Leaders lost for words to describe and address cause of social strife

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 October, 2010, 12:00am

Even though China is still under communist rule, at least in name, one can hardly relate the thinking of today's leaders with that of the revolutionaries of yore. For instance, Mao Zedong's ruling tenet was class struggle; today, President Hu Jintao's is social harmony.

The Communist Party has been walking a difficult line between adulation and condemnation of Mao as it struggles to guard against any challenge to its legitimacy to govern. Current leaders have largely bypassed Mao's legacy and his policies, fearful that any controversy over his repeated and merciless efforts to eradicate the enemy - resulting in tens of millions of deaths and a bankrupt economy - might destabilise society.

Ironically, Hu recently appeared to have been inspired by one of the late leader's most famous theories in dealing with what may have been the most daunting challenge facing the current leadership. At a Politburo meeting late last month, he called on party and government officials to 'correctly handle the contradiction among the people', one of Mao's ruling philosophies discussed in his work 'On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People'.

Hu's speech did not refer to Mao's most controversial theory of class struggle directly. Instead, he apparently used Mao's theory to urge officials to address social conflicts more aggressively in the mission to promote social harmony.

While analysts said Hu was trying to explore the good side of Mao's thought to help tackle today's problems, they questioned his wisdom of quoting the late leader, who launched a devastating anti-rightist campaign shortly after delivering the speech at a top-level meeting. That speech was later printed and became a must-read for all officials and even ordinary people.

Professor Liu Kang, a US-based China watcher and director of Duke University's Chinese media and communication studies programme, said Hu's phrase 'contradictions among the people' had little relevance to Mao's 1957 article except the language itself, because Hu made no mention of 'contradiction between ourselves and the enemy', or even implied it, in his published speech.

'The current Chinese Communist Party leadership has rejected Mao's tenet of class struggle, and Hu's speech shows no intention of reviving that,' Liu said.

Professor Steve Tsang, a China specialist at Oxford University in Britain, said Hu's statement did not imply a more hardline stance. But it does imply he and Premier Wen Jiabao are under pressure and thus reasserting their philosophy.

Professor Hu Xingdou , a commentator at the Beijing University of Technology, said Hu was wrong to use Mao's catchphrases of 'contradiction among the people' and 'contradiction between ourselves and the enemy', as they reflect the same side of Mao's class struggle theory, which many believe is part of the reason behind the current leaders' problems.

Liu said Hu's use of the term does indicate the depth and breadth of the leaders' problem today. 'That is, they have no new language, no new discourse to describe the current conditions, so they always have to rely on Mao rhetoric, such as this speech.' Liu said Mao's rhetoric was incompatible with today's reality. 'Simply put, the form and the content don't match,' he said.

China's top expert on social unrest, Professor Yu Jianrong, said Hu's speech indicated the leaders realise growing anger among the people can grow into widespread social conflict with severe consequences. 'Hu's speech and Politburo meeting itself highlighted the leadership's increasing unease over challenges to the maintenance of social stability and to the legitimacy of communist rule in the country,' he said.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Yu said incidents of social unrest are 'boiling ... to the point of explosion', citing statistics showing the number of recorded incidents of 'mass unrest' grew from 8,709 in 1993 to more than 90,000 in each of the past three years.

Yu argues that these incidents reflect a worrying set of trends: an aggrieved class of dispossessed migrants and laid-off workers, a deep loss of faith in the system among many Chinese and a weakening in the traditional means of state control.

Hu of the Beijing University of Technology identified several issues that cause social injustice and therefore fuel widespread resentment. Among them are widespread corruption, state monopolies, the yawning wealth gap and the rising cost of housing, education and medical care. And if the seizure of people's land continued, that and the widening wealth gap made up the two biggest sources of social unrest, Hu said.

The gap between the urban and rural populations grew to its largest since reform and opening began in 1979. Last year, urban per-capita net annual income rose to 17,175 yuan (HK$20,000), compared with 5,153 yuan in the countryside, increasing the urban-to-rural ratio to 3.33:1. In 1978, when urban income was 343 yuan and rural income stood at 134 yuan, the ratio was 2.56:1.

But urban residents are restless as well. Their growing protests focus on unemployment, unpaid wages and police misconduct.

Large protests and demonstrations in rural areas against government seizure of land and other problems have spread to larger cities, even Beijing. A rapidly developing economy, coupled with easy access to land, has enabled widespread government seizures. Land is an easy way for the government to leverage the nation's wealth, but corruption by officials and developers can hasten the process.

Yu said the government was facing the delicate challenge of how best to respond to protests, and Hu's remarks reflect his concern that heavy-handed treatment of protesters could fuel even more resentment.

'The leadership is concerned with rising tensions, and there is a consensus that something needs to be done,' Yu said. 'They know it's a dangerous game; in the past when the party signalled some loosening, protests have coalesced and gone beyond the ruling party's control.'

But Tsang, of Oxford, said Hu's statements needed to be taken in the context of the coming leadership succession. 'OK, it is two years off, but Hu and Wen seem to be under pressure from the 'princelings' and the remnants of the Shanghai Gang,' Tsang said.

He added that the use of Maoist ideas is not new to Hu - what he called the 'Consultative Leninist model'. 'This emphasis on resolving contradictions among the people is like stressing the need to focus more on the consultative side of consultative Leninism, which is in contrast with the other power block, which emphasises more on the Leninist side of this model,' Tsang said.

Political pressure is what caused Wen to make the strong statement over the Diaoyus after having been the key figure (with Hu's support) in easing tension with Japan after the 2005 anti-Japan riots, he said.

'Wen did not say that because he was feeling strong, but had to say it because he and probably Hu had to choose which battles to fight and which not to fight as the top leadership jockey for power and arrangements for succession,' Tsang said.

Liu, at Duke University, said Hu's incompatible use of Mao rhetoric against China's reality suggests an ideological dilemma, a legitimacy crisis, that cannot be resolved by improving governance, which Hu alluded to in his speech. 'The Chinese Communist Party leadership cannot defer or ignore it indefinitely.'

Yu concluded: 'Ultimately, there is no alternative to the introduction of democratisation, rule of law and freedom. China will have to make the call on ... a new course, another way, to follow through on its goal of achieving 'social harmony'.