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The West’s Test


Exciting news: a pal’s become a pawn of Chinese “democratic” reforms.

I got word a couple weeks ago from the small city of Langfang, an hour’s drive from Beijing. There this friend heads up a division of the city’s livestock department. She also belongs to the Jiu San Society, one of eight little-known democratic parties formed prior to the 1949 Revolution that “accepted” the monopoly rule of the Communists. In return, their members, like women and ethnic minorities, have always been treated to a tiny fraction of seats in the government. Sounds like just another ruse of Maoist coalition-building, right? Except these days we’re seeing “non-Party” cadres gain promotions to higher-level posts than before. One of them was named the new science minister last month – the first to head a ministry. Word is that another could become the next health minister. As for our friend, she was named vice-chairman of a district-level branch of the People’s Political Consultative Conference – a mere talk shop in the twiggy legislative branch, though a prestigious and increasingly vociferous one. “A lot of people pay big money to buy these posts,” as this friend’s younger sis pointed out. “But Big Sister was hand-picked.”

Americans have come to think of China as the big “test case” of the axiom advanced by Francis Fukuyama and others in the wake of Soviet disintegration: that capitalism and democracy come about in symbiotic succession. China, it’s become popular to argue of late, has been failing this test. So are a lot of countries; so many that the theory itself may be failing.

Yet we continue to cling to it. It’s more than an axiom. It’s a cosmic ideal.

In fact, if you listen to the rhetoric of reform, China submits itself quite readily to the West’s test. In the 18 years since the government crushed pro-democracy demonstrations Tianamin Square, the Party has done a frighteningly good job of de-stigmatizing the concept of “political system reform”. Current Chinese leaders have had to learn to riff freely on the lexicon of the free world. “Democracy” is not nearly the unmentionable it once was. Rather, these leaders assert, it’s something inevitable.

But what kind of democracy? How fast? On whose terms? These are much pricklier questions. Party leaders have only tinkered with low-level elections, a few internal checks and balances, and other tokens of political pluralism – boosting the profile of democratic party technocrats like my pal, for one. The supremacy of the Communist Party remains a sine qua non making “inner-party democracy”, the most exciting plank of procedural reform, seem a paradox nonetheless.

So every time official rhetoric or semi-official debate heats up over democracy, China watchers take sides. The purists regard any conversation as meaningless innuendo, a striptease, designed to defer hardcore action. The romantics sees it as meaningful foreplay, a mood-setter, communicating the impulse, at least somewhere in Party-state, to take things to the next level. Truth is, the geopolitics of resurgent nationalism have become about as much of a stumbling block as the realpolitik of Party control. The liberal democratic models of the West are China’s suitors. And Beijing’s mandarins are stuck playing a highly self-conscious game of hard to get.

This summer, particularly, the West’s test – democracy, yes or no? – is playing on their psyche. Come autumn, Party will convene the most decisive event in China’s political cycle, the Party congress, held once every five years, which seals not only policy direction but also personnel shifts at the top. Paramount in the run-up to it are two questions: who will succeed Hu Jintao, who is slated to retire in 2012; and what reforms will mark his political legacy? The outcome of the congress will offer preview, and many expect the issues to intertwine somewhat over the next five years, perhaps in the form of electoral experiments at the Party’s highest echelons. For the leadership to be decided by 100 or 200 people rather than 10 or 20 – in China, that would be a genuine breakthrough.

Intellectual voices across the political spectrum are trying to influence the outcome of the coming congress. Veteran liberal scholars and newspaper editors are pushing hard for change, none harder, naturally, than the infirm who might not survive to see the next one. One of them is 72-year-old Wang Guixiu, a retired professor from the Central Party School in Beijing. In the Beijing Daily in May, he wrote:

For a long time now, we have been overly guarded or even terrified of the West’s “tripartite separation of powers”, and often have avoided mentioning “separation of powers”. This has given rise to the following understanding in people’s minds: political power in our party and government can only be centralized, not decentralized.”

“In fact, this is the ultimate misunderstanding…Marxism has never been opposed in general to separation of powers, and even less so rational separation of powers.”

“There are certain old or rigid views that only block development,” Wang told me recently, in a phone interview syncopated by his rib-wrenching coughs. Wang was hopeful the Party Congress would endorse deeper democratic reform within the Party. ”Naturally, I’m hoping that there will be more people appealing for that.”

But on the left are wary conservatives and diehard socialists. In the pages of the People’s Daily, they stand by the mainstream Party formulation of “socialist democracy,” which is best understood in precisely that sequence: the people’s needs – order, stability, material well-being – come before their basic individual liberties. It’s the Communist dynasty’s spin on the ancient Confucian credo of minben, which stresses the ruler’s paternalistic obligation to the people. Given the perilous levels of corruption and inequality China is grappling with, the lefties have a point. Intellectuals of the New Left, in particular, think the solution lies in taking back power from wanton “sesame officials” in the provinces.

There’s an emergent middle in the discourse as well. Moderate progressives are trying to build consensus and synthesize the divisive debate, in effect, by blurring the nationalistic stripes of democratization. At a press conference in March, Premier Wen Jiabao went to unusual lengths to call for “large-scale” reform. Capitalist societies do not enjoy a monopoly over democracy, human rights and a just legal system, Wen said. “They are common values pursued by mankind.” A known adviser to Wen and Hu, named Yu Keping, raised eyebrows earlier with a piece aimed at clearing the air. The title said it all: “Democracy is a Good Thing.” For Yu and Wen, the issue is when and how – not if.

The when and how of democratization is not just a developmental question but a semantic one. Democratizing the Chinese political system is going to require just the sort of theoretical breakthrough – and the corresponding gymnastics of propaganda – that Deng and his cohorts used to justify market reforms after Mao. But on the ground, China is doing a much better job at passing the West’s test: society is opening up with its markets – just not strictly within the guaranteed framework of political and legal institutions. People are asserting their power through less-than-guaranteed channels, the Internet particularly. The country is liberalizing, in this regard, by force of happenstance.

Case in point: Before a monumental new law to protect private property passed in March, leftist critics carped that it would only safeguard the rich and the crooked. But if properly enforced, it also should stop officials from illegal land requisitions – a non-stop source of social turmoil. Right after the legislature passed it in March, newspapers and bloggers alike swarmed to a “test case” – a couple in Chongqing who refused to vacate their condemned home, perched like a chimney rock in a canyon of construction. City leaders stepped in and a fat settlement was negotiated. In an interview, Liu Chun, director of the politics and law department at the Central Party School, cited the property as an example of Fukuyaman evolution.“The most direct motivation for legal and political reform is not a set group of leaders or decision-makers, but social and economic development.”

A few intrepid individuals within the system are making a difference, too, making my friend’s appointment a less trivial that it might have seemed just a few years ago. The state’s environmental watchdog, SEPA, has exploited “storms” of publicity in the state-owned press and unilateral policy directives to stop formidable polluters in their tracks. The rainmaker behind the relentless P.R. effort is deputy minister Pan Yue, a Tiananmen-era liberal who ironically was transferred to SEPA – then considered ineffectual – after he advocated speeding up democratic reform ahead the 2002 Party congress. “He was supposed to be sidelined,” a colleague of Pan’s told me recently. “No one expected he’d make SEPA itself a force for democracy.”

The latest case SEPA has taken up is that of the citizens of the southeast port of Xiamen, who two weeks ago led successful protest to suspend a huge petrochemical factory slated to move in just over four miles from the city center. The person who raised national attention to the project and led the fight to relocate was a woman named Zhao Yufen, a leading Xiamen scientist named and delegate to the CPPCC – the national-level organ of the body which my pal now represents.

Back in Langfang, I asked my pal what she thought about that case. She was impressed that someone in a position similar to hers could make a such a difference. Meanwhile she was preoccupied with more basic concerns. Her new sub-legislative post would pay her $130 less a month than she was making as a technocrat. She might not have as much time or freedom to do business on the side, either. But alas, her father had been a top local official in Langfang before her. She was urged by relatives to accept the honor and carry on the family legacy. “As my uncle said, it’s good for networking.”

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