Thu, May 08, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Hu will be China's top SARS victim

By Hsu Tung-ming 許東明

The question of whether Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), who had just taken up their positions when the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) exploded onto the stage in China, will pass the test has become the focus of attention among political observers.

This is particularly so since former president and Central Military Commission Chairman Jiang Zemin (江澤民) and his proteges, Zeng Qinghong (曾慶紅) and others, still wield significant power. Judging from public opinion and China's political power structure, Hu is a weak national leader. How weak, however, will be seen from the way he is able to manage the plague spreading in his country.

In the eyes of the masses, the real transfer of power took place at the Communist Party of China's 16th National Congress last year. The National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference convened earlier this year were seen only as providing formal endorsement of that transfer. Beginning last year, talk about a fourth period of ideological liberation started to emerge.

Following the onset of reform in China, there have been three periods of ideological liberation -- beginning with the onset of reforms in 1978, the speeches given by Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) during his southern tour in 1992, and the debate over whether or not to deepen reforms in 1997.

The policy decisions taken during these three periods all led to quite intense debate within the leadership. The idea of three periods of ideological liberation began gaining currency as a result of a controversial book, Crossing Swords -- A Record of Three Periods of Ideological Liberation in Contemporary China (交鋒 -- 當代中國三次思想解放實錄), written in 1998 by two People's Daily reporters, Ma Licheng (馬立誠) and Ling Zhijun (凌志軍).

A large part of the debate in China's non-official media regarding this fourth period of ideological liberalization is, in fact, preoccupied with the media's understanding of the workings of democracy in the US and Europe. This understanding includes the idea that the urban middle class, together with intellectuals, monitor the government. An urban middle class of sorts has emerged in the wake of China's economic development and it would seem that they might naturally take on this role.

Expectations of this fourth period of ideological liberation further include an improvement to the government's executive functions, an improved judicial system -- in particular the contentious issue of promulgating a civil code, since China today only has general provisions for civil law, with property rights, marriage and inheritance laws yet to be codified -- and the establishment of non-governmental organizations in order to form a Chinese civil society. In addition to the idea of universal direct elections, almost all these understandings come from Europe and the US.

But will Hu be able to meet these media expectations? SARS has conveniently shown the structure of political and social mobilization in China to have remained almost unchanged amidst economic development. Media expectations on a fourth period of ideological liberalization are basically built on the premise that the democracies of today developed by focusing in on the individual.

SARS information and preventive mobilization in China, however, is still basically based on China's already existing units.

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