An article published in the the Taiwan News on Sept. 17 titled “PRC political reform is a mere mirage,” was correct in its assessment that it would be “impossible to avoid forever the task of political reform in the wake of China’s torrid growth and massive social change in the wake of the ‘reform and opening’ symbolized by the Shenzhen SEZ [special economic zone] without triggering potential social or political storms.”
In fact, political reform is already occurring in China, and has been for some time. Therefore, the task of political reform is already under way and should be treated in part as a historical event.
However, the article reveals a common misconception some Westerners and others living in democratic societies have when it assumes that if political reform is not democratic in nature, it is not reform. Although the political reforms which have occurred, and are still occurring in China, may not resemble what liberal democrats would consider reform, they nonetheless deserve examination and should not be brushed aside as “a mirage.”
Moreover, the main quote from Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) that appears in the Taiwan News article, which was made just prior to the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the Shenzhen SEZ, does not mention democratic reforms.
“[W]ithout the safeguard of the reform of political institutions, the fruits of the reform of economic institutions cannot be consolidated,” Wen was quoted as saying.
These statements are not new for the premier, who in the past associated with former Chinese general secretary and reformer Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) and former premier and reformer Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽). Both Hu and Zhao were, in turn, proteges of Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平).
However, Wen’s association with these reformers certainly does not make him a democrat. Hu was a long-time follower of Deng, who was no democrat himself, while Zhao’s performance as governor of Sichuan Province, particularly his successful economic reform policies there, won him Deng’s attention. Neither reformer can be accurately defined as a liberal democrat.
In fact, Kenneth Liberthal, in his authoritative Governing China: From Revolution through Reform, states that although Zhao early on “associated himself with greater political democratization ... his followers had begun to support the idea that the best path to successful reform would be to have a strong, autocratic leader use his power to implement change. This view, called ‘neo-authoritarianism,’ was intended to lay the groundwork for Zhao to become an autocratic leader in Deng’s wake.”
Wen was one of those Zhao followers.
In his China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation, David Shambaugh wrestles with not only Western misconceptions regarding the perceived “lack” of political reform in China, but also with the forms of political reform occurring within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Tracing both the ideological and organizational reforms the party has undertaken, particularly since the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre and the fall of the Soviet Union, Shambaugh concludes that although the CCP has continued to lose aspects of its most intrusive and repressive grips on Chinese society utilized especially prior to the Cultural Revolution, the party has also been adapting to challenges it has faced to its hold on power, and has thus far been relatively effective.