China's leaders offer elusive promises of reform

Hu Jintao (L) talks to Jiang Zemin as Xi Jinping walks past in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, November 8

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As they stepped aside today, Hu Jintao and China's outgoing leaders may have congratulated themselves. China has enjoyed so much economic success in the past decade, it has risen so fast, that it is often said this coming century will be China's century.

China's authoritarian model is praised as more efficient and more nimble than sclerotic Western democracies. China, this view goes, is the future, while the West is in decline.

Many in China, though, are not so confident. There is a widespread sense that political reform has not kept pace with a changing China, and it needs to catch up.

So the question facing the Communist Party is: can it continue to keep China's 1.3 billion people effectively excluded from real power and continue to be successful?

There's no sign the party is willing to engage with those who want far-reaching change, like Liu Xiaobo, China's Nobel Peace Prize winner. He remains in jail, serving 11 years for calling for Western-style separation of powers.

But calls for reform are growing.

"People want rule of law. People want democracy and freedom," says Wu Qing, one of China's most famous civil-rights advocates.

"In the constitution it says people have freedom of speech, freedom of publication, and freedom of lots of things. And yet it is hard. But people are pushing for that."

Start Quote

83 million people did not join the Communist Party only for it to lose its privileges, perks and power”

End Quote Roderick MacFarquhar Harvard University

She served on the local congresses in Beijing for two decades, a rare independent voice, until she was forced out last year. She says in modern China there must be checks and balances on the party: most already exist in its constitution, but they aren't enforced.

"We should have a constitutional court, the judiciary should be independent, and there should be a law to protect the freedom of information. That's what we need. And there should really be free elections at grass roots," she says.

'Credibility crisis'

Calling for more freedom, the people of Wukan expelled corrupt Communist officials from their village last year. Their revolt caught the imagination of many. It ended only when the Communist Party conceded, giving villagers a rare, free vote to choose new officials.

Now, to head off more such crises, the party is considering reform. But it has been talking about reform for a decade.

"In the past 10 years there has been no reform. There has been talk but no substantial reform, so people have a lot of expectations of the new leaders to take up this task," says Bo Zhiyue, of the National University of Singapore.

"The most serious issue the party faces now is a credibility crisis. In the past, people always said local officials are bad and corrupt while the top leaders are clean and liberal-minded. But now I think even top leaders have lost their credibility among people. That's serious."

Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei:"I think China will change. It is inevitable"

Prof Bo says Xi Jinping has commissioned a report into Singapore, to learn how the city-state has become wealthy but kept a system where one party dominates.

"I don't think China will open itself up to a Western-style democracy system. China is opening up to a Singapore-style political-management system."

And he says that reform is urgently needed.

"The danger of not having any political reform in the next five years is that China's Communist Party will lose its credibility as a ruling party, and it will collapse in five to 10 years if they don't do anything," he says.

However, the Communist Party and its leaders are keen students of history, and of the way other Communist regimes have collapsed.

That makes them cautious, says Roderick MacFarquhar of Harvard University.

"They have taken a lesson from what happened under Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. He wanted to reform the party and make Communism stronger. The result was he brought it down," he says.

"In China they don't know which reform might be removing the stone that launches the avalanche. So everyone is reluctant to do anything."

'Unstable condition'

And even if Xi Jinping wants bring about any serious political change, there are now major sectors of the Party opposed to it, says Prof MacFarquhar.

"I think there will be a very great consensus against any such change," he says.

"Because any kind of political reform that meant anything would mean lessening the power, privileges and perks for Communist Party members. And 83 million people did not join the Communist Party only for it to lose its privileges, perks and power."

Outside the party, though, many believe the need for reform is pressing. The artist Ai Weiwei has become one of the party's most vocal critics.

"It's really come to a point when people have completely lost their patience and trust. In this society, this kind of feeling is very deep and very broad," Mr Ai says.

But Mr Ai too has little confidence that the party can bring reform, and fears what that means.

"I really hope they can make the change. But if I tell my true feelings, I think they are incapable to do that," he says.

"I think if they don't make the change, they will bring the nation to a much more unstable condition. If China is not stable, the world will suffer from it."

Damian Grammaticas Article written by Damian Grammaticas Damian Grammaticas China correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    nobody has mentioned the insistence that China becomes ‘perfect’, just that if it wants to be welcomed onto the world stage and respected, it needs to make concerted efforts to improve its rights for its people who make up the nation.

    Of course the Chinese citizens have the right to choose what they want and this IS liberty. Unfortunately, this is not what the Chinese citizens HAVE. They are dictated to by corrupt politicians hungry for more power and keep the rest imprisoned. This is what the international community condemns and will continue to do so unless reform happens.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    anyway, what's good for usa or any others will not be just good for China. what usa politicians really want is not for china's good anyway but for amerca's own interest.
    usa is a developed superpower, good for her and her people. however, please do remember, china and her people have the rights to choose what they want. that's liberty, i think.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    china, as a country, certainly is not perfect. so what? the USA, or any other countries, is not paradise anyway. there's no perfect country or the perfect "universal" system or mode in the world.
    china is unique, just like any other countries. The USA politicians always try to force the other countries follow their concept of view. is that fair or so called "liberty"? The USA army is around the world now, busy invading others' home. where is the so called "democracy"? first, USA force you to obey and kill you if you refuse to, what is that? that's hegemony.
    china is not perfect, so what?

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Actually there is plenty of reforms goiing on in China more so than any other countries in the world in the last 30 years. Just that it is not in the same pace as its economic growth. China is a large country with massive population and many issues to address, I believe it can grant 300 million people western style democracy even 10 years ago and would have but China has another 1 billion people were this system will not work, Can you imagine in the UK only Londoners gets the rights to vote, it just won't happen. Its either everyone or no one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Its easy to think China is bad because they have one party. But many countries in the West and friends of USA are run by royal families with only token democracies, right? It all situations it really comes down to tolerance and an ear to the complaints of the people and real efforts to share the wealth of a country to all who really deserve and need help. I read that China has agiant looming problem of pensions being under funded, underfunded city projects, etc. so don't be quick to hold them above democracies like the USA. We all suffer from slimy leaders making stupid promises.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The notion that because China has the 2nd largest GDP in the world it is wealthy and becoming even wealthier is an illusion.Most of China's GDP belongs to people outside China, more of it goes to USA than anywhere else.China managed to save and invest the 15% of GDP it keeps in itself and many are out of poverty but China will never be rich like the USA and its export dependent economy that also relies on immense import of raw materials, fuel, even food cannot be sustained.China has so many problems that will cripple it you can't count them all.I'll be surprised if growth lasts over a decade

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Isn’t is strange that one-party should represent 1.3billion people of various races, thoughts, beliefs and cultures?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Free-Market Capitalism:-Money Talks,bs walks,and guess what; China has most of our money.Until we figure How they did it the transfer of Wealth will continue.That is where we should be concentrating our efforts.End of the day,China did not grow it's Econ by Creating Wealth;read Printing like it's going out of style.Crux of our problem lie with China & Devel Nations demanding "counters" on Printing Presses.
    Objectively,Indus West is being bypassed for East to South to South to East Trade via China financing Deep Sea Ports which we once controlled.We are being soundly beaten at our own game.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Don’t miss this amazing documentary:

    "The world is not changing if you don’t shoulder the burden of responsibility." By Ai Wei Wei.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Just watched Ai Wei Wei’s documentary ‘Never Sorry’. It is a must see for everyone interested in China and one of the most revealing documentaries of the global age that unveils the suppressive, authoritarian regimes that still continues to shamelessly abuse the human rights of their own citizens. The CCP is like a sand castle that is ready to crumble once its citizens awaken to its own brainwashed state and becomes the wave that begins to clean up this corrupt regime.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    China has no intention of falling into same Democracy-Trap Russia did which resulted in Bread Lines. Lee Kwan Yu? (whom I believe to be the most astute Politician of 20th Century) took Singapore from 3rd to 1st World in 40 yrs without any Resources has been advising China. Singapore's rise was purely on Education and it's own style of Democracy to suit "Culture".
    Fact is,imposition of Western Democracy has been tragic failures in other Cultures.
    Shouldn't we be concentrating on Putting Our Own House In Order?Considering it's 56 Ethnic Groups with Natl Pride,we can Learn something from China.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Yes, please, reform. Here's a thought - minimum wage of $10 an hour. Of course this would help send jobs back to the rest of the us...



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