Questions of reform intensify as transition countdown begins

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 March, 2012, 12:00am


It is a common way to complain about the state of affairs on the mainland. When things do not look good, the familiar refrain is that the glory days are over. That's not so much a statement as a question, however: who can bring back the good old days?

A glaring issue today is over what to reform and how to go about it, says the Global Times, an English-language subsidiary of the official People's Daily.

The biggest controversy, the newspaper says, is about political reform.

Western-style democracy appeals most to the cultural elite and workers in the knowledge economy, while the rest of mainstream society, the Global Times claims, is still seeking the mainland's own way of political change. But what is the mainland's own way? Little is explained.

An air of nostalgia is in Beijing as top officials hold their last annual legislative National People's Congress (NPC) session this week, before making way later this year for the next 10-year leadership team.

Attachment to the Deng Xiaoping era is the strongest among economists, who have been vanguards of market-oriented reform over the last three decades but are frustrated by a lack of institutional change in recent years.

Leading the chorus of voices for change is 82-year-old Wu Jinglian, a key economic adviser to the government in the 1980s. On recent occasions, the latest being an interview with the Nanfang Daily, he complained about procrastination in political reform.

Wu said there was a myth that the mainland had almost completed its economic reform, and a serious effort to change was needed only in political reform. But the reality was that the mainland had failed to achieve many of its recent economic goals. Economic reform could not deliver the expected progress without corresponding political reform, he said.

Fellow analyst Xu Xiaonian is a supporter of the 'Back to Deng' call. A former economist with the World Bank and US investment bank Merrill Lynch, Xu questioned the incremental approach to reform - the greatest beneficiaries of which are those who can hang on to power. Unless there was more resolute political reform, one could hardly hope for a change in the status quo, he said.

Echoing the role played by the game of politics is Zhang Weiying, economics professor at Peking University. Zhang was quoted by China News Service as saying the mainland had leaders but not leadership, and subjects but not citizens.

Chen Zhiwu, an economics professor at Yale University, said the next phase of reform must proceed with a more effective curtailing of official privilege.

It is almost certain that political reform will get a higher profile at this year's NPC, according to an editorial in Caijing, a leading mainland journal dedicated to business and economics.

It cited the example of Wukan, a Guangdong village known for its residents' protest movement that won 'real democracy' in a local election. Wukan showed the authorities a new way to handle collective actions, the editorial said - not through a crackdown, but through support to citizens.

Caijing pointed to independent research reports listing official corruption, a lack of political reform, and increasing state monopoly of the economy as today's biggest challenges to the mainland.

Another candid commentary was run on, a portal affiliated with state-owned China Telecom.

It said the last 10 years were a rarity in the history of the People's Republic of China because individuals were not killed in disregard of the law, nor were they victimised in hasty trials or large-scale religious persecution.

'Even people holding political dissent gained relatively tolerant treatment,' it said. One wonders if these views were meant to be praise of progress or expression of irony.

The article went on to laud Premier Wen Jiabao for his calls for political reform and encouragement of citizens' criticism of the government.

With more than six months before the power transition officially starts, the author prescribed a list of tasks for the upcoming leaders: they must fight the monopoly of state-owned enterprises; rampant corruption among officials and their families; income disparity; and reform-resistant vested interests. Plus they needed to hold direct elections in counties and townships.