Finalizing the 18th Party Congress: Setting the Stage for Reform?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 18
September 21, 2012 03:57 PM Age: 2 yrs
Category: China Brief, Willy’s Corner, Domestic/Social, Elite, China, China and the Asia-Pacific

The 18th Party Congress on Track for Next Month

Vice President Xi Jinping’s “reappearance” last Saturday after an absence of two weeks signaled that preparations for the 18th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress, which is slated for the second half of October, were on track. Beijing is even awash with speculation that the high-profile “princeling” (a reference to the offspring of party elders) has been mapping out moderate versions of political reform with the help of forward-looking intellectuals such as Hu Deping, the son of the late party chief Hu Yaobang. Xi reportedly told Hu, a former vice director of the United Front Work Department, “since the people are getting impatient with mere talk about reform, we must raise high the banner of reform, including political liberalization.” Xi, who is due to replace Hu Jintao as CCP general secretary, added that the CCP should lose no time in “seeking changes and progress in the midst of stability.” Given that Xi has very seldom touched on the sensitive issue of political change, his call to arms, albeit hedged with qualifications, has piqued the interest of the nation’s intelligentsia (Caijin [Beijing], September 8; iSunAffairs Weekly [Hong Kong], September 12). 

Moreover, Premier Wen Jiabao, who is perceived as the most liberal member of the collective leadership, gave an impassioned plea for speeding up political reform while visiting prestigious Tsinghua University last week. “Democracy, rule of law, equality and justice as well as liberty and equality are ideals and goals common to all mankind,” said Wen, who is due to retire from the Politburo next month. Wen, age 70, is the sole top-level cadre who has advocated openly China should adopt “universal values” upheld in Western as well as Asian countries: “Socialism is not possible without democracy.” Wen elaborated that “Without the supervision of the people and without checks and balances, any government and administration will deteriorate...Absolute power will engender absolute corruption” (China News Service, September 15; Xinhua, September 14).

While it is not sure what reforms Wen—and, in particular, Xi—may contemplate after the watershed congress, it is significant that at least some structural changes in central party and government organs are in the works. A consensus has been reached by the outgoing Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) that the size of this highest ruling council should be cut from nine to seven members. Barring any last minute changes, the new PBSC is expected to consist of the following (and their prospective portfolios): Xi, age 59 (General Secretary and President); Li Keqiang, age 57 (Premier); Yu Zhengsheng, age 67 (Chairman of the National People’s Congress); Zhang Dejiang, age 65 (Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference); Li Yuanchao, age 61 (Head of the Party Secretariat and Vice President); Wang Qishan, age 64 (Executive Vice Premier); and Wang Yang, age 57 (Secretary of the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection [CCDI]). The seven-member configuration is an effort by the leadership to return to the norm. Since the Cultural Revolution, the PBSC had consisted of either five or seven members. It was only increased to nine members at the 16th CCP Congress a decade ago. A seven-member PBSC in theory will make decision making more efficient (Apple Daily [Hong Kong] September 10; Ming Pao [Hong Kong], September 3).

Much more important is the fact from the 18th Congress onwards, senior cadres responsible for propaganda and law enforcement will only be ordinary Politburo members. These two departments are among the least popular among the populace. The same is true for the PBSC members handling them, namely Li Changchun, who heads the Leading Group on Ideology and Propaganda (LGID), and Zhou Yongkang, who runs the Central Political-Legal Commission (CPLC) (Liberty Times [Taipei] August 31; Sina.com, August 29; Ming Pao, August 9). The LGID is in charge of, among other things, censorship of the media and Internet, including fast-growing social-media networks. The CPLC, which supervises the police, secret police, prosecutor’s offices and the courts, is the party’s prime weapon for putting dissidents behind bars and muzzling the estimated 150,000 annual cases of riots and protests.

It may be misguided to think that the apparent “downgrading” of these two portfolios would necessarily mean that the authorities would adopt a more liberal or tolerant attitude toward censorship and combating “anti-party” or “destabilizing” agents in society. It is possible, however, that in the case of the CPLC, the unprecedented empire building of the law enforcement apparatus might be checked. Under the aggressive leadership of PBSC member Zhou, the budget for wei-wen (“preserving stability”) has surpassed that for the People’s Liberation Army two years in a row (“Beijing’s ‘Wei-Wen’ Imperative Steals the Thunder at NPC,” China Brief, March 10, 2011).

Much also depends on the political orientation of the PBSC members under which the future heads of these two establishments will work under. For example, it is possible that the Politburo member running the CPLC will report to the boss of the CCDI, which is the nation’s highest anti-corruption agency. Wang Yang, a close ally of President Hu’s and current Party Secretary of Guangdong Province, has displayed a less draconian approach to tackling dissent. This was demonstrated by the Guangdong administration’s conciliatory treatment of the “rebellion” staged by the peasants of Wukan Village late last year. Since the spring, the CPLC has called on the nation’s law enforcement officials to use the “Wukan model” when handling riots and protests (“Beijing Plays Up the Carrot While Still Wielding the Stick,” China Brief, July 19). As for the equally crucial ideology and propaganda sector, it appears that the future Politburo member who heads of LGID will report to the prospective vice president and current Organization Department chief Li Yuanchao. Compared to the aging Li Changchun, the younger Li is deemed a moderate reformer. He has the reputation of a relatively open-minded cadre when he worked in propaganda- and culture-related departments from 1990 to 2000 (Guancha.cn [Beijing], July 2; Sina.com, February 17, 2011).

More thorough structural rationalization is being put forward for units under the State Council. The State Council’s 27 commissions and departments could be pared down to just 18 units through a series of mergers and takeovers. For example, the Ministry of Science and Technology may be merged with the Education Ministry to establish a Ministry of Education and Science. Similarly, the Ministries of Human Resources and Civil Affairs could be combined to form a Ministry of Social Work. The Ministry of Railways may be absorbed by the Ministry of Communications and Transport. Finally, the Ministry of Water Resources could be subsumed under the Ministry of Agriculture (China Review News [Hong Kong], August 20; Sina.com, August 20). This game plan tallies with the largely unsuccessful efforts undertaken by Premier Wen and Executive Vice Premier Li Keqiang in early 2008 to streamline high-level governmental decision making through the formation of several “super ministries” (“Beijing Unveils Plans for Super Ministries, China Brief, February 4, 2008).

It must be noted, however, that retooling party and State Council organs belong in the realm of administrative restructuring, not political liberalization or structural political reform. From signals that have been emitted by official media, the chances of General Secretary Hu unveiling major reform initiatives in his much-anticipated Political Report to the 18th Party Congress, which will set the stage for the party’s policies in the coming five years, do not seem high. For example, Hu gave his annual speech on party affairs on July 23 to an assembly of top party, government and military officials in Beijing. This talk was billed as a precursor of his 18th Party Congress Political Report. “We must unswervingly push forward reform and opening up the country.” Hu said “The party must never become ossified or stagnant.” The party chief then pledged that the CCP leadership would “push ahead reform of the political structure.” What he meant, however, was merely “the organic synthesis of [the principles of] CCP leadership, the people becoming masters of the nation, and rule by law” (Xinhua, July 23; People’s Daily, July 23). These hackneyed slogans pale beside the much fresher and bolder statements made by Hu soon after he took over power at the 16th Party Congress in 2002. In 2003, by contrast, the president attracted much praise by enunciating the so-called “New Three Principles of the People;” “Power must be used for the people; profits must be sought for the people; and [cadres’] feelings must be attached to the people” (People’s Daily, September 26, 2011; China News Service, February 18, 2003).

In the past decade, a modicum of success has been attained in only one area of political reform, “intra-party democracy” (dangnei minzhu), which allowed more opportunities for vouchsafed party cadres and members to select their leaders. For example, “competitive elections” (cha’e xuanju)—in which candidates outnumber positions up for grabs—was for the first time introduced when grassroots party members earlier this year picked the 2,270 deputies for the 18th Party Congress. Candidates outnumbered the number of deputies by 13.4 percent. As in the past, cha’e xuanju will be practiced when congress delegates choose Central Committee members next month, even if surprises are expected. According to a recent briefing by the Vice Director of the Organization Department Wang Jingqing, the margin of elimination at the 16th Party Congress was “more than 10 percent.” At the 17th Party Congress five years ago, the proportion of jettisoned candidates was “no less than 15 percent.” That not much headway will be made this year seems evident from Wang’s murky statement that the margin of elimination at the upcoming conclave would be “more than 15 percent.” Despite suggestions made by liberal cadres and scholars, no cha’e xuanju will be implemented when the new Central Committee members choose Politburo members at the 18th CCP Congress (China News Service, August 15; Wen Wei Po [Hong Kong] August 15).

So far, the harshest critique of the Hu-Wen team’s failure to grasp the nettle of political reform has come from Deng Yuwen, a senior editor of the party journal Study Times. In an article that he wrote for Caixin assessing the ten years of the Hu-Wen administration, Deng faulted the leadership for “failing to implement political reform and democratization.” He added that work in this area “lags behind people’s expectations by a considerably large margin.” Deng called political liberation “the most important question facing China … and one that is especially difficult to solve.” The reformist intellectual also called upon Beijing to start universal suffrage elections up to the county level (Sina.com, September 5; Caixin.com, September 4). Given that Studies Times is a publication the Central Party School, which Vice President Xi directs, there is some speculation that the article has enjoyed the support of Hu’s probable successor. The piece, however, was removed from the Caixin website after a few hours. As in the case of the total lack of transparency surrounding Xi’s “disappearance” at such a sensitive juncture, the party’s leadership preference for traditional black-box operations does not seem to augur well for significant reforms in the foreseeable future.


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