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China Still Wrestling with Maintaining Control and Loosening Grip

October 15, 2007


A couple of articles in the Washington Post underscore the continued tension Chinese leaders are creating as they try to retain one party control while learning to embrace liberal democratic principles. Given a choice between the two, holding on to power trumps liberal democratic principles every time. This was clear from President Hu Jintao’s opening speech to Communist Party congress [“Hu Outlines Goals for China as Party Congress Convenes,” by Edward Cody, 15 October 2007].

“Opening a crucial Communist Party congress, President Hu Jintao called … for increased emphasis on social protections to make sure China’s speedy economic growth benefits a wider swath of the country’s 1.3 billion people. Hu, in a report to more than 2,200 party delegates gathered in Beijing, also pledged to accompany China’s economic progress with an increase in what he called ‘socialist democracy.’ That, he explained, means Chinese should participate more in their government but without affecting ‘the party’s role as the core of leadership in directing the overall situation.’ With his remarks, couched in party jargon and read carefully from a text, Hu signaled that his next five years as China’s party leader and president are likely to resemble his first five years, with cautious pursuit of economic reforms but determination to retain the Communist Party’s monopoly on power.”

Cody notes that Hu’s doctrine of “scientific development” is going to be enshrined in the party charter and that Hu will be given a place along side Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. This honor cements his hold on political power for at least the next five years. Christopher Bodeen provides a different focus on Hu’s address [“Hu Promises More Open China in Future,” 15 October 2007].

“While offering few specifics, Hu said Chinese citizens would have ‘more extensive democratic rights’ by 2020, China’s target year for establishing lasting economic security, even as the party retains its monopoly on political power. ‘Contemporary China is going through a wide-ranging and deep-going transformation. This brings us unprecedented opportunities as well as unprecedented challenges,’ Hu told the more than 2,200 delegates gathered in Beijing’s massive Great Hall of the People for the meeting, held every five years.”

Hu speech lasted nearly two and half hours, but while long on rhetoric was short on specifics.

“Reflecting Hu’s cautious manner, it contained few initiatives while laying out a blueprint for upcoming policies. Hu pledged to cut pollution, reflecting mounting worries about the environmental costs of a boom that has left China with some of the world’s dirtiest air and water. Beijing will ‘promote a conservation culture by basically forming an energy- and resource-efficient and environmentally friendly structure of industries, pattern of growth and mode of consumption,’ Hu said.”

In some ways, Hu is simply trying to catch up with local environmental policies being enacted in locales that can no longer tolerate environmental degradation. I’ll post some comments on that later this week. There was also plenty of fodder in Hu’s speech for those who doubt China’s liberalization is real and fear that it will become America’s next military adversary.

“[Hu] promised to continue a buildup of China’s military, emphasized Beijing’s preference for a peaceful settlement with rival Taiwan, and pledged to use the country’s economic and diplomatic clout as a force for peace internationally. … Hu reiterated an offer to end the hostilities between China and Taiwan since their separation amid civil war 58 years ago. Hu, however, restated a condition for talks that has been anathema to Taiwan’s democratic government — that the island must recognize that it is a part of China.”

Even though China has a long ways to go, I see things moving in the right direction. As China’s economy strengthens and its people become more prosperous, they are demanding more say in policies that affect their lives. Politics almost always follows economics and that certainly seems to be the case in China.

“In his report to the congress, Hu dwelled on his signature policy, a push to re-channel breakneck development by spreading the benefits of economic growth more evenly. Hu referred to the social divisions that have erupted from fast growth — gaps between rich and poor, urban and rural — and made an oblique reference to an emerging, demanding middle class.”

The rise of a middle class (especially a demanding one) is a sign that things will change — even if that change comes slowly. Bodeen reports that things outside the Great Hall were pretty much business as usual.

“While Hu spoke, police and soldiers who sealed off Tiananmen Square and the areas around the Great Hall of the People detained at least two dozen people, many of them elderly, forcing them into police vans. Many carried documents detailing grievances against local officials and hoped to get the attention of Chinese leaders.”

In the run up to the party congress, Chinese leaders instigated one of its most thorough crackdowns on Internet sites according to an Associated Press report [“China’s Web Censors Delete Blogs, Unplug Servers,” 12 October 2007].

“In the lead-up to the sensitive Communist Party Congress, … authorities have been casting an even wider net than usual in their search for Web content they deem to be politically threatening or potentially destabilizing. ‘What you see now is unprecedented,’ said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley. ‘They are forcing most of the interactive sites to simply close down and have unplugged Internet data centers. These are things they haven’t done before.’ Thousands of sites suddenly went offline in August and September when Internet data centers, which host Web servers, were shut down. In three cities, some services were temporarily cut off, while some interactive Web sites remain unplugged — until after the congress. It’s not uncommon for authorities to crack down on public opinion before party congresses, which are held every five years. In an increasingly wired China, political rumors and speculation that used to end up in Hong Kong’s more liberal media are now often found circulating first in Chinese cyberspace. … The government has built a patchwork system of controls that include software to root out offensive keywords and block blacklisted Web sites. Government censors, known as Net nannies, surf the Web looking for pornography, subversive political content or other illegal material. Major Internet portals like Sohu.com Inc. and Sina Corp. employ their own censors to make sure nothing runs afoul of government restrictions. China is among a handful of countries that have extensive filters for political sites.”

Eventually China will realize that trying to control upstream content is simply impossible and it will begin focusing on downstream behavior — like other developed countries do. Power shifts are always painful, especially in one-party systems. China, which has always done things slowly, will certainly move at a snail’s pace when it comes to loosening Communist Party control. Changes will happen within the party before they occur within the larger society. Those changes will be interesting to watch. The fact that the party is starting to talk about environmental issues and people’s rights is a positive sign.

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