Bursting for change

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2012, 12:00am


The scandalous downfall of Bo Xilai, the ambitious politburo member, once again made clear one of the fundamental faults of the Chinese political system: the absolute monopoly of power under one-party rule. Bo's ouster has triggered the most serious crisis within the Communist Party since 1989 and sparked a public outcry for political reform that is gathering momentum.

Behind the glossy facade of a booming economy, Chinese society now suffers simultaneously the social ills typical of developing and developed countries. The political system has stymied social transformation, resulting in extreme corruption, widening income gaps, deteriorating moral values and heightened social tensions.

To address the widespread discontent, party conservatives pressed for a revival of Maoist doctrines and practices, with Bo spearheading the effort. This reveals not only a poverty of philosophy, but an abundance of stupidity. The removal of Bo as Chongqing's party boss in March served as a fitting finale to this Maoist resurgence.

Since then, the Chinese people have displayed an insuppressible passion for transformational change. This public call for political reform has burst forth in various forms, with achieving democracy and the rule of law as its top priority.

The reforms that have been suggested include steps that would lead to judicial independence and freedom of the press, speech, and assembly. Scholars are now openly debating on the most feasible path to a multiparty system and how to turn China's current legislative bodies into a bicameral system.

The demand for democracy has also permeated the military, the last bulwark of one-party rule. Recently, the army's mouthpiece, the People's Liberation Army Daily, made a rare if tacit admission of vulnerability in railing against 'nationalising the military' or a 'separation between the army and the party'. It called for 'cadres to resist these fallacies'.

Needless to say, the obstinate refusal of political reform exists within the party ranks. In an official-takes-all society, the ruling class is obsessed only with its own entrenched interests. Meanwhile, political reform is certainly a daunting task, given the byzantine complexity of today's Chinese society.

Without political reform, it will be impossible to settle the social conflicts presently raging across the country, caused by corruption and injustice. Lack of political reform will bring all other social progress in China to a halt. This current push for reform could repeat the fate of the late Qing dynasty's 'self-strengthening movement' in the second half of the 19th century - another 30-year effort to modernise China, which failed due to its tenet, 'Western technology, Chinese system'. Now more than ever, party propagandists are drumming up the spectre of a 'Westernisation conspiracy' as an excuse for not enacting political reform. But in the cyber age, this noise can no longer silence the overwhelming call for social justice, which can only be guaranteed by a system of political checks and balances.

Undoubtedly, China is on the eve of great changes. But people power is not the sole decisive force on the course of events. Liberal intellectuals and most citizens prefer that political reform be carried out gradually through the combined efforts of the ruling party and all other social groups. Otherwise, turbulent upheaval will torment the country.

All the current forces that mould Chinese society will converge at the upcoming 18th party congress later this year, when the party leadership will change hands. Political reform would, first of all, require new leaders to manoeuvre strategically to seek a majority support in the party for meaningful reform measures that will earn the people's trust, such as a reappraisal of the Tiananmen crackdown, and mandating that government officials declare their assets.

But all the political reform advocated by reformists in and out of the party is just wishful thinking until accomplished. At the same time, the promise or threat of revolution always haunts China.

Last December, blogger Han Han triggered intense polemics about whether China needs another revolution to wipe out its deep-rooted social maladies. Reform is now racing against possible revolution. Some might point out that the Arab spring of last year didn't trigger a similar 'Jasmine revolution' in China, but it is wrong to believe that the Chinese people will accept for long a political system that lags behind even the democratic progress in the Middle East.

Ultimately, nothing suggests an urgent need for political reform more than China's current situation, which already qualifies as a revolution under the definition of one classic authority. A revolutionary situation emerges, as Lenin described in 1915, 'when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis ... leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth'.

Yun Tang is a member of the World Affairs Council of Washington. tangletters@gmail.com