Pundits generally agree that this month’s 17th National Congress is unlikely to bring major change on the political reform front. But many also predict there will be small steps forward, and that these are likely to come in the area of “inner-party democracy” (党内民主). I agree with this assessment, and I think we should pay close attention to how Hu Jintao deals with inner-party democracy.
We’ve already seen a sharp rise in use of the term “inner-party democracy” in official party media, most notably People’s Daily, since the 16th congress:


[GRAPH: Number of articles in China’s official People’s Daily using the term “inner-party democracy” from 1949-2006.]

“Inner-party democracy” appeared in 103 People’s Daily articles in 2006. While that might not seem like a lot, it marks a new historical high point for the term and shows it is getting greater priority.
So what is inner-party democracy?
As the term itself makes clear, this is not about “popular democracy” (人民民主). The idea, rather, is greater “democracy” – or more shared decision-making – among party members (who account for just 5 percent of China’s whole population). That’s not so appetizing, perhaps, for democracy proponents outside China. But some believe this is a new party approach to political reform, and that inner-party democracy can be used to pull along more broad-based political reforms.


[An October 2004 article in Economic Daily by current Politburo Standing Committee member Wu Guanzheng (吴官正) argues for the development of inner-party democracy.]

Some scholars argue that political reform in China should take its cues from the so-called “East Asian Model” – that is, more centralized, single-party control with an agenda focusing on economic growth. Yu Keping (俞可平), an influential party theorist close to Hu Jintao, has been clear on this point:

One-party leadership is the basic character of China’s political system. One-party leadership means the Communist Party of China is the only political party in China, sharing political power with no other party or political entity.

And yet, even in the context of one-party rule, there is room for progress toward more “democratic” decision-making.
At this point, it’s hard to see how firm Hu Jintao’s commitment is to inner-party democracy. In his June 25 speech he had the following to say: “We must continue — actively, safely, soundly and effectively – to promote the building of inner-party democracy” (要继续积极稳妥、扎实有效地推进党内民主建设) … “to perfect the system of inner-party democracy, [and] to raise consciousness about inner-party democracy”( 完善党内民主制度,使党内民主意识普遍增强).
This could be read as Hu Jintao’s endorsement of inner-party democracy. But it shows at the same time a great deal of wariness. The words “actively, safely, soundly and effectively” tug back on the reins and ensure reforms don’t pick up too much speed.
Hu Jintao talks in the same passage about “upholding democratic centralism” (坚持民主集中制). This makes his bottom line clear – there will be no change to the longstanding status quo of one-party rule.
If Hu Jintao hedges with these words in his political report to the 17th congress this will signal that while inner-party democracy will be a priority over the next five years we cannot expect any major steps.
As we assess Hu Jintao’s progress on inner-party democracy, we should look especially at the following questions:

*How will party elections be handled for the 17th National Congress?
*Will delegates to the congress play a role in shaping the party agenda?
*Will there be discussion about creating a permanent decision-making body for the 17th congress (常任制) so that delegates can participate in affairs beyond the meeting this month?

I’ll be turning to all three of these issue later this week.
(Qian Gang, October 1, 2007)
[Translated by David Bandurski]
Previous 17th Congress article: “Will there be echoes in Hu Jintao’s report of the 8th or 13th congresses?

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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