Democracy with Chinese characteristics

2005-11-09Asia Times

BEIJING - China's burgeoning and at times free-wheeling economy is officially described as "socialism with Chinese characteristics". One could just as well call it "capitalism with Chinese characteristics".

In the same vein, a recent white paper describes China as having a "socialist democracy", that is, "democracy with Chinese characteristics".

The precise nature of these "characteristics", though, is at the center of ongoing debate within the country's leadership, which faces its greatest and most tantalizing dilemma: just as it embraced capitalism, which is anathema to communism, it can stay in power by embracing democracy (in some form) , even though this goes against its core principles.

Reading the signs of Tiananmen
Hours after news of the death on April 15, 1989 of former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chief Hu Yaobang spread through the streets of Beijing, people started blaming some of his colleagues for his demise.

Notes scribbled in small characters were hastily plastered on the bulletin boards of Beijing's main universities, and even over the monument of the People's Hero at the center of Tiananmen Square. These protests grew, culminating in an army crackdown on June 4 at Tiananmen in which hundreds, some say thousands, were killed.

Hu was widely popular for having rehabilitated millions of people purged during the 1957 Anti-Rightist Movement, as well as after the catastrophic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. Hu was sacked in 1987 for apparently leaning towards "Western, bourgeois" principles of democracy, and for indirectly encouraging questioning of the communist system, as well as for pushing economic reforms beyond their intended limits. He was succeeded by Zhao Ziyang.

The 1989 protestors denounced the then prime minister, Li Peng, saying that he had caused Hu the deep unhappiness that led to his being admitted to hospital with a stroke; they blamed paramount leader Deng Xiaoping for not fully backing Hu, despite Hu's total loyalty to Deng; and they poured even greater insults on Zhao, saying he had stabbed Hu in the back.

People argued that Zhao had betrayed Hu twice. The first time was in 1986, when he spearheaded an internal political campaign blaming Hu for student demonstrations in Shanghai and Beijing; the second time was when Zhao had a talk with Hu while the latter was convalescing from his stroke. After this talk, Hu literally died of anger, they say. No one will ever know what was said during the talk, as both protagonists are now dead, yet speculation was rife then, and some people still bring it up.

In 1989, the accusations against Zhao dwindled as the protests grew, and especially after it became clear that Zhao had distanced himself from an April 26 People's Daily editorial accusing the students of being manipulated by "black hands".

Yet suspicion between Hu's and Zhao's followers never entirely disappeared.

Beijing's rumor mill at the time had it that Qiao Shi, a member of the then five-man politburo, abstained in more than one crucial vote relating to the protests, and provided legal reasons for the powerful advisory commission to step in and isolate Zhao. Qiao, formerly very close to Hu, did this out of loyalty to Hu and suspicion of Zhao, according to conventional wisdom.

Zhao was consequently ousted as CCP chief in 1989, and lived under house arrest until his death early this year.

Many more details could be added to this tumultuous period of history, which, without strong documentary evidence, is bound to remain highly controversial. However, the point is not so much about the facts of 1989, but about present politics.

The rise of Hu Jintao
Deng Xiaoping promoted present CCP leader and president, Hu Jintao, (no relation to Hu Yaobang) in 1992, taking the advice of Hu Yaobang's party veteran, Song Ping, who had first singled out Hu Jintao. But it was Hu Yaobang who strongly pushed for the middle-aged cadre to become CCP chief in poor Guizhou province in 1985. Hu Jintao built his career through the Youth League, which remains one of his power bases.

The impression of a close association between the two Hus can be drawn from the career of Zheng Bijian. Zheng served as Hu Yaobang's political adviser in the 1980s, and for nine years he was Hu Jintao's deputy when the latter headed the Central Party School, a decisive position in the process of promotions and training in the communist organization.

These are all hints that give some credibility to reports that Hu Yaobang might now be rehabilitated. The CCP is due to stage a gathering, the first of its kind, on November 20 to mark Hu Yaobang's 90th birth anniversary, but the exact nature of the event and the timing have not been confirmed.

However, contrary reports say that Hu Jintao is no closet liberal, and that he is not keen on relying on Hu Yaobang's people, some of whom have allegedly even been "disgraced".

And there are certainly no actual moves to reverse the CCP's verdict on Tiananmen, namely that the protests were a "counter-revolutionary riot".

What Hu Jintao seems to be doing is drawing a line: rehabilitate Hu Yaobang, but not Zhao Ziyang. By doing so he is passing a complex judgment on Tiananmen, that Hu Yaobang was right, and so were the students mourning for him, but not Zhao.

It might not be accurate to split the two personalities, but the stories about friction between Hu Yaobang and Zhao might explain the reasoning. Whatever the case, the history of Tiananmen is not one of black and white: good and bad are mixed.

By favoring Hu Yaobang and not Zhao, Hu Jintao might also be sending a message abroad, that he wishes to liberalize, but by moving cautiously. Tiananmen is an iimmensly sensitive issue. It was part of a complex power struggle that had started in 1986. Any reassessment of Tiananmen will be a slow and complex process.

Domestically, Hu Jintao's position strikes a balance within the party without irritating the old guard, which is still influential and which 16 years ago was calling for a crackdown, while also nudging political reformers to go ahead. This internal balance is important. If the old guard feels that tinkering with Tiananmen's "history" will put them and their decisions on trial, then they could become restive and stop any political reforms dead in their tracks.

Of morals and legacy
Furthermore, the separation of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang might also affirm a sense of morality. "Did it make sense for Zhao Ziyang to go to Tiananmen and cry, begging the students to go home, while he knew full well that a crackdown had been decided?" people in Beijing still wonder.

Was he trying to convince the students to go home, and then score a political victory over those who claimed nothing could be done other than send in the troops? In sum, was Zhao a tall moral figure or an opportunist? And if he was a little of both, what part was opportunism and what part morality? It is hard to say now, and perhaps it is still too early to pass judgment, but one thing seems certain: Hu Yaobang was morally taller than Zhao.

But this is not simply an issue of morality, it is also one of legacy. In 1987, Hu Yaobang was demoted as CCP chief, but still retained his post in the politburo. This was a sign of loyalty by the party to Hu, recognizing his value although he could no longer hold his former post.

And most importantly, it was a sign of Hu's loyalty to the party: he recognized and accepted the reasons for his demotion and did what the party told him to do. Hu might have had a personal reason for acting as he did, and he might have been right, but he realized that ultimately he had to put the party above his personal motives.

This is what the party, rightly or wrongly, treasures most.

Zhao acted differently. After the Tiananmen crackdown and being stripped of his party post, he was offered a ministerial post, but he turned it down, demanding instead a full-blown reversal of the Tiananmen verdict, something the party was not prepared to do.

Incidentally, Hu Qili also lost his post in the standing committee of the politburo in 1989. Hu Qili accepted a minor post, minister of electronics, as he wanted to preserve the unity of the party.

Zhao might have had plenty of reasons for his attitude, but what the party asked from him was to retract his view and apologize for his errors, in the name of unity. Instead, Zhao endangered the unity of the party, which is the supreme value, even if in the case of Tiananmen he might have been right. Conversely, Hu Yaobang yielded to the party when he could have been arrogant.

Embracing the unthinkable
Zhao's refusal to consider party unity, and the fact that the party didn't recognize Hu's beliefs in time to use him, betrayed a deeper crisis within the CCP.

While there are reasons to uphold party unity, what did the party do to deserve to live on, and what reasons could it give to its members to be proud of it?

Since taking power in 1949, the history of the CCP has been littered with mistakes, and Tiananmen was just another one of them, and not even the most serious. Increasingly, especially after Deng's famous trip to the south in 1992 to relaunch economic reforms, the party had been schizophrenic, and then it found a new legitimacy for being in power: it gained the support of the people by encouraging the transformation of the economy into de facto capitalism, while officially remaining a communist state.

The leaders realized that they could stay in power by advocating policies that were contrary to their very principles.

Of course, the leaders, especially by the early 1990s, were not true believers in communism. They were pragmatic and understood the traditional Chinese political thought that the means to keep power can't be the same as the means to gain power.

This led to the development of the theory of the Three Represents, which became official CCP theory in the late 1990s. In essence, it claims that the party must represent the most advanced forces in society, in culture and in production. Traditionally these forces were the proletariat, subsequently they became entrepreneurs. Tomorrow? We don't know. But what the theory did, and can still do, is give continuity to the party's history and at the same time allow for radical change.

Initially, the theory came from the Central Party School. Its inspiration seems to have been the theory of Antonio Gramsci, the founder of the Italian Communist Party.

During his year in fascist prisons in the 1920s, Gramsci elaborated the idea that the party should model itself on the Prince of Machiavelli. It must embody the spirit of the time and be able to lead change. Gramsci elaborated the idea as a self-criticism for not being able to meet the demands of World War 1 veterans who were spurned by the communists and ended up in the arms of the fascists.

Gramsci thus distanced himself from the idea that the party should only represent the proletariat. The proletariat was one of the forces that represented change, and the new, but it was not alone in that; moreover, conditions of the time had to be considered.

This was, in a nutshell, the idea of the Three Represents.

The theory reconciled Hu Yaobang's party discipline and his drive for change. Furthermore, it revealed that the tradition of Marxism held within it a push for change.

The white paper on democracy, released in October, mentions that political reforms will draw inspiration from Marxist tradition. This seems to indicate the tradition of the Italian Communist Party, which upheld democracy in Italy in the 1970s, even against the threat of the communist Red Brigades; or that of the Marxists from the anti-Stalinist school of Frankfurt, which stirred the European students' movement of the 1960s.

This theory protects the role of the party, but also gives it new reasons to exist. In fact, it gives party members positive reasons for being in the party, and for being proud to be in it.

The memory of Hu Yaobang, and all that he meant and stood for, could be a reason for people to stick with the party, and ultimately trust that it will give China what it expects.

This could well be a form of democracy, even if it has distinctly Chinese characteristics. (2005-11-09 Asia Times)


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