Since he became the general secretary of the Communist Party of China five years ago, Hu Jintao has done nothing to inspire the false hope that he is a reformer in the mould of Mikhail Gorbachev. On the contrary, he kept dashing democratic hopes by imposing fresh restrictions on the media and scuttling the party’s tentative plans for the first direct elections to the provincial assemblies. Neither China nor the world should therefore be surprised that Mr Hu, in his inaugural address at the party’s 17th national congress, has ruled out political reform. What he has offered instead — “intra-party democracy” — is familiar rhetoric that has no meaning to the ordinary Chinese. His speech makes it clear that the party has no intention of giving up its monopoly of power. But this emphasis on the central role of the party flies in the face of the people’s growing clamour for political freedom. The cry for democracy in China is no longer restricted to dissident groups such as the Falun Gong or the followers of the Dalai Lama. Widespread unrest among farmers is directed not just at the government’s economic policies; it is also an expression of the people’s desire to free their lives from official controls. The insistence on the party’s role is clearly born of a fear of its losing power and legitimacy.
Ironically, Mr Hu does not see that the absence of democracy is at the root of most of the problems that he is so concerned about. The widening social and economic gaps, corruption and even the grave environmental threats, that seem to worry him, are largely due to the party’s iron grip on power and the people’s inability to influence the decision-making process. It is possible, as Mr Hu promised, that China will increase its current gross domestic product by four times in 2020. But his references to the social and environmental costs of this development overdrive do not quite reveal the true picture. Some of the facts are staggering. Sixteen of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China. There is chronic water shortage in large parts of the country, owing mainly to the break-neck speed of industrialization. Most of the country’s rivers are dangerously contaminated. The industries can get away with wantonly destroying the environment because their promoters are often in league with corrupt party officials. The one-party rule sits uneasily on the brave new world of the Chinese economy.