China’s outgoing president Hu Jintao today insisted that the ruling Communist Party maintain its monopoly on power in order to battle corruption and growing social unrest.
In a speech that may disappoint reformists, he “outlined a deeply conservative vision for the future of the world’s most populous nation, insisting that state dominance of the economy and one-party rule will be maintained,” according to one observer.
“We must uphold leadership of the party,” Hu told more than 2,300 officials at the opening of the party’s 18th National Congress.
“Combating corruption and promoting political integrity, which is a major political issue of great concern to the people, is a clear-cut and long-term political commitment of the party,” he said.
“If we fail to handle this issue well, it could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state.”
Hu appeared to pour cold water on some analysts’ expectations of incremental democratic reform.
“We should … give full play to the strength of the socialist political system and draw on the political achievements of other societies. However, we will never copy a Western political system,” he said.
According to Zhang Jian, a political scientist at Peking University, the report sent “a very strong message to any expectations of reform: we are not going to change; we are going to stay where we are.”
Hu referred to “socialism with Chinese characteristics” no less than 78 times in his speech, in marked contrast to his address to the 17th party congress five years ago when he used the word minzhu – democracy – 69 times.
“It was a rather conservative report,” said Jin Zhong, the editor of Open Magazine, an independent Hong Kong journal that specializes in Chinese politics. “There’s nothing in there that suggests any breakthrough in political reforms.”
Hu’s speech offered little to encourage observers who believe the system must reform and open up.
“Today the most important thing is political reform,” says Ren Yi, the grandson of reform-minded former leader Ren Zhongyi. “All Chinese, including those inside the system, all agree that it’s the next big thing.”
Another princeling, as the progeny of senior officials are known, puts it more bluntly: “The best time for China is over and the entire system needs to be overhauled.”
This son of a former government minister says the party’s authority is “declining at the same time that the economic backdrop has become much worse”. He added that without new rules of the game, Chinese politics would “descend into chaos”.
“I did not expect any big breakthrough, but this time there is not even a small breakthrough,”said Chen Ziming, an independent Beijing-based scholar.
The notion that the ruling party will combat graft is “a joke,” said Beijing-based veteran journalist Gao Yu.
“These guys have been in power for a decade, under the leadership of the Party, and corruption is far worse now than it was 10 years ago, let alone during the 1989 pro-democracy movement,” she told RFA.
“It’s far worse than during the administration of Jiang Zemin, and they’ve been focusing on this, focusing on that, on improving the quality of Party members,” Gao said.
Hu told delegate that the party needed to improve the way it “manages” society in order to combat social unrest and “went to great lengths to recite the party’s swelling canon of ideological teachings.”
“The system of theories of socialism with Chinese characteristics is a system of scientific theories that includes Deng Xiaoping Theory, the important thought of Three Represents and the Scientific Outlook on Development, and this system represents the party’s adherence to and development of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought,” he said.
Some reformers hope that Hu’s likely heir Xi Jinping will deliver some of the democratic reforms hinted at by outgoing premier Wen Jiabao.
“Although Wen kept calling for political reform, China’s political system in the last 10 years hasn’t developed much towards democracy, freedom, and law and order,” said He Weifang, a liberal law professor at Beijing University. “I think it’s a stagnated decade,” He said. “Economically, there’s some improvement since China became the [world’s] second-largest economy, but the structural problems remain unresolved.”
Any would-be reformers will face fierce resistance from party conservatives, leftists and vested interests, say observers.
“Chinese leaders compete in what one diplomat describes as ‘the shark pool of shark pools’,” notes analyst David Pilling. “Those who eventually swim to the bloodied surface are tough. Above all, they know how to avoid offence. Mr Xi rose to the pinnacle of the 83m-member Communist party by not stepping out of line.’
China’s vested interests are a roadblock to change. When leaders sought to improve labour rights, exporters cried bloody murder. So entangled is power and money that the incumbents resisting change and the party supposedly fostering it are one and the same thing.
Hu stressed the need to enhance civic morality and to “exalt the true, the good and the beautiful and reject the false, the evil and the ugly”. Such blandness was “a fitting finale to 10 years of Huism,” said Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney.
“When you think of the extraordinary events going on, and put it beside Obama’s victory speech, you realize we are dealing with an elite from another planet.”
Hu’s speech today “is intended to set the tone for party ideology over the next five years,” says the FT’s Jamil Anderlini:
Hu’s speech, however, was punctuated by references to Marxism-Leninism and “Mao Zedong thought” and suggested that the party has no intention of relaxing its grip on politics or the economy.
“We must not take the old path that is closed and rigid, nor must we take the evil road of changing flags and banners,” Mr Hu said in a reference to bold political reforms.
That phrase was widely ridiculed on Weibo, China’s most popular microblog. “So we will walk in place until we die,” wrote one user.
As the Congress gets underway, “the 91-year-old Leninist party is seriously considering more democratic procedures to select its leadership,” writes Minxin Pei:
Some leaders apparently support “inner-party democracy” as a way to bolster the Party’s standing among its own members and prepare it for democratic competition. This idea has been kicking around for some time as a way to mollify demands for political reforms, but it can’t solve the problems of authoritarian rule.
“Reform of the political structure is an important part of China’s overall reform. We must continue to make both active and prudent efforts to carry out the reform of the political structure and make people’s democracy more extensive, fuller in scope and sounder in practice,” Hu said today.
But it is “difficult to imagine that inner-party democracy can help protect civil liberties that are closely associated with democracy, and that are so wanting in China,” writes Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund:
The real crisis the Communist Party faces today is one of legitimacy, and inner-party democracy is no solution. The Party’s corruption and persistent habits of concealing policy failures have destroyed its credibility. Its self-serving claims to rule can no longer persuade China’s increasingly well-educated population that they are fated to live under autocracy in perpetuity. The only way to fulfill China’s needs is actual democracy.
The ruling party must also address the toxic legacy of Communist China’s founder, observers suggest.
“If China’s recent progress is to be sustained, it’s time, at long last, for the dragon to be slain and for the beauty of all that is best in China to meet the best that the modern world has to offer,” writes Paul Monk, the founder and director of Austhink Consulting and an associate of China Policy.
Mao Zedong was not the dragon slayer. He was the very embodiment of the dragon. Liang Qichao and Liang Sicheng, Lu Xun and Hu Shih and, let it be said, the imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, leading author of the suppressed Charter 08, are the real dragon slayers of modern China. Their time has come and we need to collectively recast our perception of China, our dialogue with China and our future relationship with China in terms of their vision.
Hu’s basic message is for the next leaders to follow his path until they can go no further, then the government can reassess things, said Kerry Brown, executive director of the China Studies Centre.
“His legacy will be consensus-led, collective leadership in an age in which Chinese society was undergoing fast, profound and disorientating changes,” he said:
One word which leaders have referred to regularly is “stability”, something that has been fundamental to Mr Hu’s decade in power, when he steered a steady, but deeply conservative path. For most of that decade in power, China was the fastest growing major economy in the world, with double-digit rates of economic growth every year. Mr Hu’s decade in China has substantially improved the living standards of most Chinese. Keeping economic growth on track is the central plank of maintaining support for the Communist Party, which claims its legitimacy from a revolution which took place in 1949.