Communists Move to Adapt Their Rule to a Richer China

Shoring Up The Wall
Communists Move to Adapt Their Rule to a Richer China
Ways to Air Complaints Ease Pressure on Rulers; Democracy: Not in Sight

Updated Oct. 17, 2007 12:01 a.m. ET

BEIJING — China is the only one of the world’s 10 largest economies that isn’t a multiparty democracy. As the Chinese Communist Party gathers this week for a key meeting, the leadership is fine-tuning its rule to make sure things stay that way.

Over the past 30 years, the party’s historic wager — that delivering stability and economic growth would ensure acceptance of its authoritarian rule — has largely paid off. But China is now a more complex nation, of homeowners and entrepreneurs protective of their new prosperity and in closer touch with the rest of the world. And a widening wealth gap, crumbling social services and environmental degradation have fueled public frustration, especially among the rural majority.

The secretive group of about two dozen people that runs China, the Communist Party’s Politburo, is responding by taking steps to make its rule more accountable to the public. It has also adopted a more-populist approach to government policy, expanding education and health-care programs while still pushing for fast economic growth. At the same time, the Politburo is toughening controls on outright political dissent.
That strategy of gradual adaptation is on display this week at the party’s 17th National Congress, which began Monday. The congress will ratify a platform of policies for the coming five years that emphasizes more-balanced economic growth and cautious institutional reform.

The party will also endorse a reshuffling of the Politburo (short for “Political Bureau”) and of its smaller but supremely powerful Standing Committee, which currently has eight members. In 2012, one of the committee’s new members will probably succeed the current party chief, President Hu Jintao.

The changes in how the party governs aren’t meant to prepare the way for multiparty democracy. On the contrary, they are intended to secure the position of Mr. Hu and his successors as the unchallenged rulers of China. “All this will enable the party to remain a ruling, Marxist party,” Mr. Hu said in a speech this week as he outlined his policies.

If the Communists fail to adapt quickly enough, party officials say, their hold on power could weaken. That could mean more political freedom for China’s 1.3 billion people, or it could lead to greater instability in what will soon be the world’s third-biggest economy after the U.S. and Japan.

Reinforcing the Structure
“They are trying to reinforce the structure, to make the authorities at each level of government more responsive,” says Jing Huang, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. “But they are afraid of uncontrollable consequences if they start to change. So, their ideal is to change little by little.”

If the party succeeds in maintaining its power monopoly, it could defy the post-Cold War conventional wisdom in the West that modern economies need the flexibility of democratic decision-making to ensure long-term success. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin is already testing that view by rebuilding authoritarian rule.

One change afoot in China involves the way laws are made. Until a few years ago, almost every new law was adopted in secret and presented as a fait accompli. Now, many are published in draft form, and some are revised after input from people outside government. This year, a new law on employment was revised after public pressure to include tougher provisions against discrimination in hiring.

Victor Yuan has seen another facet of the party’s adjustments. A former Ministry of Justice official, he founded China’s best-known polling firm in 1992. Much of its initial business was market research for companies. In recent years, the firm, Horizon Group, has been hired by local governments in China to gauge public support for their policies.

“I see this administration as trying to work out some mechanisms for more openness,” the pollster says. “It’s a practical response. There is very real pressure from society.”

Even as its socialist ideology has collapsed, the Communist Party has found ways to stay relevant, such as by expanding membership to include businesspeople. Today the party has some 73 million members, roughly one in 18 Chinese. New party members have to be “introduced,” or nominated, by two existing members.

China has changed remarkably since 13 people, the Politburo’s predecessors, convened the Communist Party’s first National Congress in Shanghai in 1921. The collectivism and economic isolation that began when Mao Zedong led the party to power in 1949 was junked starting in 1978, two years after his death. The party’s secretive centralized rule has changed far less.

Behind Closed Doors
Regional officials have gained some autonomy, but the Politburo makes all big political and economic decisions, from appointing provincial officials to setting exchange-rate policy. Most decisions are made behind closed doors, often in the massive walled Zhongnanhai compound next to the Forbidden City in Beijing. Few outsiders get in.

Still, Politburo members have come to recognize that their power hinges on public support. “The party’s ruling position is not inherent, and is not permanent,” top officials wrote in a 2004 document outlining plans to improve the party’s “ability to govern.”
How best to do that is the subject of heated debate. Liberal Chinese scholars have urged substantive changes, such as expanded elections for local government posts.

Such ideas have gained little traction, reflecting the leadership’s deep-rooted fears of unleashing unrest. A push for political reform in the late 1980s, led by then-party chief Zhao Ziyang, ended after pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989 sparked the brutal Tiananmen Square crackdown. Leaders have consistently defended the killing of demonstrators.

At the same time, Mr. Hu’s administration has resisted turning the clock back to the deeply repressive methods of the Mao era. It has defended economic change from left-leaning scholars and retired officials who vocally complain that capitalism has gone too far. Mr. Hu has allowed some discussion of political change, too. The party “will continue to expand citizens’ orderly participation in politics,” he said in a speech in June.

Much remains off-limits. Pollsters aren’t allowed to gauge support for Mr. Hu. But the party is paying more attention to what the public thinks of other leaders. In 2003, it issued rules requiring that polls be used in evaluating officials for promotion, says Mr. Yuan of Horizon Group.

Often those poll results are kept confidential. But in 2005, the mayor of Zhengzhou, capital of the central province of Henan, told Horizon to publish the results of polls to pressure city government officials to perform better, Mr. Yuan says. One poll finding was widespread public frustration with bribe taking by city officials.

Mr. Yuan says his polls generally show that “people believe this government is good at doing business work, but not good at social services.”

The government has also begun inviting public suggestions and limited criticism of official policy, such as on Web sites set up for the annual session of the legislature that took place in March. “We must create the conditions for the people to supervise and criticize the government,” Premier Wen Jiabao, the party’s No. 3 official, said then.

Consider the way China makes laws. Since the first time it published draft legislation for public consideration, in 1998, growing numbers of new laws have been made with public input. The government controls the final outcome and sets limits on debate, but the input can make a difference. Laws that are particularly contentious are often held up and revised.

In the case of the Employment Promotion Law, authorities published a draft in March, just as local media attention was focusing on lawsuits filed by carriers of the hepatitis B virus saying they had been unfairly denied jobs. Around 120 million Chinese people, nearly 10% of the population, are believed to carry the virus, which can damage the liver and raise the risk of liver cancer. Though the virus can’t be spread through casual contact, it is poorly understood here and many Chinese say they are uncomfortable working with carriers.

Nonprofit organizations lobbying for hepatitis B carriers swung into action, publishing surveys and reports documenting widespread discrimination. In July, officials held an online discussion forum about the problem, and their Web site was flooded with complaints. One labor ministry official said she was “disturbed” by the accounts of discrimination and that the government would try to safeguard the rights of virus carriers.

In the end, a chapter aimed at preventing different kinds of job discrimination was added to the law. It said an employer “may not refuse to employ someone on the grounds that he or she is a carrier of an infectious disease.” The law was passed in August but has not yet taken effect.

The government, under legislation passed in 2000, allows challenges from citizens who believe a law or regulation violates China’s constitution. Such complaints are usually ignored. But the government has occasionally changed position after filings gathered media coverage. In one example, standards for compensating accident victims were adjusted recently.

“It’s a tightly controlled process, but it is a valve to release some pressure, and is also a way for officials to gather information about possible conflicts,” says Keith Hand, a Yale University legal scholar in Beijing who has studied the system.

Informal Rules
The Politburo has established informal rules, including term limits and retirement ages, that govern appointments to top jobs, helping restrain power struggles among senior leaders. Those norms have put pressure on Mr. Hu to prepare for an orderly succession.

China watchers seeking to spot the next supreme leader are focused on two men. One is Xi Jinping, now the top party official in Shanghai. The other is Li Keqiang, party chief of Liaoning province in China’s northeast, who is seen by many as President Hu’s protege.

Both men are younger than Mr. Hu by more than a decade and are seen as more international-minded than many of the current Standing Committee members. But as loyal party operators, they are likely to hew to the established line on political reform. The new roster of the Standing Committee likely won’t be announced until next week.

Official responses to public complaints of corruption remain very rare. The government operates a traditional system of xinfang, or “letters and visits,” which handles about 12 million petitions and complaints from citizens each year. Scholars estimate that only two of every thousand cases are resolved.

The opening to limited public discussion of policy has been accompanied by tighter restraints on those who try to push the boundaries. The party still ruthlessly suppresses dissent. Under President Hu, the government has arrested several lawyers who have attempted to use the legal system to challenge the government over alleged human-rights violations and other issues. In one of the most notorious examples, a Chinese court last year issued a prison sentence of more than four years to a blind rural activist who had used his self-taught knowledge of the law to help women who had been forced to have late-term abortions.

Since 1999, China has put more journalists in prison than any other country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit group based in New York. And the government has worked hard to curb free expression on the Internet and to block access to Web sites it finds politically objectionable. Such limits are regularly tightened further around the time of important political events such as the party congress.

Transforming the System
Some within the party want to open up more. Last month, Li Rui, a party elder and gadfly who once served as Mao’s secretary, published an open letter to Mr. Hu in a Beijing journal arguing for much greater change. “The autocratic system must be transformed so that constitutional democracy can be implemented,” he wrote.

Senior leaders repeatedly say they will not “copy” such Western political models. But senior leaders’ new willingness to talk openly about political reform could also strengthen popular expectations for change. In his speech to the party congress this week, Mr. Hu mentioned “democracy” more than 60 times, though mostly in reference to internal party procedures.

In other public remarks this year, Mr. Wen, the premier, said democratic political change is a necessary complement to the market-based economic overhaul China has already undertaken. “Without political reform, economic reform will not succeed,” the premier said in a speech to domestic and foreign businesspeople in August.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.