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Society & Culture

China’s Political Development at a Crossroad

May 25, 2012

This past year has been the worst of times and the best of times for China's political development. Less than a year before China's decennial transfer of power among its top leadership, that elite world was rattled by a disturbing episode of scandal, corruption and political murder in Chongqing, one of China’s largest and most important cities. Yet, like a flower pushing up through the cement cracks, a small beacon of democracy arrived in the fishing village of Wukan in Guangdong province, which proposes an antidote to the poison of corruption that threatens to harm Chinese society and its remarkable economic development. These two events, one in Wukan and the other in Chongqing, represent the crossroad at which China finds itself, struggling to find its path forward for the next 10 years.

The fall of princeling Bo Xilai, Communist Party boss of Chongqing, is a sordid tale that has opened a crack into the shadowy world of Chinese elites today. Several years ago, officially scorned former prime minister Zhao Ziyang warned, shortly before his death, that China had become dominated by a small power elite. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), said Zhao, is ruled by "a tightly-knit interest group . . . in which the political elite, the economic elite, and the intellectual elite are fused. This power elite blocks China's further reform and steers the nation's policies toward service of itself."

In a country in which nearly a billion people are still poor, and many of the local Communist Party honchos have attained their wealthy status through land grabs of poor people's property that they then sold at exorbitantly inflated prices to speculators, resentment is breeding at an alarming rate. According to Chinese sociology professor Sun Liping, there were 180,000 “mass incidents” – everything from strikes to riots and demonstrations – in 2010, twice as many as in 2006, many of them protesting land grabs.

But China is a paradoxical place, one where the last 10 years under the administration of President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao have seen a solid improvement in the living conditions of millions of everyday people. That, plus the risks of harassment and even imprisonment by CCP authorities for mounting any form of protest, causes many Chinese to prefer to view matters like the Chongqing scandal as something that happens among the gods on top of holy Mount Tai Shan. And China is certainly not the only major country that is ruled by "a tightly knit interest group" of political and economic elites. The global economic collapse of 2008 that began on Wall Street was caused by excessive elite influence over the American political process that led to massive deregulation of the financial industry. When combined with the subsequent failure to re-regulate Wall Street and its highflying ways that provides tragic testament to the stunted nature of American democracy and governance.

But what remains additionally troubling about the Chinese version of elite rule is how secretive it all still is. Much of the reportage of this sequestered world, whether from Chinese sources or Western journalists, often has to speculate about what's going on behind the scenes. No one seems to know, for example, how the top leaders of the 25 member Politburo, or of the highest executive nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, are selected; no one seems to know exactly how the already-picked successors to Hu and Wen, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, were plucked for these posts; no one seems to really know to what extent the Chinese military, the PLA, is in control of the civilian leadership or vice versa. While the leadership class exhibits many of the hallmarks of an aristocracy, it’s also a meritocracy to some degree, in which the princelings often are highly educated men of science and technology that run their economic fiefdoms like CEOs. Fortunately for China, some of these leaders have proven to be both competent managers as well as corrupt.

The Rumblings of Wukan

Yet despite the pre-democratic, quasi-medieval condition of its political system, China keeps uncovering the green shoots of an alternative future. The most recent one is in the fishing village of Wukan, which is only a three hour drive from Shenzhen, the famous city that has been at the heart of China’s experiments with free enterprise.

Wukan, with only 13,000 residents, became internationally known as the location of anti-corruption protests that broke out in September 2011. The protests began after local officials sold land to real estate developers without properly compensating the villagers. The protests strengthened after one of the villagers died in police custody under suspicious circumstances. The furious protestors forcefully evicted local Communist Party officials and police from the village, leading to a blockade of the village by police. In December 2011 a thousand police laid siege to the village, preventing food and goods from entering, but the locals held strong. Finally the Communist Party chief of Guangdong province, Wang Yang, intervened and agreed to the villagers’ demand to hold a local election to resolve the leadership dispute. The election in Wukan in early January was free and fair by Chinese standards, and the villagers elected a leader of the protests to the post of village Party chief, replacing the corrupt CCP leader and his cronies who had held that position for 42 years.

Some have said Wukan is an important model in the fight over illegal land transactions, which are still rampant throughout China. The popular Chinese novelist and blogger Han Han, who has been skeptical about prospects for democracy, said in an interview “In Wukan’s case, I see the light on the road to China’s future democracy.” Contrary to conventional wisdom, China already holds more elections than any other nation in the world. Under the Organic Law of the Village Committees, all of China's approximately one million villages — home to some 600 million voters — hold elections every three years for local village committees. Critics scoff at these local elections, saying they are controlled by the local CCP which decides most of the candidate nominations, and often doesn’t even allow a secret ballot or independent oversight or review of the election.

But other researchers who have studied these local elections say an increasing number of them have been growing more competitive, with the use of the secret ballot becoming more common. For those elections where there have been independent candidates and democratic safeguards, researchers claim to have evidence of positive impacts, such as decreases in corruption and the tossing out of old CCP hacks. So Wukan was only the latest of a number of elections that have shown hopeful signs.

Others say that the impact of Wukan and other local elections has been minimal and that its impact may be limited in part because high-ranking officials are afraid of what too much democracy might unleash, including upon their own careers. The provincial party chief, Wang Yang, who permitted the election to go forward, has gone out of his way to downplay the impact.

“A lot of people believe that the resolution of the problem at Wukan was the opening of a new channel and a foreshadowing of political reform,” said Mr. Wang. “But the elections were held according to the organization rules of the village and the election regulations of Guangdong province. There was nothing new about this.”

Mr. Wang has been careful not to alarm the central government in Beijing or top party leaders, which no doubt is smart considering the fate of Zhao who was accused of allowing the forces that led to Tiananmen Square to spiral out of control, and ended his career in political exile.

Nevertheless, surveys show widespread popular support for elections. In a recent survey, 84% of respondents agreed with having elections for national leaders. Professor Xinjun Gao, a Senior Researcher at the China Center for Comparative Politics & Economics, says “China's democratization process has been underway and it cannot stop. That's because democracy is a natural law, a core part of development of a society. If the Communist Party wants to stay in power, it must allow gradual democratization because the market economy cannot solve all things.”

Democratic authoritarianism?

But the Chinese people themselves seem to have conflicting opinions about democracy. In that same poll about having elections for national leaders, only 16% agreed with having multiparty competition. Many Chinese citizens support both the general idea of democracy as well as many attributes of authoritarianism – and they hold these views without an apparent sense of contradiction, says Shi Tianjian, writing in the book How East Asians View Democracy. Chinese attitudes reflect an attachment to "paternalistic meritocracy,” which seems to value economic well-being over political freedoms. This is the basis for China's version of an enlightened and consultative dictatorship, a system that has components of government for the people — by elites — rather than government by the people, writes Professor Daniel Bell, a Canadian academic at Tsingua University in Beijing. China's rulers claim their authority is rooted within a new and higher form of popular government, a “post-democratic” way of handling power, which delivers goods and services and promotes social harmony. So if the Chinese government “serves the people,” it must be “democratic.”

Despite the critics, key figures of the current Chinese leadership, which is about to step down as part of the decennial changing of the guard, have often spoken favorably about the potential of democracy. In a candid press conference in March 2012 that was broadcast live on Chinese state television, prime minister Wen Jiabao referred to Wukan as an example of how democracy could spread in China.

“If a people can run a village well, I like to think that they could run a town, and if they can run a town, they can manage a county,” he said. “We should follow such a road, to encourage people’s bold practice and allow them to receive training…I believe China's democratic system will, in accordance with China's national conditions, develop in a step-by-step way, there is no way to stop this.” 

Mr Wen even went so far as to say that political reform was necessary in order to preserve China’s economic gains and prevent a backwards slide into monstrosities like the Cultural Revolution. He warned that China must change the “leadership structure” of the Communist Party and of the country or risk stagnation and even chaos. Mr Wen warned that the new problems emerging in Chinese society, including a huge wealth gap, endemic corruption and a public distrust of the government, could only be solved with “more economic and political structural reform.”

But Mr. Wen’s critics point out that he has been saying these things for several years yet he has done little to prioritize political reform, choosing instead to focus on the economy. He has also been outflanked by the more conservative leadership factions of the CCP, and his previous speeches about reform even have been blacked out on at least two occasions by his own government. It would seem that the lessons of Tiananmen Square still hang heavily over China.

Liberties, law, microblogs and dating shows

Where Chinese democracy has made its most encouraging gains is at the level of civil society. Jim Fallows, journalist for The Atlantic in the United States and a longtime observer of East Asia and recent resident of Beijing says, “While I don’t see huge amounts of pressure for structural democratic or electoral reforms, I think there is tremendous pressure for greater liberties in China — rule of law, accountability, transparency, legal redress. I think the Bo Xilai case bears on that.”

Indeed, the charges against Gu Kailai, Bo’s wife, for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood,  has prompted demands from both friends and foes of Gu that her trial be a test case for justice in a legal system notorious for secrecy and flouting of the rule of law.

Adam Minter, an American journalist based in Shanghai, says, “The most significant democratizing force in China today is the microblog. It places regular Chinese into intense and often direct conversation with local party leadership, law enforcement etc. There are numerous instances of Chinese officialdom responding and reacting to public opinion on the microblogs, producing a kind of informal direct democracy.”

Digital media like microblogging is how many millions of Chinese are becoming increasingly well informed. The Weibo micro-blogging site is watched closely by the government to gain insights into the country's public opinion. It is estimated that half a billion Chinese now use the Internet, and half of those use micro-blogs, says the Asia Times. Increasingly, Chinese citizens are willing to air their grievances and this has contributed to thousands of spontaneous "mass incidents" in response to local examples of corruption, environmental damage, official abuse and illegal land grabs.

Other “soft” democratic outlets include dating and talent shows that include an audience voting component. But will such “clicktivism” and “couch potato democracy” ever translate into direct social engagement and a demand for a deeper democracy? After 30 years of broad economic reform, China has become a more complex and diverse society. Regional rivalries, corruption, real estate bubbles, serious environmental degradation, job insecurity and low wages, massive rural-urban migration and new social tensions are ongoing features of China’s landscape. As Han Han wrote recently on his popular blog, “You cannot avoid facing the realities of China by using mere words to describe the perfect democracy, the perfect freedom and the perfect human rights. Reform and democracy are negotiation processes.” And negotiation on such a broad societal scale among so many conflicting forces and factors will take many years.

Now, with Prime Minister Wen and President Hu scheduled to retire in the fall, all eyes are on the new leadership, waiting in the wings. This leadership change arguably is more important to the world than the U.S. presidential election which will be happening around the same time. What will the new leaders’ posture be toward their fellow princelings and their abuse of the Chinese system? And what will their approach be toward the Wukans of China, local elections and use of the secret ballot, internal Communist Party elections, and other reforms that have been proposed?

The whole world is waiting to find out.

Steven Hillis a political writer whose more recent books are "Europe's Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age"  and "10 Steps to Repair American Democracy: 2012 Election Edition”

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