The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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About the same time the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was marvelling at the fruits of China’s economic reforms, Beijing was abuzz with talks of a coming wave of political reforms in the country. Expectations soared in political and other circles that the new Chinese president, Hu Jintao, might announce a clutch of political reforms on the 82nd anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1.

Curiosity and speculation were running high on whether the political reforms would truly mark the beginning of Hu’s new regime and thereby a break from the era of Jiang Zemin, from whom he took over as president and party general secretary last November. The stage for such a transition was set by reports of increasing tensions between leaders of the new and the old regimes.

Hu had generated hopes of these reforms ever since he appointed a committee earlier this year to recommend some amendments to the constitution. Wu Bangguo, head of the National People’s Congress, leads the committee which was widely expected to recommend democratization of elections, including the mayoral and gubernatorial ones, by introducing multiple candidates. That could be a major step in bringing about fundamental changes to the Chinese polity and to the functioning of the ruling communist party.

Another major goal before the constitutional amendment committee is to further establish the rights of the private sector, which already produces nearly half of the country’s gross domestic product. Such a step would be in keeping with the new ideological doctrine, adopted at the 16th congress of the CPC last November, which made private entrepreneurs, professionals and managers as much “builders of socialism with Chinese characteristics” as workers and farmers.

To the common people, however, the most important of the expected political reforms is democratization of the electoral process and possibly a new equation between elected bodies and government-appointed officials.

Not that China’s communist leaders had not experimented with direct, more participatory elections earlier. Direct elections to village committees were introduced in the late Eighties. Electoral changes were introduced in 1994 and again in 1999 to make the village bodies more representative of the popular, rather than the partisan, will. In 1999, the central government approved tentative experiments with direct elections in some urban areas too.

But these experiments in democratizing politics and elections have not been very successful, thanks largely to local party bosses’ overbearing attitudes and their open attempts to sabotage the elected bodies. Most of the recent Chinese researches on rural polls confirm that the local party units simply would not let the elected bodies function independently.

Elected village representatives are forced to carry out orders from unelected government officials, who are mostly party functionaries. It is impossible to miss the parallel with the functioning of many panchayat bodies in West Bengal, where the elected members, even if partymen, play second fiddle to the all-powerful local committee secretaries of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

But what is it that makes China’s new leadership think of more democracy at the village — or possibly city and province — levels' Many Chinese social scientists argue that there is an increasing awareness among the leaders that the country could not sustain a yawning gap between fast-paced economic reforms and a fossilized political system. More and more sections of the people, they argue, are becoming increasingly restive as the number of unemployed workers and overtaxed peasants soar.

Also, the economic reforms have created a new affluent class which wants its share of political power — within or outside the party. Democratization of the polity is thus seen as a safeguard against rising social unrest. The entire party leadership may not yet be convinced of the validity of this thesis, but it can no longer afford to ignore the sentiments of those who believe in it.

No one is, however, arguing that Hu Jintao is a Chinese Gorbachev in the making. He may have made transparency and accountability the buzz words of his regime. But he has given no indication whatsoever that he wants to dilute the control of the communist party either on the government or on the polity. So, whatever electoral reforms the constitution amendment committee may eventually recommend, no one is suggesting that China is poised to see real democracy with real opposition parties.

In fact, Hu’s task on this was cut out by Jiang Zemin, who said in his report to the 16th party congress that China “should never copy any models of the political system of the West”. At the same time, he cautioned the new leaders that “the party’s way of leadership and governance does not yet entirely meet the requirements of the new situation and new tasks”.

Hu himself has been known as an orthodox party ideologue who was anointed by none other than Deng Xiaoping, father of the economic reforms, and groomed for the top job for many years as the head of the central party school. In an oft-quoted speech to the party cadre in January, 2000, he warned, “Leading officials must at all times be on their guard against the plots of Western hostile forces to ‘split us up’ or ‘Westernize’ us, and against the danger of bringing about our own metamorphosis. There must be absolutely no hesitation or wavering in our commitment to Marxism and the pursuit of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

He was part of the clique that purged two former party general secretaries — Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang — for failing to suppress liberal democratic movements, particularly the student revolt at Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the Falun Gong’s spiritual movement.

Hu has another important reason for not trying to look too much of a liberal in one go. Although his succession to the twin top job of president and party general secretary last November passed off smoothly, Jiang’s shadow on the party and the government is a reality that Hu has to contend with. The former party strongman continues to wield enormous powers not only by virtue of being the chairman of the central military commission but also through his protégés in the new standing committee of the politburo, the highest decision-making body of the party.

And Jiang does not mind showing his powers and sending his messages to the new leaders. One recent example of the Jiang factor was the struggle within the party over handling the challenge of the SARS epidemic and its repercussions in China’s domestic politics and in its international relations. Hu sacked the health minister, Zhang Wenkang, for misleading the government and the people on the spread of the disease. He cannot have been pleased when the sacked minister met Jiang apparently to seek justice and possible rehabilitation. But Hu has not yet made any public show or pronouncement of any rift with his predecessor. On the contrary, he keeps professing his loyalty to Jiang’s theory of “Three Represents”, which was enshrined in the party constitution at the 16th congress along with the old principles of Marx, Lenin, Mao and Deng.

Yet, analysts as well as common people seem to be veering round to the view that Hu is well on course to consolidating his position. The political reforms he is expected to initiate are part of an unfolding power game. Going by most of the credible analyses, the reforms would be his way of gaining a wider support of the party and the people for his own leadership.

In the Eighties, Deng Xiaoping had predicted that China may have a directly elected president in 50 years. He did not talk of a multi-party contest. In 2003, Hu may be offering direct elections to higher echelons of the government, but only for multiple candidates of the communist party. It could well be a beginning for other multiplicities in the coming years.

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