By David Bandurski — Earlier this week we posted the latest reform related piece by prominent party scholar Li Junru (李君如), in which he argues that China has made substantial progress over the last 30 years not only on economic reform but also on political reform. Li said party leaders had “promoted democratic elections, democratic decision-making, democratic governance and democratic monitoring” and had worked hard “to ensure the citizens’ right to know, right to participate, right to express and right to monitor (知情权、参与权、表达权、监督权). [Frontpage Image of Mao at Tiananmen by Davidfg available at Flickr under Creative Commons license.]
But in an editorial in yesterday’s edition of Southern Metropolis Daily, Nanjing professor Shao Jian (邵建) wrote of the failure to implement democracy at the county and township level as a primary cause leading to abuse of power and cases of mass social unrest like those seen recently in Weng’an and Menglian.
Shao’s piece does not address Li Junru’s remarks directly, but opens up the issue of political reform by addressing remarks over the weekend by economist Zhang Wuchang (张五常), who rather boldly suggested that China had already arrived at “what is in Chinese history, and even in human history, the best system.”
Before leaping into Shao’s Southern Metropolis Daily editorial it is worth noting that while “political reform” has persisted as a topic in China’s media over the last year, there is no particular indication that the issue is growing, and it is premature to suggest, as some commentators have, that change is in the air.
In fact, the language of “political reform”, or zhengzhi tizhi gaige (政治体制改革) has moderated somewhat since last year’s 17th National Congress. The following is a graph plotting all articles in the mainland media (300+ newspapers) making use of the term “political reform” since October 2007:
There is a drop in November 2007, following the peak that came with the 17th National Congress, and a large peak again with the National People’s Congress and a wave of discussion about “super-ministry reform.”
We are probably approaching another October peak, and can expect to see more intensified coverage (on a statistical basis) of issues like “intra-party democracy” (党内民主) and “thought liberation” (解放思想).
As for real and substantial progress on political reform — don’t hold your breath. Having said that, we are hearing some interesting voices on political reform and democracy. Shao Jian’s editorial follows in full:
“There is No Such Thing as the Best System, Only a Better System“
By Shao Jian (邵建)
At a market economics forum hosted recently in Beijing, participants held that “the system and rules in various regions of China have experienced huge change over the last 30 years, and clear signs of this can be seen in the protection of private property, the steady decline of the public economy, and in the gradual development of private enterprise, which now comprises half of the overall economy.” On this basis, Chinese economist Zhang Wuchang (张五常) asserted: “Over the last 30 years China has groped about and found what is in Chinese history, and even in human history, the best system.” From the standpoint of “political correctness” (政治正确), this statement is not a problem naturally. But for so-called systems, no matter what kind we’re talking about, there is really no such thing as “the best.”
China has gone through 30 years of reform, and the main thrust has been economic reform, whose achievements were enumerated by the forum participants above. But I personally do not share their optimism. Not long ago I saw some numbers about how state-owned assets account for more than 75 percent of total assets, and that by contrast total private assets (民间总资产) account for less than 25 percent. Assuming these figures are accurate, we cannot really say that that we’re seeing the steady decline of the public economy, nor can we say that the private economy accounts for half of the overall economy. Unless we accelerate economic reform, even with another 30 years we will not reach the point where half of the economy is private. This cannot be called a market economy, but only a “Chinese market economy” (中国市场经济). Theoretically speaking, a market economy should not have such a robust state-owned economy.
Market economies are about opening up rights and benefits to the people, not about government power. When inequality persists between rights and power (权力和权利), the market’s basic character cannot be competition. The problem is that when power creeps inside, can we really expect rights and interests (权利) on the one hand and power (权力) on the other to enter into fair competition? Needless to say, in many state monopolized sectors rights are excluded altogether and there is no competition whatsoever to speak of.
The obstacles to further economic reform in China clearly do not lie in the economy, but in another critical place. In my view, the crux of the Weng’an and Menglian incidents is the fact that democracy has not been properly carried out at the county and township levels. Some commentators have attributed the Weng’an incident to local government bureaucracy, saying that after the incident occurred key local officials were unable to make decisions properly . . . But this view is only skin-deep. The logic of an official, after all, is to be responsible to whomever invests him with power. If those above invest officials with power they are naturally going to handle matters according to the designs and purposes of these superiors. As in the case of Menglian, they will not hesitate to mobilize police power against the villagers. Two points in Yunnan province’s report [on the Menglian incident] should particularly draw our attention. The first is that the local rubber company had long provided the county party secretary with a luxury off-road vehicle for his own personal use. The second is that a small number of county leaders were stakeholders in the rubber enterprise and received shares of the profits . . . We can quite plainly determine in whose interests police were mobilized. These two incidents were not at all about improper handling [by party bureaucrats]. Instead, they bring institutional dilemmas into sharp relief. If we do not deal [with such issues] from this standpoint [of institutional failures], it is hard to envision fundamental change of any sort.
I must emphasize that I am not a negativist, but there is little need for us to harp on our achievements. If we dwell a bit more on our problems this will allow us to seek further improvements. I am confident that on this question my sentiments as here expressed will appeal to common sense. But Mr. Zhang Wuchang tells us instead that right now at this very moment we have the best system in human history. One of the themes of the above-mentioned forum was how China can pursue further reforms looking back now on these three decades. Zhang’s logic tell us we need not do anything at all. We are already the best. I think the popular expression contradicts [this reasoning] most succinctly: “There is no such thing as best, only better.” Zhang’s words fail to recognize this. In point of fact, humanity cannot arrive at the best in terms of choosing systems. As Churchill once said concerning democracy, it is the worst form of government except that humanity has not yet been able to find a better one. And so we see that even in democratic societies the assessment of the democratic system is only that it is the least awful.
[Churchill said: “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”]
In terms of the market economy and democratization, if our system reforms are not yet complete we need to make further shifts – and aside from putting our nose to the grinding wheel there are no other choices.
(The writer is a professor at Nanjing Xiaozhuang University)
[Posted by David Bandurski, September 12, 2008, 9:52pm HK]