Grounded: China's political reforms

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 October, 2003, 12:00am

The Chinese leadership considers the third plenum of the 16th Communist Party so significant that it planned the session right up to the day before sending its first man into space. But unlike the excitement the space mission has generated, the 300-plus party elites emerged from their four days of meetings with little to deliver, creating an anticlimax.

There had been high expectations. The meeting had been compared to the epoch-making third plenum of the 11th party congress in 1978, when Deng Xiaoping implemented his reform agenda that put China on the road to rapid economic growth. It was also likened to the third plenum of the 14th congress in 1993, when Jiang Zemin presided over the systemic adaptation of the market economy.

So it is not surprising that this gathering was also heavily focused on economic development strategies and goals. The meeting approved a document designed to improve the 'socialist market economic system', provide better protection to private ownership and private property, consolidate family-based rural economic management, and co-ordinate the regional development of the western and northeastern parts of the country.

In contrast, it seems to have done little for political reform. In this case, it appears that what did not happen was as important as what did, if not more so.

First, President Hu Jintao failed to be rid of Jiang Zemin's shadow. Some speculated that Mr Jiang may either retire from his post as chairman of the Central Military Commission or be forced out. Instead, Mr Hu either chose consensus-building over consolidation of power, or was not strong enough to overcome Mr Jiang's supporters. No doubt, this will affect Mr Hu's autonomy to govern in certain areas.

Second, the leaders seemed unable to make significant steps towards revising the constitution. The plenum's long communique devoted very little to this subject, saying only that some of the 'important theoretical views' affirmed by the 16th party congress in November would be written into the constitution. It is also unclear whether the widely expected guarantee of private property and private ownership would be included.

Third, the meeting failed collectively in envisioning a broad political reform programme. In the months leading up to the meeting, there was widespread discussion on issues such as the revision of the constitution, the expansion of grassroots-level democratic elections, intra-party democracy, a functioning accountability system for officials, and further strict measures for fighting corruption. But there is little mention of these issues in the official communique.

As one critic wrote on the discussion forum of the official People's Daily website: 'If the reform of the political system is not carried out, there will be more problems with further economic development.' The party elites, however, have decided to avoid political reform for now. If anything, the latest conference reaffirms a long-held party belief that its legitimacy can be maintained without political reform, as long as it can deliver economic prosperity.

But what is unclear is whether Mr Hu also holds such a shortsighted view. He has shown enthusiasm for press transparency, official accountability, intra-party democracy, expanded elections and political reforms, but he has also retreated from confronting these issues.

While China has succeeded in sending a man into space, its political reform is grounded for now. But the Communist Party must realise that the only way to combat rampant corruption, a widening gap between rich and poor, growing unemployment, and other social problems, is to implement genuine democratic reform. China cannot sustain its economic miracle and its space programme without a successful political reform agenda.

Wenran Jiang is a political science professor in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta, Canada