How the next ten years will decide China’s future

By Qian Gang — On National Day this month, as the capital was swept up in waves of carefully contrived jubilation, my thoughts turned to China’s future. What would China be like on the 70th anniversary in 2019? On that day, just over the horizon, would we witness a replay of this pageantry? Would party leaders roll out another top-50 list of political slogans?

Would independent voices — “noise and static,” as the party calls them — still be suppressed? Would Beijing again be wound tight with security under the slogan of “stability before all else”?

Or would Chinese have something more to celebrate?

If I may be allowed a bit of simple prognosticating, let me say that the next ten years will decide China’s future.

2012 is the year that Hu Jintao will pass power to the next generation of leaders. While the CCP’s statutes do not place limits on the tenure of the general secretary, provisional rules on term limits issued in 2006 (党政领导幹部职务任期暂行规定) specify that party leaders should hold office for no more than two terms.

If during the coming ten years China’s political climate continues at its present tempo, if there are no dramatic political bumps, we can be fairly certain that the leader who takes the reins at the 18th Party Congress in 2012 will remain as China’s national leader when the 70th anniversary rolls around in 2019.

China cannot be allowed to slide into chaos. This is something all Chinese can basically agree on. But if the CCP continues to drag its feet on political reform, we should all be deeply concerned.

Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the P.R.C. in 1999, party elder Li Shenzhi (李慎之) wrote an open letter to then-President Jiang Zemin [Chinese here] calling on him to seek progress on political reform where Deng Xiaoping had been unable as a result of historical exigencies.

In 2009, on the eve of the 60th anniversary, a conversation with someone purported to be a high-level party elder was circulated widely on the internet. The article, “The ruling party must build a basic system of political ethics” (执政党要建立基本的政治伦理), urged the CCP to reflect on its past and move ahead with political reforms.

The article stirred the secret hopes of countless Chinese.

During Jiang Zemin’s tenure as general secretary, there was nothing whatsoever to signal an interest in pursuing political reforms. In the early days of the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao administration, there was some chatter about the “new politics of Hu-Wen” (胡温新政). This “new politics” was encompassed in the political catchphrase “people first and foremost” (以人为本).

During the past seven years, however, the topic (not to mention the project) of political reform has gathered dust on the back shelf. The corrupting force of crony capitalism has expanded unchecked. Party and commercial special interest groups have become more and more entrenched, and present an ever-graver challenge to social stability.

In the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Premier Wen Jiabao made a solemn pledge that responsibility would be sought for the death of schoolchildren as a result of shoddy school construction. This pledge came to nothing, however, fizzling out in behind-the-scenes power brokering.

The hopes Chinese had vested in Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao have slipped ever since the zenith of confidence reached during China’s fight against SARS in 2003.

China today is a cripple, one leg healthy and striding ahead, the other twisted and underdeveloped. Economic reforms surge ahead. Meanwhile, progress in China’s political system is thwarted.

The experience of June 4th, 1989, left deep traumas. China now suffers from a sickness that covets power, feeds and encourages corruption, and punishes goodness and honesty. The ripe atmosphere for political reform that existed in China in the 1980s is no longer there.

Politically confined, Chinese have been unable to explore and prepare for the possibilities of political reform. The conditions for implementing substantial political reforms do not exist in the short term in China. This will almost certainly remain true over the next decade. But nevertheless, the CCP can no longer avoid tough decisions on political reform.

For the remainder of their terms in office, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao can be expected to push economic development. But no one stakes any hope on the idea that Hu and Wen might offer a blueprint for political reform.

For the next three years, all eyes will turn on Hu Jintao and the question of succession. One of the key questions is whether his transfer of power will serve as a model for intra-party democracy (党内民主).

Who Hu Jintao’s successor will be is of lesser importance than how this successor will be determined. The most critical question is whether Hu Jintao, this leader designated as successor [to Jiang Zemin] by Deng Xiaoping himself, can set a precedent for “democratic, open, competitive and merit-based” (民主、公开、竞争、择优) leadership selection principles during his tenure in office, thereby breaking through the “old man politics,” or gerontocracy (老人政治), that has for so many years worked at odds with intra-party democratic principles.

If China’s top leader could be selected in such a manner, this would mark an important shift in the direction of more democratic politics.

It was at this time a century ago that the government of the Qing Dynasty was thrown into turmoil. Facing intense pressure from society, the Qing was forced to grapple with the question of political reform.

In 1906 the Qing government announced that it was preparing a constitution. Two years later it released the general outline of its constitution in a document called, “Imperial Decree on the Outline of the Constitution” (钦定宪法大纲), which allowed nine years for the drafting process.

The Qing’s was an extremely conservative blueprint for political reform, and yet it did manage to provide a timetable.

In the end, though, there was no time for such a process. The Empress Dowager Cixi and the Guangxu Emperor died in 1908, and the Qing government quickly descended into chaos.

Fifty years ago, as the People’s Republic of China was preparing to celebrate its 10th anniversary, army commander Peng Dehuai (彭德怀) criticized Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward as a dramatic policy mistake. At the Lushan Conference held in the summer of 1959, Peng, an ardent CCP supporter, was disgraced and branded an anti-CCP agitator.

Mao Zedong’s catastrophic missteps continued. Behind the shallow veneer of 10th anniversary celebrations that year, the horrors of China’s Great Famine were already becoming clear.

Forty years ago, in 1969, China’s national leader, Liu Shaoqi (刘少奇), who had been selected through a constitutional process, was absent from National Day celebrations. That year, at Mao’s behest, Liu was branded a traitor and expelled from the party.

Standing beside Mao Zedong on that National Day was Lin Biao (林彪), his designated heir. But within two years, Lin Biao too fell victim to Mao’s politics. He was branded a traitor and killed in an apparent attempt to flee the country that remains clouded with mystery.

There are so many lessons from our recent history that we Chinese must bear forcefully in mind. We must understand that without a better and fairer political system, we will have no peace and harmony in our country, and no hope for stability.

These next ten years will be critical.

The next generation of leaders will inherit many painful and difficult problems. It will be their responsibility and historical burden to act with political courage, seeking long-term solutions to problems from their root causes.

And what is the root of China’s social and political ills today? It is the monopolization of power and privilege.

We hope party leaders seek solutions to China’s predicament by “breaking through monopoly” (破除垄断); by breaking through the monopolization of politics, leading China toward a process of normalized political competition, whereby power is checked and monitored in accordance with the constitution; by breaking through monopolization of the economy by the state; by breaking through the monopolization of civil affairs, allowing the healthy development of a civil society; by breaking through the monopolization of culture, allowing Chinese to think and speak freely in an atmosphere of tolerance and openness, and ensuring the unfettered flow of information.

How might political reforms begin? They might begin with the relaxing of controls on speech.

The political system, an issue bearing directly on the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese — our next generation of leaders cannot expect the people to keep their mouths shut on this account. What direction China’s political system should head is a major question that should invite discussion, exploration, and experimentation.

This is the first thing. That China’s leaders must not monopolize the right to expression. That China’s leaders cannot simply muzzle society with simple declaratives like, “We will not copy the West” (我们绝不照搬西方).

The next ten years will determine China’s fate. Of course the great edifice of constitutional governance in China is not a project that can be completed in the space of ten years.

But we appeal to our leaders: do not delay. Tell the people what direction you intend to take us, and work with us to reform our system, building the foundations of constitutionalism in time for our 70th birthday celebrations.

[Posted by David Bandurski, October 29, 2009, 3:38pm HK]

5 Comments to “How the next ten years will decide China’s future”

  1. jon says:

    Great thought provoking piece. I for one hope the future plays out the way you say.

  2. [...] of you have surprised me with your sharp comments on corruption and other ills facing China.  Time seems to be the answer, and it is a convenient one.  I do not necessarily have a better [...]

  3. Rob Efird says:

    钱先生:
    您好!
    谢谢您的回信.
    中国历史上确实有您所说的这种现象. 但您还没有回答我的问题的第二部分:将来中国怎么会又变得这样?您能不能具体的解释一下?
    谢谢!

    易若鹏
    Rob Efird

  4. qian says:

    Professor Efird:

    我所说的“变乱” (chaos/turmoil/social upheaval),就是“动乱”、“大动荡”、“崩溃”等等历史上的农民起义、武装革命、军阀割据等,都是变乱
    中国不能再走那样的道路
    谢谢
    钱钢

    Qian Gang

  5. Rob Efird says:

    “China cannot be allowed to slide into chaos.”
    Can you please elaborate? What precisely is this “chaos” and how might China slide into it?

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