One for the history books

2002-11-08Asia Times

BEIJING - In the official textbooks all Chinese Communist Party congresses are historic, almost by definition. Summoned every five years, shrouded in secrecy, and occasionally interrupted by extraordinary plenums of the central committee, the congresses set the course of China for half a decade.

Yet while they were important to China, they didn't really matter to much of the rest of the world. Despite the size of its population, until the 1990s China did not have much weight in world affairs. However, its recent and lasting economic growth has placed China in a position impossible to overlook (see Another China: The awakened giant (, October 31), so the 16th Party Congress that begins on Friday is more historically significant than its predecessors, as it is the first one of truly global importance.

This is even more so for two reasons:

1. It will be the first time the Communist Party of China has carried out a seamless succession. In the cases of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the successions were accompanied by power struggles that left many people dead. The Cultural Revolution or the Tiananmen Movement were parts of those power struggles. Now, however, the party is showing itself to have reached a level of unprecedented internal cohesion.

2. The next generation of leaders will stay in power for the next five or 10 years. During that time China's economy is expected to continue its rapid growth, overtaking the size of any European national economy. Thus China will become the largest economy on the planet next to Japan and the United States, and this will in turn create new issues with Japan, the US and the world as a whole.

If China manages to continue its growth successfully without getting embroiled in political wrangles with other powers in the next 10 years, then Beijing can plan with some confidence on a path of continuous economic expansion for many more years. This could eventually lead to ordinary Chinese enjoying the same material benefits as their counterparts in developed countries.

This implies careful diplomacy and even more careful management of the domestic economy. However, the paramount issue is the domestic stability that both conservatives and progressives in the Party believe is the mainstay. And recent years have not been free of political threats to stability. In 1999 the central government felt threatened by the protests of the Falungong spiritual movement. If a threat of this kind had popped up or was perceived even as recently as 10 or 15 years ago, the country would have been plunged into political unrest that would have caused great stress to society and the economy. This actually occurred during the early 1980s with the campaign against spiritual pollution, and 10 years later after the Tiananmen crackdown. But the curbing of Falungong took place without much impact on society or the economy. Many people disagreed with the crackdown but steered away from confronting the government on the issue and were left in peace. In the past the Party would not have tolerated this kind of skeptical abstention, but would have pressed for active support.

The political leadership has thus managed to achieve greater effectiveness in pursuing its goals while actively shrinking its power. The government in principle will (a) leave the people alone, as long as they do not confront the central authorities, and (b) try to make sure that politics will facilitate the economy and not obstruct it.

Furthermore, new sets of domestic and internationally binding regulations put growing constraints on the leeway of the government at any level. The accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) is the most vivid example of this: at every level China is actively trying to adapt to WTO rules that reduce the room for maneuver of the central and local authorities. It might not yet be rule of law, as in many cases the central government issues regulations to improve its exercise of power, but it is no longer only rule by law, as many laws, especially if internationally approved, limit the scope of action of the government.

These restrictions are self-imposed, that is, there is no clear division of power limiting the arbitrary discretion of the government, yet there are strong domestic and foreign economic constituencies pressing to defend their interests with the government. The government is therefore pulled in many opposite directions by contrasting interests and it has moreover accepted the idea of trying to do things according to transparent rules. Open differing interests and laws are the two pillars of modern democracy, and as China has accepted these two pillars it has accepted modern democracy.

Yet it has become clear, especially in the past five to seven years, that reforms won't be a party for everybody: many will lose out or will be left out of the sun. In other words what we may call capitalism will develop according to its own rules - there will be rich and poor people side by side, and farewell to the hypocritical Maoist egalitarian system that distributed the same tiny salary to everybody but allotted different perks throughout a very hierarchical society. In other words, Chinese society is changing from a feudal system to a modern one. But while in the first years of reform everybody was benefiting, now millions have lost their jobs in the cities or are being expelled from the countryside. This gigantic historical and social change could easily lead to a new communist revolution that would throw China back into the past, if social protests find political leadership.

Therefore the Chinese leadership has to deal with two contrasting demands:

1. It needs to give a consistent and unconfusing voice to the different economic needs in society. Therefore it needs different political entities to represent different interests.

2. It needs to keep the political arena united to avoid a revolution.

In principle this dilemma is being solved by trying to represent all differing interests within the Party. As we reported more than a year ago (Jiang's party turns a brighter shade of red (, September 12, 2001) this congress will for the first time experiment with bringing more democracy into the selection of its leadership. For the first time a large number of the Central Committee (CC) members will be elected by fellow congressmen from a shortlist that will have more people than available posts. In other words some people, though shortlisted, will end up with no position. This experiment could be further expanded in importance and scope in the next years and could lead to full-fledged democracy, by basically having different parties springing out of the one Party.

This system in the next months leading to the plenary session of the National People's Congress (NPC) could make high-to-medium-ranking leaders' lives quite hectic, as every position in the CC corresponds to a post in a ministry or in a province. As many posts in the CC are undecided, positions in the ministries and provinces will be settled only after the congress. In the past, basically everything was done during the congress. This process could also lead to the beginning of a greater separation between the state (ruled by the NPC) and the Party.

The issues confronting the Party are basically the same ones confronting every modern state torn between the requirement to represent different interests and maintaining the unity of the country and avoiding violent domestic clashes. China, however, has to do this in the midst of great historic transformations, while furthering development and trying to avoid cleavages with its past, which legitimizes the present leadership and thus also the present reforms.

Can the new leaders do it? The record of the recent past should give us some optimism. (2002-11-08 Asia Times)


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