Will China Delay Reform - Again?

A recent Chinese internet meme lacerated what is widely seen as a lame excuse for why China’s leaders have been so slow to enact political reform.

The ever-sharp social media blog Tea Leaf Nation says it all started when Professor Gong Fangbing, at China’s National Defense University, wrote an essay for a People’s Daily website, arguing that the reason the Communist Party hasn’t yet embraced democracy is “largely because of insufficient preparation of theoretical backing.”

Gong posited that the party, despite being in power for 63 years, hadn’t developed theories to move it from a revolutionary party to a ruling party that could, maybe, eventually, share power.

The responses, gathered by Tea Leaf Nation from Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, were scathing: “Now I get it. The Chinese soccer team didn’t win the World Cup because of insufficient theory,” scoffed one user.

“Lunch is delayed due to insufficient theory,” tweeted another. “Due to insufficient theory, constipation continues,” wrote a third.

And attorney Yuan Yulai added, “It’s only natural to conduct democratic reforms and return power to the people. If you steal something, you return it to the owner. Why does that need theoretical proof?”

It is a question that’s getting harder for the Communist Party to answer. And as the party prepares for the Nov. 8 opening of a party congress that will announce a new generation of leaders, a growing chorus of voices from unexpected quarters is saying political reform is long overdue.

Deng Yuwen, deputy editor a newspaper put out by the Central Party School, The Study Times, has criticized President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao for having “created more problems than achievements” – by having failed to reform the system. And that was even before The New York Times came out with its exhaustively researched investigative report about the US$2.7 billion it said Wen’s family has amassed in the time he’s been a senior leader.

Deng, in an essay published on the website of the business magazine Caijing and promptly taken down by censors, suggested that the Chinese people and the party seem to have increasingly divergent ideas about what reform is. Deng offered his own view.

“The essence of democracy is how to restrict government power; that’s the most important reason why China needs democracy so badly,” he wrote. “Over-concentration of government power without checks and balances is the root cause of so many social problems.”

Among those problems, he said, is China’s growing wealth gap, with many of the wealthiest being Communist Party officials, their relatives and close friends. The 70 wealthiest members of the National People’s Congress were found by Bloomberg News Agency last year to have an average net worth of $1.2 billion. Each.

The party’s response to growing resentment of such inequality, not to mention snide online commentary about it? Party cadres – and their families – have been ordered to reduce conspicuous consumption of luxury goods, especially in the run-up to the Party Congress.

But that’s barely a beginning, in a year when reports are coming out about the families of top leaders amassing fortunes, when one of the Communist Party’s former stars, Bo Xilai, had his spectacular fall from grace, when the son of Hu Jintao’s effective chief of staff crashed a black Ferrari in the wee hours of a March night, killing himself and badly injuring the two young women – one Tibetan, one Uighur – who were in the car with him, in various states of undress, according to the South China Morning Post.

Ironically, it was just a couple of weeks before that crash that Xi Jinping, the likely next head of the party and president of China, gave a speech at the Party School, about the importance of “maintaining the purity of the Party.”

“The Party’s capacity to govern, steer reform and opening up, develop the market economy and respond to the external environment will all be challenged, and we will be faced with the growing danger of losing our drive, underperforming, becoming alienated from the people, lacking in initiative, and corruption,” Xi said.

Xi is still an enigma when it comes to how he really feels about political reform – how much, how fast, and what kind. He’s played the game to rise as far as he has in the party. But his father, Xi Zhongxun, was an ally of China’s reformist leader Hu Yaobang in the 1980s, and was the only senior leader to protest when Hu was ousted by senior leader Deng Xiaoping for moving too fast with reforms.

Interestingly, Xi is said to have paid a visit over the summer to Hu’s son, Hu Deping. A Reuters report quoted sources who knew of a written summary of Xi’s remarks to Hu, circulated among some retired officials. In it, Xi was quoted as saying “the problems that China has accumulated are unprecedented” and “we must seek progress and change while remaining steady,” according to Reuters, quoting sources who knew of a written summary of Xi’s remarks circulated among some retired officials.

Even if Xi proves more open to allowing political reform than the outgoing leadership – not a high bar -- there’s still the question of whether he’ll have the clout and persuasive power to push such reforms through a system whose elites have proven adept at protecting their privilege.

And while an increasingly well-informed public, fed-up with corruption, inequality and injustice, is increasingly demanding a better deal from its government – the party is still trying desperately to control the conversation.

That was true even as state-run media were trumpeting the news that Chinese novelist Mo Yan had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Propaganda Department put out the following directive, says the US-based website China Digital Time. It gathers such leaked circulars from disgruntled Chinese journalists and publishes them online in a section called Directives from the Ministry of Truth:

“To all websites nationwide: In light of Mo Yan winning the Nobel prize for literature, monitoring of microblogs, forums, blogs and similar key points must be strengthened. Be firm in removing all comments which disgrace the party and the government, defame cultural work, mention Nobel laureates Liu Xiaobo (serving an 11-year prison sentence for calling for a multi-party democracy in China) and Gao Xingjian (a Chinese novelist in exile), and associated harmful material.

Kind of annoying for the censors, then, that Mo Yan himself had barely taken the time to bask in the party’s congratulations for his award, when he turned around and called for Liu Xiaobo to be released as soon as possible.

The party continues to scramble to keep up. The popularly acerbic blogger Han Han, in his book, This Generation, sums up the growing tension in China this way: “The main contradiction in China today is that between the growing intelligence of the population at large and the rapidly waning morality of our officials.”

A growing number of Chinese people aren’t afraid to say they deserve better. Some are impatient to see if their new leaders have the vision and courage to lead the change that’s needed rather than be unwillingly pushed forward by it. Few are holding their breath.

(Mary Kay Magistad is East Asia correspondent for PRI/BBC's "The World.” This is reprinted with permission from the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization)