Better late than never for a stirring echo from the past

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 February, 2012, 12:00am


Official media don't usually mess up important dates. So, why was Deng Xiaoping's call for reform in Shenzhen in January 20 years ago being remembered so fondly last week?

Maybe some media managers wanted to time the activities for closer to the annual session of the National People's Congress, which starts in Beijing in a week.

Whatever the reason, Xinhua got the ball rolling with a lengthy article analysing the lasting lessons from Deng. The January-February double issue of the Guangdong-based Foreign Trade and Economy magazine - which came out only last week - went a step further, with the cover story headline: 'Return to 1992'.

As the week went on, People's Daily chimed in, saying that however well planned, reforms were bound to be criticised by vested interests, a demanding public and idealists. Nevertheless, 'reformers should listen to the people but not easily abandon their commitment, and apply wisdom but never shirk their responsibility'.

The commentary then said China 'would rather have an imperfect reform, rather than a crisis from no reform'. This sentence was later quoted widely online. It went so far as to criticise officials that habitually tried to avoid 'structural obstacles' that were impossible to evade. Those that did, People's Daily said, earned temporary respite at the expense of their successors, who must grapple with even worse problems. But who are these officials, allegedly bearing 'structural' responsibilities? People's Daily didn't say. Given the Communist Party is under going a leadership transition later this year, the commentary's combination of courageous words and a cowardly failure to mention specific names or cases allows readers conjure up scenarios of their own.

The official press is more straightforward on the issue of 'top-level design', which has become something of a catchphrase in mainland media. It refers to systematic planning and contrasts with efforts over the past three decades, a process Deng described colloquially as 'crossing the river by feeling the stones under the water'.

In China Economic Times, a newspaper owned by the State Council Development Research Centre, Renmin University economics professor Li Yiping warned of growing doubts about the market economy since the 2008 global crisis. Li said the mainland should implement a top-level plan for reform rather than harbouring the defects of both the old planned economy and a crude market economy.

Caijing magazine presented its own top-level plan - a wish list of reforms for the finance industry, including greater access for private investors, market-driven interest rates and destruction of the state monopoly in many services.

The columnist also suggested that small business would not have a future in China unless change was made to the state monopoly on banks that ensures state-owned enterprises have access to almost unlimited credit.

Shanghai Securities News' reform focus was on tax. Jia Kang , director of the Ministry of Finance's internal think tank, said the nominal government revenue was equivalent to 22 per cent of the country's GDP but in reality central government revenue alone was about a third of GDP. So there was huge room for tax cuts across the board, especially in the service sector, the official said.

Nevertheless, China is different in many ways from the place it was 20 years ago. Deng earned a lot of applause from the public and academics just by talking about reform those decades ago.

But, nowadays, with the internet, people have become more articulate and don't want change that does not take their suffering into account.

This sentiment was summed up by 'Yangqi Fan Xi Qu Yuanhang', a commentator on the People's Daily website, who said that although reform involved risk, it 'cannot be allowed at the risk of widening the gap between the rich and poor, or worsening official corruption'.