[NOTE: In our recent piece on Wen Jiabao’s Shenzhen speech, in which the Premier spoke about the need for political reform, we took issue with the idea that this was a radical departure of some kind, pointing out that Wen’s remarks fall within a tradition of Party discourse on “political system reforms.” We also said, however, that “any statement on political reform is significant” and that “at the very least, Wen’s statement offers an opportunity for Chinese media to push more searchingly on this issue.” More professional Chinese media in particular are already seizing Wen’s speech as a pretext for more exploration of the issue. The following editorial, by former Caijing magazine editor-in-chief Hu Shuli, who is now running New Century News and China Reform, is an excellent case in point.]
August 26 marked the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. Shenzhen’s anniversary has lately stirred up thinking about reform in China, and in this flurry of activity Premier Wen Jiabao’s recent Shenzhen speech has no doubt drawn the most attention. In his speech, Wen Jiabao reaffirmed the importance of political system reforms, or zhengzhi tizhi gaige (政治体制改革), saying that we “must promote not only economic reform, but must promote political system reforms as well. Without political system reforms, the gains of economic reform will come to nothing, and the modernization drive cannot be achieved.”
Wen’s remarks on political reform were not given prominent play in official press releases, but they echoed strongly inside and outside China, and this interest is more than sufficient to demonstrate just how ardently the public waits for action on reform nearly three years after the objective of political system reform was described in a section of the political report to the 17th National Party Congress entitled “Building Socialist Democratic Politics.”
Knowledge is easy, but action is difficult. Reforms in China have already reached a juncture where pushing ahead with political system reforms is absolutely critical. While economic reforms have technically made strides in recent years, there have still been no real breakthroughs in key areas where the government has made solemn prior commitments — such as taxation and factor pricing reform. The reasons for this are of course complicated, but the principal obstacle is lack of progress on political reform.
As political reform has lagged, it has proven difficult to make reforms to China’s social system. And the steady piling up of obstacles to further reforms has divided the public on the prospects and value of reform itself. As China moves into position as the world’s second-largest economy, our leaders must reaffirm the idea that “only by firmly promoting reform and opening can our nation have a bright future.” Political system reforms cannot be delayed any longer; we cannot wait.
Economic reforms and political reforms are complementary and mutually dependent. Deng Xiaoping, the original architect of China’s economic reforms, recognized this fact early on. He said: “The question of whether all of our reforms can ultimately succeed is still to decided by the reform of the political system.”
If we go back to the beginning of reforms, we see that economic reforms and political reforms ran in parallel. Abolishing the system of life-long tenure in leadership posts, promoting the separation of the functions of the Party and the government, strengthening the function of the National People’s Congress, government dialogue with the public on major issues — these were all early trials.
In the past twenty years, however, political reforms have been far from sufficient, a fact that is undeniable.
We must beware this idea that has lately reared up — that China’s economic strength and successes are themselves a demonstration of the success of China’s political system. According to this logic, China’s political system has not changed in the past 60 years, and it is suited as well to the planned economy as it is to the market economy. Given the “political advantage” represented by this “China model,” reform was never necessary before, and reform is equally unnecessary in the future. This argument is blind to the fact that our political system is unsuited to China’s economic development right now. Moreover, it gainsays the CCP’s pronouncements on political reform, and shows blatant disregard for public feeling on this issue.
The failure of forward progress on political reform also has something to do with our apprehensions. No doubt the greatest apprehension among these is the fear that political reform, if not done carefully, will lead to social unrest. This concern is entirely understandable, and it deserves an ear. But if this fear is permitted to carry the day, the factors of social instability in China will only continue to pile up.
We should recognize that our market economic system has been basically established in the past 30 years of reform, and that the social and economic makeup of China has been fundamentally transformed. The sense of personal independence is growing among our citizens, as is consciousness of their rights and the appetite for participation in current affairs. Non-governmental organizations and other social networks are increasingly active in China. A new generation of citizens hopes for the opportunity to create a rational society through a process of enlightenment.
There is no need for concern that the country will descend into chaos and dissension if the process of political reform is gradual and orderly. The experiences of neighboring countries and regions instruct us that while small ripples are unavoidable in the process of political reform, our modern social and economic mechanisms will continue to hold strong if only we advance steadily toward the formation of a truly democratic society. Moreover, political reform must advance in concert with social and cultural reforms, and work in complement to deepening economic reforms.
The founding of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone thirty years ago brought fierce debate inside China, the heart of which was whether reform should come at all. The dispute at that time centered largely on questions of ideology. Today, our reform debate centers on complex and competing interests. If we hope to promote comprehensive reform, we must build the mechanisms by which various interest groups can consult and interact, in order to prevent arbitrary actions by the few, and to avoid the “tyranny of the majority.” In China today, conflicts over rights and interests have intensified, and mass incidents are breaking out with ever greater frequency. Clearly, the people want change, and their enthusiasm can be harnessed.
Owing to the sensitivity of the political reform issue, the reform discussion over the past couple of years has focused on more limited ideas like “government reform” and “administrative reform”, which have actually served to distract from the real and critical tasks of reform.
In his recent speech, Wen Jiabao said political system reforms “must protect the democratic and legal rights of the people; must broadly mobilize and organize the people to manage the affairs of the state, the economy, society and culture in accordance with the law; must resolve on a systemic level the problem of over-concentration of power and unchecked power, creating the conditions for allowing the people to criticize and monitor the government, firmly punishing corruption; must build a fair and just society, in particular protecting judicial impartiality and prioritizing the assistance of weaker elements in society, so that people may live with a sense of safety, and have confidence in the development of the nation.”
These four “musts” are a significant contribution, and can be seen as breakthrough points for political reform. The most important thing, however, is that we act quickly.
This editorial appeared originally in Chinese at Caixin Media.