As Party leaders position themselves politically ahead of this year’s 18th Party Congress, an unruly process (e.g., Wang Lijun) stirring behind a veneer of national unity, various sides are trying to shore up their ideological positions as well. That is why, in recent weeks, there has been a ratcheting up of rhetoric over the 20th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s “southern tour,” the 1992 junket — some have called it a “quasi-imperial tour” — in which the architect of China’s reform policy reinvigorated reforms against staunch opposition from conservatives on the left.

Coming between the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen crackdown and the 14th Party Congress in October 1992, Deng’s tour was an important political event shaping China’s dominant political-economic agenda for years after. Essentially, Deng pushed for deeper reform and silenced divisive left-right wrangling over whether reforms were fundamentally “capitalist” (姓资) or “socialist” (姓社) in nature.

Chalking up another important date alongside the “southern tour” anniversary, yesterday, February 19, marked 15 years since Deng Xiaoping’s passing — another occasion inside China to turn the debate over Deng’s legacy into a broader discussion of reform.

Twenty years on from the “southern tour,” and 15 years after Deng Xiaoping’s death, China is an undisputed global economic power, now the world’s second-largest economy, a member of the World Trade Organization, and a crucial partner in dealing with the global financial crisis.

But many, including senior leaders and prominent economists, have warned that reforms in China now face another crucial moment, not unlike that in 1992. Reforms, they say, have come to a standstill as vested interests in the Party have grown stronger and more entrenched, resistant to the changes necessary to deal with rising social problems. [See also Qin Xiao: “Reform must not stop in its tracks“].


[ABOVE: In a photo posted by new media entrepreneur Isaac Mao to Flickr.com on February 17, China-Europe International Business School professor Su Xiaonian delivers a lecture at the school and says there have been no meaningful reforms in China since 1996. The only “reform” on his post-1996 list: China’s WTO entry.]

Speaking out today through an interview pushed on the front page of Guangdong’s Southern Metropolis Daily is Zhou Ruijin (周瑞金), the former editor-in-chief of Liberation Daily who also served as deputy editor-in-chief of the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.

Zhou, who is often regarded today as the chief voice of the pro-reform faction within the CCP, was also an instrumental voice in China ahead of Deng Xiaoping’s “southern tour.”

In early 1991, one year before the tour, it was a series of commentary pieces written by “Huang Fuping” (皇甫平) in the Liberation Daily that ignited the divisive debate over the direction of reforms. Zhou Ruijin was one of the authors behind the pen name “Huang Fuping” and the essays, which called for an intensification of reforms.

Below is a image of today’s front page at Southern Metropolis Daily, with a large headline at the top, just to the right of a portrait of Deng Xiaoping, that reads: “Reforms have reached another historical moment at which we must forge ahead with all our strength.” The slightly smaller headline just above it reads: “Commemorating the 15th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s passing, Zhou Ruijin, one of the [writers behind] ‘Huang Fuping’, revisits the southern talks.”


[ABOVE: The front page of the February 20, 2012, edition of Southern Metropolis Daily.]

Readers are then directed to page A06, where a half-page article provides an overview of the “Huang Fuping” series of essays and the southern talks and then an interview with Zhou Ruijin, who is pictured at the bottom right.

Zhou’s argument is essentially that China must break through the recalcitrance and “loss of reform energy” represented by the special interests that have come to dominate China’s economy, and the country must reach a new consensus on pushing reforms forward.


[ABOVE: Page A06 of the February 20, 2012, edition of Southern Metropolis Daily.]

There are also references in the Southern Metropolis Daily interview to China’s regime of “stability preservation,” or weiwen (维稳), an expensive mass mobilization of police against Chinese with legitimate grievances stemming from economic and political marginalization.

While some within the CCP regard “stability preservation” as necessary in the context of rising social unrest in China, others see it as fundamentally self-defeating, generating an endless cycle of violence and dis-enfranchisement that fuels further unrest.

In one of his more memorable lines, Zhou Ruijin says: “As the masses face trouble and distress, as they face danger and chaos, Party secretaries [i.e., top leaders in China at all levels] must move ahead of the police, listening attentively to and resolving the demands of the people; they must not hide behind the lines, exacerbating tensions between the government and the people.”

A partial translation of the Zhou Ruijin piece follows, but readers are strongly encouraged to spend time with the Chinese original. This is an important piece in the ongoing tug-of-war over reforms ahead of the 18th Party Congress later this year.

For further background on how the discussion of Deng Xiaoping’s “southern tour” has come into play ahead of leadership changes later this year, readers might turn to this article in The National yesterday, and to this video analysis from Gao Wenqian, which notes other recent Deng coverage in Guangdong newspapers.

The Roots of the Loss of Reform Energy Are Not About Limits in Understanding
Zhou Ruijin (周瑞金), one of the people under the pen name “Huang Fuping” (皇甫平), reviews the southern tour talks and says the limits lie in the entangling of interests and the unwillingness to let go
By Zhou Hucheng (周虎城)

A year before [Deng] Xiaoping’s southern talks, China had a debate over the essays of Huang Fuping. This series of four essays by “Huang Fuping” were organized and published by the Liberation Daily. They conveyed the spirit of the latest directions on reform and opening by Deng Xiaoping, and they were his views and opinions as discussed when he was in Shanghai spending the Spring Festival holiday in 1991. After they were published that year, these essays prompted a massive response in Chinese society.

In recent days, our Nanfang Daily reporter interviewed Zhou Ruijin, one of the [people behind the pen name] “Huang Fuping.” He believes that revisiting [Deng] Xiaoping’s southern talks is about ensuring that reforms become the dominant mainstream value among those in the Chinese Communist Party. He has a strong positive view on Guangdong’s moves to liberate ideas (解放思想) and to re-invent social management, and he urges Guangdong to continue moving at the forefront, paving a “green lane” (绿道) [to future national development] in the hearts of the people.

Following on [initial] reforms [China] did not keep a rein on public power, capital was enlarged on the basis of market mechanisms, and [entrenched] special interests emerged. Deepening economic reforms, and promoting social reforms, administrative reforms and political system reforms, is needed in order to break through “increasingly entrenched” (步步为营) “special interest groups” (特殊利益集团) that have emerged on the back of incomplete market reforms.

Compared to the 1980s and early 1990s, today’s leaders and cadres are more informed (知识化) and more professional (专业化水准更高), and they are not divorced from the mainstream sentiments of the people. The loss of momentum in pushing reforms forward comes from the snare of knotty and deeply-rooted difficulties and from the entanglement of interests, making [special interests] reluctant to give a free hand to reforms.

Today reforms suffer from a lack of understanding about how to reform, from an unwillingness to reform, daring not reform, and from empty talk about reform. So we have reform on paper, reform on our lips, but no attempt to assess our situation or take action. Or on the other hand, we have action [that is ill-considered and] that just just rocks the boat.

Today the crux of question of whether leaders can bear the great responsibility of reform is not about their heads, but rather about their backends. It’s not hard to keep a clear head. The difficulty comes in whether to sit [one’s backend down] with the special interests, or to sit with the people, to sit with the central government and with the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics.

As the masses face trouble and distress, as they face danger and chaos, Party secretaries [i.e., top leaders in China at all levels] must move ahead of the police, listening attentively to and resolving the demands of the people; they must not hide behind the lines, exacerbating tensions between the government and the people.

Reforms have reached another historical moment at which we must forge ahead with all our strength

Reporter: How do you view the historical significance and status of [Deng] Xiaoping’s southern talks?

Zhou Ruijin: Those who experienced it will still recall that the late 1980s and early 1990s were an important historical juncture when China was questioning where reforms should go. There was a fierce debate over whether they should be “market orientated” (市场取向) or “planning orientated” (计划取向), and the latter “planning orientated” camp was gaining the upper hand. The Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee [in December 1978] had laid down the path of reform and opening, but this was coming under serious challenge. For example, there was at the time a very “leftist” article that said that “the core, focus and crux of the question of reform is what in what [political] orientation to carry out reforms,” that there was one view of reforms that in fact was “capitalist” (资本主义化). Some comrades blotted out all subtleties and divided reform views into one with a “capitalist surname” and another with a “socialist surname” (姓资姓社).

This significance of Deng Xiaoping’s southern talks lay in the astonishing courage and insight of this old man, who while being alert to the “right” essentially guarded against [the ascendance of] the “left.” In economic terms, he argued that development was the overriding concern, that the planned economy did not equal socialism, that the market economy did not equal capitalism. Planned economics and the market, [he said], were both economic strategies. In ideological terms, he raised the concept of the “three benefits” standard (三个有利于) in determining the legitimacy of reform. As he went south, [Deng] Xiaoping spoke on each leg of the trip, from Wuhan all the way to Guangdong. This was a sunny journey to restart reforms and reinvigorate the popular will . . .

As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the southern talks, China has already now become the world’s second-largest economy. It has become an important ballast in dealing with the global financial crisis. But various tensions and interest conflicts within China are also gathering and increasing. Reforms have again reached a historical moment at which we must forge ahead with all our strength.

Looking at the grassroots [of society] and online public opinion, you can see there is a strong base of support for reform. This must be leveraged, bringing the will of the Party and the people together [on reform] and promoting the innovation of social management. Like Guangdong, [we must] give priority to and promote social construction (社会建设), using government and civil society strength in coordination to resolve the complex problems facing our society in transition. Just as [Deng] Xiaoping said that year: “Once certain something must be done, we must dare to experiment, carving open a new path.”