Even for a Chinese Communist Party known for its cognitive dissonance, a report delivered by General Secretary Hu Jintao last week was hard to reconcile. He warned that the state could collapse under the weight of corruption and lack of political integrity, but at the same time he signaled that reform should not be overly aggressive.
A weeklong party congress that began with that speech on Nov. 8 and draws to a close on Wednesday has suggested that although China’s officials acknowledge a long list of domestic challenges, they intend to keep any changes tightly within their grasp.
The situation points to a predicament that frequently grows larger and harder to unwind for rulers of one-party systems – while recognizing that societal problems are worsening, they see no alternative other than the organization that helped create many of the complications in the first place.
“There’s a commonly used phrase: Not reforming means to wait for death, reforming means to court death,” said Zhang Lifan, a historian in Beijing who spent 21 years working at the state Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
In his report, which was the result of extensive consultation and drafting with the party, Hu made clear that adjustments will be allowed only under an authoritarian thumb. He trumpeted the nation’s decision to not waver from the party’s guidance or, as he put it, to have avoided “the erroneous path of changing the banner.”
That leaves a knotty task for the nation’s incoming top leadership, which will likely be left to address a wide array of serious issues – such as a deep divide in income and privilege, widespread environmental woes, rampant official corruption and a lack of rule of law – without enacting transformational reform that could directly threaten the status quo.
The all-powerful politburo standing committee is scheduled for unveiling on Thursday. All that is thought to be definite is that Vice President Xi Jinping will become the nation’s president and the party’s general secretary, and Vice Premier Li Keqiang will move into the premier’s seat.
Whatever the standing committee’s composition, few expect it to make any radical moves.
The reason, observers say, can partly be boiled down to this: Beijing does not want anything resembling a Chinese version of Mikhail Gorbachev, the general secretary of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party whose aggressive policy changes in the 1980s unwittingly hastened the downfall of an empire.
“In Hu’s report . . . the meaning of the so-called erroneous path referred to the former Soviet Union and Gorbachev,” said Li Weidong, a political analyst in Beijing and former editor of a reformist journal.
While then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping championed an economic opening in the 1980s that 30 years later has created the world’s second-largest economy, neither he nor his successors allowed the same to happen in the political sphere, over which the Communist Party still has absolute rule.
Just two years prior to the final undoing of the Soviet Union, the 1989 demonstrations at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square ended in a bloody crackdown with troops opening fire on their fellow Chinese.
Then came the Soviet collapse, marked formally at the end of 1991, which left a deep impression on party scholars who studied the legacy of Gorbachev’s “glasnost” policy that led to an opening of political speech and activity.
“The conclusion they came to was that Gorbachev was a traitor – his glasnost, the so-called new thinking, was the main cause for the disintegration,” Li said.
He added: “It was exactly because there was this thinking, and this conclusion, that for more than 20 years, (the authorities) adopted extremely strict measures on managing and controlling speech, and spared no effort to reject things like the so-called glasnost and democratic elections.”
The state-controlled press has run a raft of recent commentaries reinforcing the notion that the party doesn’t want to move quickly.
“A poor political decision may cause suffering for generations, and even mislead the whole nation,” Fang Ning, a senior official at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said in a column Friday in the state-controlled Global Times. “What Gorbachev did to Russia is an excellent example.”
Reinforcing the message, the state Xinhua newswire ran an item on Monday that paraphrased Xie Chuntao, a history professor at the party’s central committee school, as saying that “the momentum of democracy in China is unstoppable but must proceed with emphasis on stability and order.” The essay’s headline was based on a phrase from Hu’s speech: “China never to copy Western political system.”