Hu Jintao’s so-called “important speech” today in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone was perhaps eagerly awaited by those who wondered whether China’s president might echo, even faintly, the political reform language voiced by Premier Wen Jiabao (温家宝) two weeks ago. If so, a look at the full text of the speech would suggest they were sorely disappointed.
The following is a graph of key terms employed by Hu Jintao in his speech today, and their frequency of use in the speech based on the full version provided by Xinhua News Agency.
Readers may notice right off that there are no mentions at all of political reform — that would be “political system reforms,” or zhengzhi tizhi gaige (政治体制改革).
There is only one point where a partial reference to political reform is made: “[We must] be unshakeable in deepening reforms, raise the scientific nature of reform decisions, and enhance the compatibility of reform measures, comprehensively promoting reform of the economic system, political system, cultural system and social system, seeking breakthroughs in important sectors and at critical points.”
There are several mentions of “democracy,” but these fall under the notion of “socialist democracy” (社会主义民主) and “socialism with Chinese characteristics” (see below). Hu says at one point: “[We must] expand socialist democracy, accelerate the building of a socialist nation of rule of law, and carry out democratic elections, democratic decision-making, democratic management, and democratic monitoring, preserving the people’s right to know, right to participate, right to express and right to monitor.”
Before the reference to “democratic elections” excites anyone, it should be noted that this is a reference to “inner-party democracy,” the only other term that brings the two characters for “democracy,” minzhu (民主), into Hu’s speech. Hu talks about the need to “expand inner-party democracy at the grass roots and . . . protect the democratic rights of party members.”
In the absence of any political reform language whatsoever, such things as “democratic decision-making” and “democratic elections” obviously suggest a Party attitude toward governance, akin to the idea that governance should be “people-based,” rather than any systemic change.
The “four rights” mentioned in the passage on “socialist democracy” are familiar from Hu Jintao’s 2007 political report, in which they were one of the only points to offer pro-reform analysts any encouragement. To the extent these rights have been realized at all since 2007, it has been through generalized Internet access and interactivity (including “online democracy”), and increased coverage (mostly by state-run media) of so-called sudden-breaking news events in China, such as natural disasters and work-related tragedies. This is a limited gain, and says much more about propaganda strategy than it does about political change. (Raise your hand if you think more open access to government spin equals greater participation).
Corresponding to the gap in political reform-related language, there is an (expected) emphasis on that old status quo favorite, “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” or zhongguo tese shehui zhuyi (中国特色社会主义) in Hu’s speech.
Hu talks about the creation of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone as a “glorious creation” of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people “on the road in search of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
“Socialism with Chinese characteristics” arose historically in China as a counterpoint to the idea of “democratic socialism” (民主社会主义). In 2006, a number of relatively open-minded scholars allied proposals for further research into the question of “democratic socialism” with calls for an acceleration of political reforms. In response, leftists held more than ten conferences to criticize these moves. The emphasis on “Chinese characteristics (中国特色) is essentially an emphasis on “China’s national characteristics” (中国国情), and it seeks to draw clear boundaries between China and Western systems of democracy or the social democracy of Europe.
By the same token, the slogan “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” can also serve to prevent further inroads by the leftist camp. The term is a bone thrown out to the hard-liners.
The emphasis on “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” essentially upholds the policy, a 1980s legacy of Deng Xiaoping, of not getting mired in controversy over the ideological underpinnings of China’s development — “not arguing over whether China’s economy is surnamed Socialism or surnamed Capitalism” (不争论姓社姓资). The preservation of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” is, therefore, a nod in the direction of the left, a stopgap solution preventing an ideological clash. The hope is that economic reforms can proceed without controversy, with a clear line drawn between China’s present economic development and the legacy of Mao Zedong’s brand of socialism.
Clearly, though, while the hard-liners are thrown the same old bone, there is little or nothing in today’s speech for pro-reformers to sink their teeth into.