policies, still calls itself Communist. (2001-05-15 Asia Times)


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