Wrong route

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 March, 2012, 12:00am


To mark the 20th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping's southern tour, both Xinhua and the People's Daily published commentaries to push for reforms. Xinhua said if China wants to keep writing its 'Story of Spring', it must deepen its reform efforts, including changing the government's roles and functions. And the People's Daily rallied the country to press on: 'Reforms carry risks, but the party would be in danger without reform.'

Premier Wen Jiabao himself affirmed Deng's call for reform, warning on a visit to Guangdong last month that the country would 'come to a dead end without reform and opening up'. He said Deng's words were still of great relevance today and should continue to guide China.

Neither the articles nor Wen made mention specifically of political reform, but many people understood their remarks to mean that. China's economic development is increasingly mired in the quicksand of Chinese politics, and its many social problems cannot be solved without political development. The rallying cry for reform from the top ranks of China's political hierarchy have made people hopeful and excited.

Deng had so often spoken up for political reform that people believe Chinese politics would be very different today if he were still alive. So, they reason, China's most urgent task is to return to Deng's road map for reform.

This is bizarre thinking, because China has never veered off course. For a start, Deng hand-picked the two men who succeeded him. But, more importantly, the problems we see now in China - the unbalanced and distorted development, rampant corruption, a wide income gap and deterioration of human rights protection - are all by-products of Deng's reform.

The Chinese model of economic development first caught international attention in 2004, when American scholar Joshua Cooper Ramo published a paper on 'The Beijing Consensus'. Since then, many Chinese scholars have praised the model as being eminently suitable for China; some even say today it could save a global economy in crisis. Before long, some historians of the Communist Party pointed out that the credit for such a good development model belonged not to Ramo but to Deng, who in fact proposed the idea a long time ago and had put it into practice.

Starting from the early 1980s, Deng had indeed spoken often of China's need to forge its own pathway for development. His description of the strategy is by now well-known: Chinese development must have one central task (economic development) and two basic points (adherence to reform and opening up, and adherence to the four cardinal principles).

Deng's four principles called on the Chinese people to uphold the socialist path; the people's democratic dictatorship; the leadership of the Communist Party; and Marxist-Leninist and Maoist thought.

In championing his policy of reform and opening up, Deng repeatedly stressed the importance of adhering to these four principles. During the southern tour of two decades ago, he said care must be taken during the course of reform that the four principles were upheld. He said then that efforts to oppose the 'liberalisation of capitalism' would take longer than expected. 'At the sixth plenary session of the 12th Central Committee, I objected to the estimation that such a process should take 20 years. I think now it would take more than 20 years,' he said.

What exactly is the 'liberalisation of capitalism'? Deng defined it as 'the worship of Western capitalist societies' notions of democracy and freedom, and the rejection of socialism'. He was right; 20 years on, China continues to oppose democratic freedoms.

Deng's ideal model is a marriage of economic liberalisation and political authoritarianism. Author and former Xinhua journalist Yang Jisheng said Deng's landmark speeches in the south cemented the Chinese development model, which more precisely should be called the Deng Xiaoping model.

What kind of political reform did Deng have in mind then? Zhao Ziyang wrote in his memoir that it had little to do with reform in the sense of modernisation and democratisation. Rather, Zhao said, Deng was mainly concerned with administrative reforms, with changing the workflow, organisational structure and work methodology. Zhao said Deng's idea of political reform rested on the premise of single-party rule by the party, and reform was meant only to strengthen it. In his conversations, Deng spoke often of social stability and 'the party's career', but rarely of dignity and rights.

The leaders after Deng have strictly followed Deng's path. And the result is rampant abuse of power by officials, widespread corruption and receding rule of law. What a joke then that today so many are calling for a return to Deng's way to solve these problems.

For two years now, Wen has cited Deng's words to urge reforms. But he has never outlined the specifics of his plan. The reason is, if he were to follow Deng's line of thought, we'd see there is no real political reform to speak of. If Wen were to unveil a reform plan based on democratic values it would violate Deng's cardinal principles and, hence, his development model.

But even the government is now aware that China's development has brought many problems, as the commentaries in Xinhua and the People's Daily made clear. The time of prosperity and plenty that some scholars say China is now enjoying does not accord with reality.

For true political reform, we should reflect on the shortcomings of Deng's development model. Following his road map for reform won't take us there.

Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese