Pushing past “stability” for real reform

Pushing past “stability” for real reform
Pushing past “stability” for real reform
Posted on 2012-03-26

It’s a risky proposition to make political forecasts in a totalitarian system. So many things are cloaked and uncertain, and exposure of the slightest hint can bring shock and surprise. It’s this uncertainty, of course, that encourages people to strain their necks and their ears, making endless guesses about what they can neither see nor hear. This is especially true when major things go down, as with the recent leadership change in Chongqing, which has prompted a thousand rumors.

Just over a month ago, a secret visit by “anti-crime hero” Wang Lijun to the US Consulate in Chengdu startled the whole world. For some, this seemed to herald the opening of the political drama in China [ahead of the 18th Party Congress]. In my view, though, what we’re in fact seeing is the curtain closing. This whole affair now means that the 18th Party Congress can go ahead without further drama.

Consensus, stability and unity. In China, these are ideas marshaled by the leadership to brainwash the people. They have become deeply engraved on people’s minds. As a result, any lack of consensus within the Party is perceived as a schism, and external resistance is read as a sign of upheaval.

Drama goes hand in hand with totalitarian politics. At critical moments, political drama can determine the course of events. If there hadn’t been the opportunity afforded by Wang Lijun’s “treason”, the leadership would have awaited or invented some other incident to galvanize the Party and put and end to internal destabilizing factors in the interest of peace and unity.

One Chinese internet user quipped that Wang Lijun is indeed the ultimate “anti-crime hero”. Why? Because through his surprise visit to the American consulate in Chengdu he assured in one fell swoop the destruction of China’s strongest criminal element, namely the Maoist faction that remains so enamored of the Cultural Revolution and has been bolstered by the so-called Chongqing model [championed by Bo Xilai].

It certainly seems true that this incident presents the central leadership with the perfect opportunity to eliminate political outliers and stabilize political power. Taking a longer view of things, however, it’s impossible to say with any certainty what impact these events will have.

Some are no doubt tempted to suggest this is a victory for the liberal faction of which Premier Wen Jiabao (温家宝) is the figurehead. It is a victory against the conservatives and vested interests, and a victory too for the so-called Guangdong model that represents reform and stands in stark contrast to the Chongqing model and its Cultural Revolution revivalism.

I’m not so sure.

While I don’t believe that Bo Xilai ever really took to heart the core ideas of the Cultural Revolution — how could he while his wife ran a large company, his son studied overseas, and Chongqing slurped up investment on his watch? — I do think the failure of his ploy for the political spotlight is a good thing. But how can we be so sure this is really a victory for reform?

The lessons of history caution us that, to quote an old saying, when the danger is past, the gods are forgotten. Reform and opening and the Guangdong model were a banner in the recent political struggle, but as the opponent fades the shine comes off of reform and the Guangdong model too.

At a press conference during the National People’s Congress this month, Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang (汪洋) rejected the idea that the Wukan incident — a village rights defense movement that ended in local elections — bore any new significance. Secretary Wang understands only too well that there is little need [politically] for the Guangdong model once political stability has been secured. There is even less need for democratic reforms, which would only bring new division and hasten the end of the Party’s dictatorship.

Premier Wen Jiabao has said repeatedly that “without reform we are at a dead end.” But who exactly is the “we” here? If, as the official People’s Daily has suggested, this “we” is the Party, then the so-called political reform agenda is really about “saving the Party” and not about real democratic reform.

Many people suppose that once the liberal faction has neutralized the Maoist left and gained a firm hold politically, Premier Wen Jiabao will be in a position to fulfill his political reform promises. The truth is that the impetus for political reform cannot possibly arise from calmness and tranquility. Without sufficient pressure, China’s leadership will not push for reform.

Ratcheting up pressure on Premier Wen Jiabao and affirming his calls for reform are one and the same thing. The role of proponents should be to position democratic reforms within the popular discourse, not to cheer court intrigue from the sidelines.

If this really is an opportunity for political reform, what we need now is concerted action, not passive anticipation amid the calm.

This is a translated and abridged version of an article posted to Deutsche Welle Chinese and to Chang Ping’s personal blog on March 25, 2012.

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