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Saturday, November 17, 2012
OP-ED

Tackling reforms in China

Outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao has prescribed a conservative developmental model called the Scientific Development View (SDV) for the country's next-generation leadership. The SDV, which he introduced in 2003, one year after he took power, champions a "more balanced" growth along the way to creating a "harmonious society." Taking such a scientific approach is said to help minimise conflict by narrowing the income gap, reducing regional economic disparity, promoting social welfare as well as pushing back environmental degradation.

Last Thursday, in his final major address after 10 years at the helm of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Mr. Hu hailed the SDV concept as one of the guiding principles of the country, along with Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory and Mr. Jiang Zemin's Three Represents.

In his 28,000-word report to the 18th Party Congress, Hu made 16 references to the SDV, stressing that it was key to China's success and should therefore be faithfully adhered to -- in fact placing the SDV on a par with the theories of Deng and Jiang. By doing so, he established himself as the formal genealogical descendant of Karl Marx and Mao, founders of modern communism and communist China respectively.

It is in wanting to prove himself as their legitimate heir in the Marxist-Leninist ideological heritage that Hu revealed himself to be a major source of political conservatism in China. This political conservatism is apparent when one compares his latest work report with the one he made at the 17th Party Congress five years ago.

Qian Gang, a researcher at the Centre of Media and Journalism Studies at the University of Hong Kong, is a leading expert on analysing the speeches of CCP leaders. He looked at, among other things, how often 10 key terms in the CCP lexicon, including Mao Zedong Thought, SDV, the Four Cardinal Principles, and socialism with Chinese characteristics, were mentioned in the two reports. He also found in the latest report a phrase that Hu used for the first time, when he pledged that the CCP shall not follow the "evil way" of changing our banners, referring to democratisation.

Qian's conclusion: The 2012 report was more conservative.

This political conservatism is even more obvious if one takes into consideration the fact that the 18th Party Congress was held against the backdrop of the Bo Xilai scandal. The crisis has severely battered the CCP in three major ways.

First, it showed that the monopoly of power led to corruption at the very top. Mr. Bo's family was found to have tried to transfer as much as $6 billion of personal wealth out of China.

Second, it showed that in the absence of checks and balances, senior officials such as Bo were able to engage, unfettered, in all sorts of extra-legal activities, including disobeying the central authorities, confiscating private property in the name of cracking down on organised crime and committing murder.

Third, it showed how the lack of a proper power succession system in the CCP could be easily manipulated by ambitious cadres such as Bo to try to usurp power.

In the months after the Bo scandal erupted in February, there were strong calls to speed up political reform.

The official People's Daily, for instance, pointed out in a commentary that "criticism is preferred to a crisis, and imperfect reform is preferred to a crisis resulting from the lack of reform."

Yet in his report, Hu made only a perfunctory pledge to reform the political system, as he urged senior cadres to keep watch over their family, and highlighted the danger of the party collapsing under the weight of corruption. He did not address the urgent need for political reform sparked by the Bo crisis.

If Hu's report is meant to bequeath his conservative political legacy to the incoming leadership under Xi Jinping, then there may be cause for concern since the ills that have plagued the country look certain to remain.

To most Chinese, the SDV contributed to lopsided developments -- rapid economic growth but lagging political reform.

To be sure, China's rapid ascent during Hu's decade in power has turned the country into the world's second largest economy after the United States and made it a major locomotive for the global economy. At the same time, however, the country continues to be besieged by rampant corruption, a widening income gap and serious environmental degradation. The incidence of social unrest is rising and becoming more widespread, so much so that the state now allocates more money towards maintaining domestic stability than towards boosting national defence.

In fact, to ensure that the 18th Party Congress proceeded smoothly and without incident, Beijing mobilised some 1.4 million so- called "security volunteers" to keep an eye on the city's residents.

So, if anything, this testifies to the urgent need for political reform in China and not the success of the SDV.

The Straits Times (Singapore). All rights reserved. Reprinted by arrangement with Asia News Network.

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