Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping's drive for reform depends on strong party, says former senior policymaker Shi Zhihong

Former policy adviser Shi Zhihong insists curbs on the government's authority would be recipe for chaos as president drives China forward

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 March, 2014, 5:19am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 March, 2014, 2:13pm

President Xi Jinping is committed to reforms, including further opening up the economy to the free market, but will do nothing to subvert the power of the Communist Party, says a former senior policymaker.

Shi Zhihong, who until recently was deputy director of the Central Policy Research Office, said any moves to curb the party's authority might create instability and disorder.

"It is impossible to push hard for deepening reforms and to realise the modernisation of governance if the country is in chaos," Shi told the South China Morning Post in his first wide-ranging interview with a newspaper outside the mainland. Shi was responsible for drafting key policy documents, such as the communiqué issued at the end of the party plenum in November that mapped out reforms for the next decade.

He said there were elements in the party on the left who rejected modernisation and reformers on the right who questioned one-party rule. Both approaches could prove disastrous for the country's steady path of reform.

And as reform goes deeper it might damage the interests of some groups who question the authority of the party, he said.

The country could evolve only through "socialism with Chinese characteristics" and could not allow any "subversive errors" when it comes to the fundamental issues of governance, he added. One of the cornerstones of Xi's foreign policy was that it would not challenge the existing international order, despite its imperfections, said Shi, who is now deputy head of the legal committee for the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the country's political advisory body.

"We criticise Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe because he wants to subvert the post-war international order," he said.

"The international system has problems, but we have to perfect it, not subvert it. The socialist system that the party has built also has problems, but we have to make it better through reforms."

Relations between China and Japan have become increasingly strained since Abe's December visit to the Yasukuni shrine, which honours war criminals from the second world war.

Beijing has accused Abe's government of increasing militarism and of turning its back on the pacifist constitution that Japan adopted after the second world war.

Shi said government leaders realised poor work by some officials was hampering China's development. He quoted Xi as saying at a meeting last year that officials were struggling as they found "the old approaches stopped working, but at the same time they don't know how to implement the new approaches; the hardline approaches they don't dare to use, but at the same time the weak approaches no longer work".

The leadership's new philosophy of governance included upholding the country as a nation under the law; promoting citizen involvement in social issues such as food safety and air pollution; allowing democracy at the lower levels of government; and educating citizens to have strong morals and values.

Shi also said the assertion in the party plenum document that the free market would play a decisive role in the economy reflected only part of the new thinking.

"The government should play more of a role than that of just a watchdog in a powerhouse like China," he said. "In future reforms, we need to build a strong market, but at the same time we need a strong government and a strong society."

Shi said it was wrong to look at the development of China as either going down a route of massive state control or towards an unfettered free market.

The party's approach was more pragmatic, he said.

Shi raised the example of an ideological debate in 2012 between disgraced former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai and former Guangdong party boss Wang Yang , who is now vice-premier. They openly debated in the media about what was dubbed the "cake theory" of the economy.

Bo's Chongqing model focused on dividing the cake more equally among the public, while the Guangdong model centred on first making the cake bigger.

"The correct approach of the central government should be dividing the cake more equally, but on the premise of making a bigger cake," Shi said.

A full interview with Shi Zhihong in Chinese is available at nanzao.com, the SCMP's Chinese language website