A voice in the wilderness
Premier Wen Jiabao's recent media blitz calling for political reform is an act of great significance, despite its apparent lack of immediate impact, according to Chinese experts.
Wen's repeated calls, they said, revealed the urgency felt in some quarters for long-overdue political reform - first advocated by the late Deng Xiaoping as early as 1980 but which became off-limits after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.
For the first time in more than two decades, the subject was raised by no less than the country's No 2 man.
'In just 40 days, the premier spoke on the sensitive subject of political reform on seven occasions,' said Qian Gang at the recent launch of the new book, Contest Over Political Reform: The Issue of Wen Jiabao's Seven Speeches on Political Reform (Hong Kong: Cosmos Books), of which he is the editor.
'The period when those remarks were made was not inadvertent but contextual. It began with Wen's speech in Shenzhen on August 20 celebrating the 30th anniversary of the special economic zone, and ended with the CNN interview and the National Day keynote address on the eve of the party's policy-setting Fifth Plenum.'
But what interested Qian most was the response to Wen's speeches.
'The way the mainland media covered the premier's call for political reform is of great significance to us and that helps us to read Chinese politics,' said Qian, a former reporter at the People's Liberation Army Daily and now head of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong.
Other China specialists at the book launch at Cosmo bookstore in Wan Chai had their views.
On why Wen suddenly turned up the heat in the political reform debate, Ng Hong-man, former chairman of the Hong Kong delegation to the National People's Congress, said the premier made the remarks out of frustration with bureaucratic red tape in the State Council.
'As China's top administrator, Wen knows all too well the obstacles and problems besetting the administration and he is frustrated by them,' Ng said.
'Political reform is the only way he can cut through obstructionism at all levels and smoothly execute his policies.' He said political reform had remained an empty slogan since Deng's advocacy 30 years ago.
Lew Mon-hung, the outspoken member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference who challenged the Chinese judiciary over the jailing milk-powder scandal activist Zhao Lianhai , agreed that Wen was frustrated.
'With two years remaining in his 10 years on the job, the premier wanted it on the record that he had tried everything he could to carry out Deng Xiaoping's will by pushing political reform.
'By making those remarks, Wen was in essence saying: 'Not that I don't want it, I just can't' (do it),' Lew said.
Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong-based journalist who was jailed on the mainland for three years for alleged espionage, a charge he denied, said all critical studies of mainland problems were done by State Council think tanks and the findings went directly to Wen.
'One study yields a figure about the cost of maintaining domestic stability, which is 510 billion yuan (HK$600 billion),' Ching said. 'The figure is just a little less than the 540 billion yuan defence budget. In other words, the country perceives the threat from within is almost as seriously as that from without.
'Another figure Wen also knows about is the total amount of money lost in corruption, which is equivalent to 30 per cent of China's national GDP. To Wen, this kind of thing can't go on forever, and political reform is the only way out for the future of China.'
But however urgent political reform was to Wen and like-minded mainland officials, its quick implementation was not likely soon or even during the next generation of Chinese leadership. 'The main reason is that there is no consensus among the top leadership on political reform,' Ching said.
Ng said: 'Furthermore, there has been an upsurge among leftists in recent years blaming all the problems on reforms and the opening-up policy and advocating a return to Maoist iron-clad ideology.'
'But most of all, the biggest obstacle to political reform is the emergence of two vested interest groups in China.
'One is the corrupt group of individuals whose deeds of bribery and embezzlement are truly outrageous, especially at local levels.
'The other one is the state monopoly enterprises, such as China Mobile and Sinopec. They may not be necessarily corrupt but their CEOs collect remuneration similar to the big capitalists in Hong Kong, and bonuses are also distributed to their subordinates. 'According to well-placed sources, state enterprises constitute 8 per cent of China's labour force, but they collect 45 per cent of the country's salaries. As such, how can you expect them to change?'
Ng said he did not expect to see the light of political reform in China during his lifetime.
His pessimism is shared by Lew, who is 22 years younger.
'I have no expectation whatsoever of political reform by the Chinese Communist Party,' Lew said. 'As the old saying goes, ingrained habits are hard to break.
'The best time for reform was in the late 1970s when power and money had not yet corrupted leaders who had just got out of the Cultural Revolution, poor but clean.
'But Deng Xiaoping insisted on the Four Cardinal Principles upholding the party instead.
'So it doesn't matter whether Wen spoke seven or 70 times about political reform. The question is about the entire system, which is controlled by the omnipotent vested interest groups.'
Qian Gang voiced another aspect of the debate - about whether political reform was necessary at all. 'There is an increasing belief that the present political structure has brought China great wealth and power. So why bother to change something that is working well?' he said. 'This line of thinking has gained momentum since 2008, which to me is the dividing line in China's position on political reform.'
It came then as no surprise that some official media disapproved and even rebuked Wen's remarks. Xinhua, for example, reported not one letter of Wen's words on political reform spoken in Shenzhen.
In People's Daily, the party's mouthpiece, Major General Jiang Qianlun, commandant of the PLA Nanjing Political Academy, wrote a piece criticising unnamed individuals for 'using the fa?ade of democracy and freedom' to 'overthrow the socialist system, to split the country, leading to great suffering of the people'.
Ching said he believed Wen had at least the acquiescence of President Hu Jintao over his remarks on political reform.
By the same token, it also would have been impossible to launch a series of criticisms of Wen in the official media without the go-ahead of the top leader.
'Wen has served and survived four party leaderships since the late Hu Yaobang. He would not take risks or do anything that could hamper his political fortune,' Ching said.
Hu, Ching said, had turned increasingly fundamentalist Maoist, and once described Chairman Mao 'as not only the Chinese people's Mao Zedong , but also the world's Mao Zedong'.
'Such an assessment is a lot higher than the official verdict on Mao in 1981 which stated that 30 per cent of the late chairman's career involved mistakes,' Ching said.
'There have also been reports of Maoist groups gathering at Tiananmen Square without being dispersed. Is that possible for any other group? As such, can one put hopes on Hu Jintao for political reform?'
Veteran Ng reckons the future leadership will differ little, if at all, from the incumbents. 'What good can Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang do?' he asked. 'The issue at stake is not about individuals, but the system. Like Wen, all they could do is to say a few words, that's all.'
But Qian Gang says the battle is far from over. 'The eminent economist Wu Jinglian once said there is a race in China at present. On the one side are those advocating a government of law and market economy, on the other are those privileged capitalists. In short, it is a debate over Chinese characteristics and universal values. We have yet to see who has the final word.'