“Separation of the functions of party and government” (党政分开), or dang zheng fenkai, is a highly sensitive phrase in China. The phrase had a prominent role in political reforms as lined out in Zhao Ziyang’s report to the 13th Congress in 1987, but the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations pushed the term backstage. How Hu Jintao deals with the phrase when the 17th Congress opens next week could offer more clues to the president’s reform plans.
Will Hu hearken back to the 13th Congress, promoting the role of “party-government separation” in reform, or will he stand with the 14th Congress and eliminate all mention of the term?
As I mentioned in a previous article, Deng Xiaoping said of Zhao Ziyang’s political report to the 13th Congress: “Not a word must be changed.” In that report “party-government separation” appeared 13 times and was used in a small section head. The term hasn’t been seen since.
“Party-government separation” was conspicuously absent from Jiang Zemin’s report to the 14th Congress in 1992. Foreign journalists noticed the change. A reporter from Hong Kong asked: “Why isn’t the slogan ‘separating the functions of party and government’ being used anymore?” (People’s Daily, October 16, 1992, Page 4).
The answer came from Zhao Dongyuan (赵东宛), head of China’s Ministry of Personnel:

The goal in carrying out separation of the functions of the party and government was to improve the party’s governance and create a vital and efficient government mechanism. Since the 13th National Congress, party and government organs at various levels have, according to the principle of separating the functions of party and government, done a great deal of work to improve and strengthen party governance, and build and improve government mechanisms. In the area of administrative restructuring, the key problem now is lack of clear lines of separation between governments and enterprises (政企不分). If we want to change the function of government, the basic path of reform is separation of government and enterprise.

Zhao’s answer was, in a nutshell: our priorities have changed.
When Deng Xiaoping first raised “party-government separation” his point was to resolve over-concentration of power (权力过分集中). This trend was reversed for the 14th-16th congresses, where strengthening and concentrating party leadership became an important goal in itself.
This was clear from the 15th Congress report, where “political reform” was tethered to the Four Basic Principles: “With the Four Basic Principles as a precondition, [we will] continue to promote political reform, taking further steps to expand socialist democracy, improve socialist rule of law … From the standpoint of laws and systems, [we will] ensure the party maintains total control and coordinates various aspects in exercising core leadership” (People’s Daily, September 22, 1997).
Political reform did not just slow down in the Jiang Zemin era. It reversed. China moved back toward greater concentration of power. At provincial party congresses, many party secretaries (top provincial leaders) now serve as directors (省人大常委会主任). So while people’s congresses are nominally tasked with filling key posts, such as provincial governor, party secretaries now dominate the selection process, filling posts with their own favorites.
Li Keqiang (李克强), a potential Hu successor who has lately been the center of much speculation, is a good example of this trend. Li is currently party secretary of Liaoning Province but director also of Liaoning’s provincial party congress. As of 2002, at least 19 provinces had this sort of arrangement.
Chinese leaders and scholars go back and forth over the advantages and disadvantages of this centralized system. On the positive side, they say, it allows the party to exercise greater control over the people’s congresses, ensures the party’s message is legitimized as “national will,” and guarantees the party fills the leadership ranks with its own. In addition, powerful party secretaries can better supervise the people’s government, the court system and the procuratorate (一府两院). The upshot, argues the pro side, is increased social stability.
On the con side, officials recognize that greater concentration of power hinders deeper political reform and makes it tougher to check and limit the power of party officials. Further, it inhibits the ability of people’s congresses to effectively and independently monitor officials, and derails rule of law and an independent judiciary.
For more writing from the opposing position, check out the following Chinese links:

Looking at the Practice of Party Secretaries Directing Local People’s Congresses from the Standpoint of Party and Government Relations
Cautions on Party Secretary Direction of Local People’s Congresses
Directing of People’s Congresses by Secretaries Must be Reconsidered

Perhaps the most ardent voice of opposition to this form of concentration of power comes from Wang Guixiu (王贵秀), a professor at China’s Central Party School [SEE: “17th National Congress: What should you interview?“]. Wang argues that the goal of directorship of people’s congresses by party secretaries is control of the congressional election process — more backward even, he says, than party leaders serving simultaneously in government posts. This is a classic example of “rule of man”, or ren zhi (人治), says Wang (See Wang Guixiu, The Road to Political Reform in China, 中国政治体制改革之路. pg. 270).
It’s possible Hu Jintao will ignore the issue of “party-government separation” altogether, prefering not to stake out a position on the phrase. But Hu cannot ignore lingering questions about the basic direction of political reform in China — is the goal greater concentration of power or greater separation?
In his June 25 speech, Hu said “political reforms in our country must stick to the correct political direction.” What does he mean by “correct”? Does it mean that solidifying the leadership of the Communist Party must be at the heart of all so-called reforms?
Once again, we’ll just have to wait and see.
(Qian Gang, October 10, 2007)[Translated by David Bandurski]
Previous 17th Congress article: “The 17th National Congress: Who should you interview?
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David Bandurski

CMP Director

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