China's Leadership Transition
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Li Rui pictured in 2006. In an article earlier this year, he repeated a call that the party should embark on political reform. Photo: AFP

Party veteran Li Rui, still pushing for reform in China at age 95

Li Rui joined the Communist Party in the 1930s, and is still actively campaigning for democracy and the rule of law

Li Rui has written to the leaders before every Communist Party congress since 1997, urging the party he joined seven decades ago to take on political reform.

This year Li, aged 95, the former secretary to Mao Zedong , is making yet another plea for reform. But he has to contend with the fact that he probably will not see his dream come true in his lifetime.

"I have done this for the past three congresses," said Li, one of the few remaining reformist party elders. "Now the 18th congress is coming up, I still have to say the same thing.

"We need political reform, because we still have one-party rule, there is no separation of party and government powers, and there is still a Political and Legal Affairs Committee - this system is a big problem," Li sighed. The judiciary and the police on the mainland are controlled by the Communist Party through the Political and Legal Affairs Committee.

Li knows better than just about anyone alive the problems of the system.

He joined the underground Communist Party at the age of 20 and cofounded a clandestine branch while a student at Wuhan University, driven by his youthful dream of freedom and democracy to fight the corrupt and authoritarian Kuomintang regime.

Despite such revolutionary credentials, Li was implicated time and again during his long party career. He was tortured and jailed for more than a year in 1943 at the Communist Party base in Yanan during the Rectification Movement, an internal purge of intellectuals and others that cost some 10,000 lives. He was stripped of his party membership and sacked from his positions as Mao's secretary and vice-minister for water resources and electric power after the Lushan conference in 1959 for his criticism of the disastrous Great Leap Forward. After that, he was sent to a labour camp, where he nearly starved to death. He was jailed again, for eight years, during the Cultural Revolution.

Li, a one-time Central Committee member and deputy head of the party's Organisation Department, has warned repeatedly against the dangers of one-party rule and unchecked power. Instead, he says, constitutional democracy and the rule of law are the only ways to prevent such abuses of power.

"The Communist Party's revolution triumphed because it opposed Chiang Kai-shek's fascist rule but advocated freedom, democracy and self-reliance in new China. But after it gained power it pursued the opposite and contradicted its principles," Li said.

In the reform and opening era, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping advocated political reform in 1980 and in 1986, resulting in a consensus at the 13th Communist Party congress in 1987 to separate the functions of the party and government. But the political reform push was abandoned after the crackdown on the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement in 1989.

Although economic reform proceeded, resulting in China's breakneck economic development, the lack of checks and balances on official powers also ushered in rampant corruption, social inequality and one of the widest wealth gaps in the world.

"My worry is: when will constitutional governance finally come?" Li said.

In a meeting with other liberal party elders earlier this year, Li reiterated that the party should embark on political reform by implementing "intra-party democracy", allowing ordinary party members to elect political representatives, separating party and government functions, removing party authority over the judiciary and police and letting party members freely express their political views. His rhetoric, published in the liberal magazine in May, was said to have been criticised by the authorities.

Li said the reformist policies of liberal party leaders Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang in the 1980s that sought more official transparency, a greater public say in policies and a more open media were on the right track in bringing the country to "follow the world trend".

But with the crackdown in 1989 on the pro-democracy movement, Li said, the party abandoned universal values such as democracy and rule of law. The death of Hu, purged in 1987 for his liberal stance, in April 1989 triggered the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement, and Zhao, who sympathised with the students, was ousted and kept under house arrest for nearly 16 years until his death in 2005.

"The Communist Party held up the flag of democracy, otherwise it couldn't have toppled Chiang Kai-shek, but in the end it changed and became even worse than Chiang. We couldn't foresee this at the time," Li said.

He also blamed a deeply ingrained mass political culture among ordinary Chinese for their lack of modern ideas about nationhood.

"This is basically still a peasant nation and Mao is the peasant leader, and our country's problems stem from here," Li said, with a rueful smile. "The peasant tradition is that people want to be ruled, there is no tradition of human rights, democracy, or science [in this country]."

The vast business interests enjoyed by the privileged class of powerful officials and their relatives made them a strong counterforce to reform, Li said.

Corruption is rife in the government, Li says, and officials from top to bottom exploit their power and influence for financial gain. Many stash millions of dollars in overseas bank accounts and send their children and wives abroad. They fear that if political reforms are implemented, measures that introduced transparency, rule of law and freedom of expression would threaten their privileged positions and the party's survival, he says.

"The Communist Party elite has so many vested interests, so on ideology matters they still need to cling to Mao's image. Otherwise their reign has no foundation and the people will ask, 'Where is your legitimacy?'" Li said.

But he said he still saw "a glimmer of hope" when the party purged the flamboyant Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai after Bo and his wife became embroiled in scandal. Bo was removed from his job in March and was expelled last Friday from the Communist Party, accused of committing a range of crimes from corruption and sexual affairs to abetting the cover-up of a murder by his wife. Before his fall from grace, the ambitious Bo, famous for his retro-Maoist "red song" campaigns and ruthless drives against organised crime, which targeted business empires and political rivals, looked set to gain a seat on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee.

"The handling of Bo Xilai's case is a warning to the elite," Li said. However, he said, it was the regime's lack of openness and transparency that bred cadres like Bo: "If the party doesn't carry out [political] reform there will be many more like him."

Li said the Bo affair indicated an ideological struggle - Bo's popular support base was among people nostalgic for the perceived social equality of Mao's days - but also a power struggle within the party. It was widely believed that Bo, representing the party's conservative, hardline camp, would have succeeded Zhou Yongkang on the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee as the country's security chief if he had remained in office.

Li described president-in-waiting Xi Jinping as "an honest, down-to-earth person" and said that he had been a close friend of Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun , a revolutionary leader and fellow reformist. Li stopped short of predicting Xi's future but said he expected the new generation of leaders to be less indoctrinated by party orthodoxy.

"There won't be huge changes [under the new leadership], but it won't be worse than the past," Li said.

Whether the new leadership will push for reform or not, Li said he believed the country could not resist the inevitable in the long term. The wave of democracy, he said, simply could not be resisted.

"The global situation is changing so fast. Look at North Africa, look at the fall of [Libyan dictator Muammar] Gaddafi and [former Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak after 40 years of rule. With globalisation and the internet, you can no longer hide things from people," Li said. "It is impossible not to move forward. Could China afford to remain stagnant? That's impossible."

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: At 95, still bent on party reform