Feudal legacy mocks hi-tech message

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 March, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 March, 2000, 12:00am

Feudalism lurks behind the hi-tech. This perhaps cynical assessment of the on-going National People's Congress (NPC) session nonetheless throws some light on much that is happening on the mainland.

While President Jiang Zemin told Hong Kong deputies to the NPC and its sidekick, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), that he knew little about cyber stocks, he dwelled on the need for cadres to learn high technology to stay competitive in the new economy. Vice-Premier Li Lanqing urged parliamentarians, educators and cadres 'to stay at the forefront of the knowledge economy'.

For many NPC delegates and observers, however, the medium and the message of senior cadres smack of not just the Maoist era but the mainland's millennium-long feudalism.

Consider Mr Jiang's closed-door session with Hong Kong members of the CPPCC. Like emperors of yore, the erudite president likes to convey his messages through cryptic references to ancient verses.

Talking about his lifestyle in the Zhongnanhai party compound, Mr Jiang quoted the Qing dynasty poet Zheng Banqiao: 'Suddenly your power wanes and it becomes like a spring dream: isn't it better to live in a simple house in an isolated alley, and give lessons to some unkempt kids?' Then he cited a poem from the famous novel, Dream Of The Red Chamber: 'We came naked and will depart likewise; how free of worldly worries!' Mr Jiang's remarks have raised eyebrows for two reasons. First, was he alluding to his retirement at the 16th Party Congress of 2002? While it is well-known that the president wants to remain China's leader as long as he is alive, he has been attacked for failing to observe Deng Xiaoping's teachings on rejuvenation. Is the Zheng reference a way of deflecting criticism? The poem is intriguing also because it is an apt description of Zhu Rongji's retirement plan. Although he is two years younger than Mr Jiang, the premier must retire by 2003. And he has told intimates that after stepping down he will go to teach at the Business School of Qinghua University.

The lines from Red Chamber are of more relevance to the anti-corruption campaign. While talking to different groups of NPC and CPPCC delegates, Mr Jiang stressed the need to instil in officials the high ideals of 'plain living and hard struggle'. 'We must nurture in the deepest reaches of people's minds a lofty quality of character,' he said.

Likewise, while discussing the same subject with CPPCC members, NPC chairman Li Peng waxed eloquent on how to 'establish the correct philosophy of life, world-view and value system' in cadres.

Even Mr Zhu saluted the imperative of propagating Lei Feng-like Marxist paragons, what he called in his Government Work Report to the NPC, 'just, clean and wise leaders'.

The idea that the main role of government is to produce officials with saintly characters - and that such saints can do no wrong - is more Confucianist than Marxist.

This moralistic, 'rule-by-personality' approach is evidenced by the way NPC spokesman, Zeng Jianhui, explained the absence of NPC Vice-Chairman Cheng Kejie, under investigation suspected of having pocketed huge sums in bribes. Mr Zeng told reporters Cheng had asked for leave to immerse himself in 'self-examination'.

The Confucianist norm, however, goes against the legalistic, systems-oriented concept of governance in the West: that the most crucial thing is to construct a framework of checks and balances to ensure that even when a saintly administrator turns devilish, he cannot do much wrong, and his misdeeds will soon be spotted.

A disappointment of this NPC and CPPCC session is how the leadership has steered clear of political reform, despite the fact that quite a few deputies have raised motions on the subject. For example, a group of cadres and scholars from the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) has suggested that elections be upgraded from the level of villages to that of townships.

Two CASS academics also proposed a press law safeguarding the rights of the country's 600,000 journalists.

What Mr Zhu promised in his work report, however, was little more than noblesse oblige with Chinese characteristics: that the leadership will listen more to the views of the people. And he invited citizens with grievances to send petitions to the central authorities.

'We must attach importance to the letters from and visits by the masses, and do practical, useful ideological and political work,' Mr Zhu wrote.

While meeting CPPCC deputies, the premier also encouraged those with new ideas to take up their pens. 'Please write to me to present your views,' he said. 'I shall definitely read the letters and nobody will block them.' Likewise, while talking to a top Hong Kong educator, Mr Jiang invited him to send samples of his students' work to him. 'Perhaps it may not be that convenient to mail letters to Zhongnanhai,' he said. 'You may first send them to the CPPCC and have [CPPCC chairman] Li Ruihuan re-direct them to me.' The point, of course, is not only that at a time when the leadership is encouraging hi-tech and e-commerce, top cadres should have asked people with pressing concerns to e-mail instead of writing letters. After all, letters, particularly those touching on taboo political matters, have a way of getting lost in the bureaucratic maze.

The main thing is whether the party leadership has become a coterie of self-styled Confucianist-cum-Marxist saints too convinced of their righteousness to introduce real reforms to the antiquated political system.

Last winter, a group of liberal NPC and CPPCC members petitioned the authorities to consider liberalisation through steps including the separation of party and government and recognising the constitutional rights of the legislature.

Last week, Central Party School professor Wang Guixiu told reporters the leadership must rectify concepts such as 'the Communist Party is more superior than the NPC' and 'the party is above the law'.

Such pleadings for reform, however, have been buried by the rhetoric on crushing the Falun Gong and quelling the 'splittists' in Taiwan.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Post associate editor