Party meeting might touch on core concerns

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 August, 2009, 12:00am

Some time next month, nearly 400 of China's most powerful officials will converge in Beijing to attend the fourth plenum of the Communist Party's 17th Central Committee.

The key item on the agenda - as expressed in the official language - may sound bland and innocuous: 'to study issues on strengthening and improving party building in the new situation'.

But the meeting can carry significance for the future of the party and the mainland if the elite muster the political courage and wisdom to map out a clear path for reforms. The timing of the meeting is also significant as it comes ahead of the mainland's elaborate celebration of the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic.

Although the party has maintained totalitarian control for the past 60 years, it is faced with mounting challenges, including rampant official corruption, widening income gaps and widespread social discontent.

So, this is the time for the party leadership to review and find ways to strengthen its control, according to party academics who have begun to hail the significance of the plenum and set its tone.

They point out that the last time the Central Committee met to discuss party building was 15 years ago, at the fourth plenum of the 14th Central Committee.

The party holds its national congress every five years, electing a new Central Committee, and between congresses, that committee holds plenary sessions, usually four times a year, to discuss and introduce significant policies.

Several leading magazines - including Outlook, which is run by Xinhua - have carried several articles on the subject, saying that the meeting will focus on discussing ways to improve the so-called intra-party democracy to strengthen internal checks and balances, and strengthen the mechanism to fight rampant official corruption.

Cai Xia, a professor at the Central Party School, wrote in China Comment magazine, which is also published by Xinhua, that the party should move more quickly towards intra-party democracy.

Li Liangdong, another professor at the Central Party School, said in Outlook that the mainland should learn from Western democratic principles including the rule of law and the monitoring role of the media.

Wang Yukai, a professor at the National School of Administration, was even more optimistic. He recently told a Hong Kong newspaper that the plenary meeting could agree to operational measures to accelerate the transition of the Communist Party from a revolutionary party to a ruling party, and transform the mentality which puts the party above the government.

The steps the party leadership could take would be to promote more direct elections and take more forceful measures to combat corruption, including ordering the officials to declare their personal assets, Professor Wang said.

Should the people be excited about more democracy? Hardly.

While the party leadership and academics have seized every opportunity to talk about intra-party democracy, it is totally different from the Western concept of democracy. What the party is trying to achieve is to strengthen internal checks and balances and boost the transparency of its decision-making. The aim is to strengthen the party's totalitarian control.

But there are signs that the party leadership is under increasing pressure to undertake drastic measures and introduce more democratic politics within the party.

For instance, calls are rising among ordinary party members for the expansion of direct election methods to allow them to elect officials at higher levels, since the party's 70 million members are among the best educated of the country's 1.3 billion people.

The changing nature of mainland politics has also helped calls for the direct election of senior cadres, even the top party leaders. Judging from the party's history, the leadership succession has been one of the most destabilising issues. During the eras of paramount leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping , who had the right and the authority to choose their successors, the process was problematic and the succession chaotic.

Now with that era gone forever, how to institutionalise the succession process should be a top priority for the party if it wants to stay in power.

For many party members, the best option available is to allow competitive elections for top leadership positions at the 18th congress in 2012.