In what has been called his “boldest-ever call for liberalization,” Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) in late August created a bit of a stir among Chinese liberals and conservatives when he raised the issue of political reform in his country’s modernization program.
That he would raise such a topic on what pundits have described as his “southern tour” — a veiled reference, if at all, to Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) visit to Southern China in 1992, ushering in a new era of economic development — on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, was probably no accident. The sheer symbolism of the anniversary, combined with the fact that Wen, a Deng protege, will be stepping down two years from now, must be weighing on the premier’s mind as he ponders his legacy.
Wen again raised the issue of political liberalization on a visit to the UN General Assembly in New York on Sept. 22, this time while answering questions from overseas Chinese media.
“I’ve previously said economic reform without the protection of political reform will not achieve complete success, and might even lose what’s been gained,” he said, adding, if perhaps vaguely: “Of course, we are trying to build a China with democracy and rule of law.”
What he had previously said, in his August speech, was that without the “guarantee” of political reform, “the fruits of the reform of the economic structure may be lost and it will be impossible to realize the goal of modernization.”
It is interesting to contrast the premier’s remarks with those made by Chinese -President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) during the official celebrations for the 30th anniversary of the economic zone, where he made no mention whatsoever of political reform. This has raised speculation among political watchers that Wen may be engaged in a struggle with “anti-reform” factions within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Some analysts have posited that Wen’s comments were a way to diminish external pressure on China to reform politically at a time when the country finds itself mired in uncertainty regarding its relations with the region. Though this is a valid possibility, we must also keep in mind that Humpty Dumpty, as the Chinese call Wen, is something of a free agent, a rare CCP leader who does not belong to any of the main cliques in the pantheon of Chinese power (Hu, for example, relies on the Chinese Communist Youth League (CCYL) and taizidang, or “princelings,” while Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin (江澤民), consolidated his power via the “Shanghai clique”).
Though this “independence” allows Wen to make such “controversial,” or anti--establishment remarks — and to get away with it — it also raises doubts as to his ability to make these things happen. Aware that he has little lime left in office, Wen may be thinking of how the history books will regard him as he makes eleventh-hour speeches about democracy in China, knowing full well that it will be for the next generations of leaders to implement such reforms, should the CCP move in that direction.
Unlike Deng, who remained in the background and kept pulling the strings long after his “retirement,” Wen will likely fade away after he steps down in 2012, and his influence on policy decisions will be superficial at best. This knowledge that the premier is effectively a sitting duck may help explain why Hu and his conservative clique have not turned on Wen (who, even before his comments in August, had nevertheless become the target of cypto-Maoist intellectuals accusing him of committing “six major errors,” among them encouraging “bourgeois liberalization”). In fact, fighting Wen publicly would probably have drawn unnecessary attention to a question the elite conservatives don’t want to have to deal with. So they, along with the state-controlled media, largely ignored Wen.
A determining factor of the extent to which Wen’s liberal talk will have any influence on the direction adopted by the CCP will revolve around the succession of power after 2012. It will depend not only on Xi Jinping (習近平) and Li Keqiang (李克強), who are expected to succeed Hu and Wen respectively, but also on how they consolidate their own power within the party. Both Xi, a taizidang, and Li, of the CCYL, were in fact brought into the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau — and therefore into Hu’s close circle — to strengthen the president’s influence.
Before doing so, and -finding himself in a weaker position within the party than his predecessor, Hu had also had to “cleanse” the party of the Shanghai influence — which included putting Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu (陳良宇) behind bars for corruption, among others — and establish what Zheng Yongnian (鄭永年), director of the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute, describes as his own “ideational identity.”
It is this ideational identity, the quasi-religious slogan that encapsulates the CCP elite at a specific point in time (Jiang’s “Three Represents” and Hu’s “Scientific Development” are examples), that will determine the nature of CCP policies after Hu and Wen step down. Given Wen’s lack of a solid power base, however, and added to the conservative forces that brought the Xi-Li succession up the ranks of the CCP, it is unlikely his grand ideas about democracy will translate into action anytime soon. Wen is no Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽), who as premier in the 1980s — a more permissible environment — was able to push some social and economic reforms, only to be pushed aside (then as CCP secretary--general) by Deng when the student protests of 1989 forced the CCP to revisit its ideational identity and adopt a more conservative line.
Given the current environment and the strong hold the conservative elite has on the CCP, what we can expect Wen to achieve, at most, is to go down in history as a solitary voice that not only “challenged” conservative forces, but got away with it.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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