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  • Dec 29, 2014
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CommentInsight & Opinion

China's reformers within

Andreas Fulda says a group of prominent Chinese who work within the system to advance democratic change have, remarkably, carved out a role denied their more liberal compatriots

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 January, 2013, 2:35am

Chinese author Mo Yan, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, came under fire late last year for choosing not to condemn the principles of censorship, comparing it, perhaps flippantly, to inconvenient yet necessary airport security checks. Salman Rushdie took to Facebook to label Mo "a patsy of the regime" and criticise his refusal to sign a petition calling for the release of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo .

The episode highlighted the expectations among people outside China of how prominent Chinese should behave in their pursuit of changes to their political system. This narrow desire for black-and-white opposition politics risks overshadowing the efforts of a new generation of Chinese reformists who manoeuvre within official channels to push forward reform.

A man who typifies this generation is Yu Jianrong, a 50-year-old scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He was named in Foreign Policy magazine's list of Top 100 Global Thinkers "for daring to be specific about how to change China". It followed his publication of a 10-year plan for China's social and political reform on the Chinese weibo.

He has been in the news again of late, launching a campaign for blanket and winter clothing donations for Beijing's homeless population, following reports that local security officials had begun confiscating the belongings of groups of people living on the streets despite sub-zero temperatures.

Yu, an establishment intellectual, is an unlikely poster boy for the Chinese democracy movement. He is a patriot first, a democrat second. His position on the East China Sea islands territorial dispute between China and Japan is emphatically nationalistic, much to the frustration of his liberal supporters within China, and in his 10-year plan he does not advocate civilian control of the Chinese military, as most other liberals in China do.

In contrast, outspoken libertarian activists like Liu Xiaobo and artist Ai Weiwei are clear-cut reformers, railing at government control from outside the system. Their cause offers a compelling narrative to the West. But the strong focus on activists outside the system comes at the expense of people like Yu, who are prepared to straddle both sides. Establishment intellectuals need to walk a fine line between their reformist aspirations and the existing political realities in China.

Both Liu and Ai were among the initial 303 signatories of Charter 08, a manifesto signed by Chinese intellectuals and human rights activists. Published in December 2008, it called for the establishment of a legislative democracy and the protection of human rights in China. Signatories have suffered harassment and political persecution but Yu, after sharing his 10-year reform plan that repackaged many of the principles laid out in Charter 08 with his 1.5 million weibo followers, has continued his political and academic work unimpeded.

The contrasting official reaction to both reform agendas can be explained, in part, by differing reform goals and means. Yu is working within the system to advocate incremental political reform and is frequently invited to lecture officials at training seminars funded by the Communist Party.

Signatories of Charter 08, on the other hand, consider immediate democratic reform a necessary condition for China's development, placing themselves firmly outside the current political system.

Unlike other establishment intellectuals, Yu has specified clear timescales for reform. He outlines the steps that will lead to an open society with a free media and multi-party competition between 2016 and 2022. With this goal in mind, Yu suggests that in its first term, from 2012 until 2015, the new Chinese leadership should focus on social reforms and promote welfare policies, in particular pensions, employment rights and health-care insurance.

Yu calls for comprehensive reform to the household registration system, which limits rural-to-urban migration and has led to a system of first- and second-class citizens. To protect citizen rights, he has called for abolishment of the traditional petitioning system and re-education through labour.

Yu picked up on points laid down in Charter 08, but reshaped its reformist goals into a more procedural and watered-down agenda. The fact that his plan can be discussed both online and offline signifies a willingness among party officials to engage in open-ended discussions about democracy and human rights.

Embedded in the Chinese political system, Yu has real influence. At seminars held to "enlighten" extremely conservative officials, he reportedly scolds the cadres for their corrupt behaviour.

But he is careful not to cross key battle lines. While he advocates multi-party democracy, he is careful to place this reform step at the end of his 10-year plan. So far, his reformist gamble seems to have paid off, since it grants him greater access to senior officials.

Crucially, he is social-media savvy in building up a strong domestic following. He uses weibo to publicly reflect on reactions to his ideas and proposals. He has described how senior officials agree with his reform plan. And he has revealed opposition to his proposals from within Tsinghua University, one of China's leading academic institutions, using the incident to secure widespread public support against his detractors.

Such is the size of his supporter constituency, he would be able to mobilise significant domestic support if ever the party were to decide he had crossed the line.

Due to the repression of reformers outside the system, policymakers dealing with China should recognise that more people like Yu will grow in influence in the years to come. This may be challenging. These patriots will first and foremost stand up for China's interests, yet the reality is that this is fairly representative of popular thinking in modern China.

In intellectual and political circles within China, there is no shortage of complaints about the directionless and trapped nature of the political transition process. Last November's 18th party congress, with its retrograde language and lack of a coherent vision of China's political future, is a case in point.

But for reformists both outside and inside China, there is cause for optimism. Establishment intellectuals like Yu are the people the West must learn to work with if it wishes to encourage political reform in China.

Dr Andreas Fulda is lecturer in contemporary Chinese studies at the China Policy Institute, based at the University of Nottingham's School of Contemporary Chinese Studies


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Remitting Prosperity
My dear Captam,
We in the UK have had democracy in one form or another for several hundred years and the state has not collapsed. Neither is western Europe collapsing. If any states have collapsed recently in Europe, it is those that were dragooned into communism by the Soviet Union, which collapsed too.

No one could sensibly say that China should become democratic overnight, that would cause chaos, in the same way that if you shake a bottle of Coke and then open it, the Coke will spurt everywhere. So you need to twist the top slowly to let out the pressure gradually. The problem is that the Chinese middle class know that they are living under a backward system, and they resent it. That resentment is not going to go away.
@"the Chinese middle class know that they are living under a backward system, and they resent it. "
Who told you this?
Have you asked them all?
If your answer is "yes" , HOW?
and @" UK have had democracy in one form or another for several hundred years" It's the "one form and another" which is the let down in your argument. The ruling class in UK only surrendered to full blown 'democracy' less than one hundred years ago and still cling to some residual powers. This short period of time is but a pittance of mans' recorded history of how to rule decently and effectively in various societies.. This story has not finished yet. Widespread and mounting youth unemployment , over-population,mass immigration of people from different cultures who form ghettos, and inequitable distribution of wealth in economies which will continue to shrink, have all yet to play their final cards.
I assure you Europe's "freedom and democracy" will be much changed in fifty years time.
Remitting Prosperity
Many of them have told me that they resent it. A strong indicator might be that the government has to go to extraordinary lengths to suppress any discussion of how the system might be changed. Why to they have to do that?
I do not know what you mean by ruling 'decently', but I hope you don't include Chairman Mao's blood-soaked regime in that.
Yes, I grant you not everyone had the vote in the UK 200 years ago, but we were still ahead of nearly everywhere else. It would have been impossible for a Stalin or a Mao to be elected.
Unemployment has actually gone down here in the last 12 months. In Spain it's bad I agree, but that is because of the Euro which was wrongly launched in my opinion. As for distribution of wealth, the Gini co-efficient in China is far worse than anything over here. And who knows how much the ruling elite have got stashed away abroad. And overpopulation...compared to China?
The point is that democracy is a safety valve for people's grievances, a mechanism that China lacks. That is why so many of their officials are stashing their money abroad, not least in the London property market using anonymous companies.
Finally, do you seriously advocate Communism/Socialism for Europe? We have tried that and it was a failure. You only have to look at the difference between East and West Germany. And it's a European idea after all.
Would Dr. Fulda please open her eyes before praising Chinese intellectuals longing for multi-party politics for China. If she would only look around the island and continent where she is living, she woulds see that Western style democracy has as many failings (one could argue even more) as one party systems. Why should reformists outside China have "cause for optimism" if the radical reforms in China, which they advocate, could eventually lead to the collapse of the state?


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