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  • Dec 22, 2014
  • Updated: 7:23am

Closed doors to reform

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 January, 2012, 12:00am

It has been 20 years since late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping headed to southern China for a month-long trip that was largely seen as a turning point for the Communist Party.

Back then the party was mired in political, economic and diplomatic crises in the aftermath of the bloody 1989 Tiananmen crackdown and the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991.

During his trip to Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Shanghai and six other cities in early 1992, Deng threw his full, decisive weight behind capitalist economic reforms over communist dogmas. His bold remarks on what became known as his 'southern tour' reaffirmed market-oriented economic reform and helped China embark on an era of spectacular growth.

Arguably just as important was the patriarch leader's warning of a left-wing backlash within the party after the June 4 crackdown spurred reformist officials and helped them break the dominance of conservative factions.

Twenty years on, many of Deng's reformist remarks have become household slogans and are still ringing loudly in the ears of party liberals and pro-reform intellectuals, who remain engaged in ideological strife with conservative leftists.

Analysts say most of Deng's thought-provoking comments remain relevant as the country stands at a critical point in its development and awaits the biggest reshuffle of the leadership in a decade, scheduled for later this year.

Although China has risen to become the world's second-biggest economy, its robust economic growth seems certain to slow; disillusionment and disappointment over long-stalled political reform are widespread; and the system is beset by growing problems, including a yawning wealth gap and environmental degradation.

Zhou Ruijin, former deputy editor-in-chief of the party mouthpiece People's Daily in the 1990s and early 2000s, is among those who say China needs another spark of intellectual emancipation like the one that Deng kindled with his southern tour to tackle the challenges threatening the country's development.

'We should review Xiaoping's remarks to seek consensus on reform, restore confidence and courage, and rebuild momentum for reform,' he said in an article in Caijing magazine this month.

One of the most frequently quoted remarks from Deng's trip is the idea that 'only development counts'. With it, Deng effectively ended the contentious national debate on whether the road towards a market-oriented economy was capitalist or socialist.

President Hu Jintao has found his own use for the phrase. In 2008, he cited it in a speech marking the 30th anniversary of Deng's 1978 launch of national economic reform. But his restating of Deng's words sent a subtle message to pro-democracy advocates to expect nothing in the way of political reform.

In that speech, Hu used the phrase bu zheteng, slang for 'don't rock the boat', another term associated with Deng's 1992 southern trip, although the expression was not published until 2008 because of its political sensitivity, according to Guangzhou's Southern Weekend and Nanfang Daily. Deng's full statement: 'Do not resort to political movements or engage in formalism; leaders need to be sober-minded and do not let work be influenced' - was a slap at those who baulked at the shift to market-driven policies.

Hu, too, hoped to disarm critics with a crisp admonition to quieten down and get on with the job. But if he had hoped it would end ideological disputes over the country's way forward, he must be disappointed; plenty of grievances remain over rising food and housing prices, corruption and pollution.

Another famous quote from Deng was his assertion that although the party should remain vigilant against both 'left' and 'right' tendencies, it was the left wing and its boasts of revolutionary and ultra-Marxist credentials that posed the greater danger to the party's grip on power.

According to recent disclosures by Zhou, Deng's comments were clearly meant to send a warning to the then party leadership under president Jiang Zemin and premier Li Peng, who were suspicious about how far down the capitalist road Deng's reforms would go. One of Deng's motives for embarking on the 1992 tour was to bolster support in the face of Jiang's and Li's scepticism. And they were not Deng's only foes; People's Daily and Qiushi magazine, both controlled by leftists, had challenged and even condemned Deng when he made similar reform-minded statements during a visit to Shanghai in early 1991.

This time, Deng's tactics worked. After his 1992 remarks were published, Jiang openly supported his market-oriented position.

Professor Guo Daohui, former editor-in-chief of China Legal Science magazine, said Deng's 1992 trip virtually saved the party as well as Deng because the credibility of one-party rule had been at stake since the 1989 crackdown.

'The party was able to regain its legitimacy because of rapid economic growth in the following years,' Guo, 83, said.

But Deng's southern tour had its limits. It focused mainly on economic problems in an attempt to break away from Marxist dogmatism, but made no mention of political change. It did nothing to restart political and cultural developments that stalled after Tiananmen.

In the past week, government-sanctioned newspapers and internet news portals, including Beijing Daily and Nanfang Daily, have published a series of articles commemorating the tour. But conspicuously absent were discussions of political reforms or liberals' appeals for more democracy and freedom.

To many analysts, the lack of substantial political reform has induced major political, cultural and moral regression on the mainland over the past two decades. Beijing's all-out pursuit of high growth has not filled the void left by the bankrupted communist ideology, and neither have efforts to revive traditional Confucian values.

'One-legged reform' - market liberalisation coupled with Beijing's effort to delay or even block meaningful political changes - is not sustainable, they warn.

'Despite the boost to the economy, the authorities have tightened their political control and even taken regressive steps over the past 20 years,' Zi Zhongyun, 82, said. The former director of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences warns that focusing on the rise of China will lead to an inflated sense of self-importance, while losing sight of the real problems.

She echoed Professor Sun Liping of Tsinghua University, who says the biggest threat to the country's future development is the leadership's obsession with stability - 'becoming obsessed with feeling the stones, to the point where they don't want to cross the river any more'.

'A few people with vested interests have amassed wealth and power and they are reluctant to push for further reform,' Zi said. 'But for our nation, it remains a grim challenge because not moving forward means regression and sinking into the abyss.'

Deng's pragmatism, officially billed after his southern trip as 'a new form of socialism with unique Chinese characteristics', has had another, unintended legacy, some analysts say: it is largely responsible for the widespread discontent and an explosive increase in petitions, demonstrations and protests on the mainland today. With economic development, people have become more aware of their civil rights and want political reform to tackle the sources of rising social unrest.

Chen Ziming, a dissident scholar on constitutional democracy, said Deng was smart to a point to replace popular appeals for democracy and political freedom with an economic transformation, initiating the 'to get rich is glorious' era.

'Economic development helped ease acute social tensions and saw 20 years of economic miracles, but it failed to address growing political and social injustice,' Chen said.

'Political reform is imperative in tackling so many daunting challenges.'

The division between the left and the right had blurred over the past two decades, Guo and Chen noted. The previous fight has evolved into strife between businesspeople and liberals who favour constitutional democracy, and those who support totalitarian regimes.

The Maoist leftists, who subscribed to the totalitarian leanings of Lenin and Stalin and maintained a firm grip on culture, media and even people's thoughts, lost their attraction for most mainlanders following the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, Guo said.

'Although there is the risk that the surging ultra-leftist movement in Chongqing [featuring the revival of Maoist revolutionary songs and movies] could spread to other areas, it is impossible for the country to head back to another Cultural Revolution,' Guo said.

For many, political reform should start with the party setting up a system to disclose the personal assets of cadres at all levels, and allowing greater freedom of the press and expression. But many also understand that it will surely be a long journey.

14.2%

The growth in China's GDP in 1992

- The previous year, the figure was 9.2 per cent

3,538

The number of cars Rolls-Royce sold on the mainland last year

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