Toward the end of this year, the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will be convened to oversee a transfer of power from the party’s present leadership to the next generation.
Just as people were expecting to see the names of the new leaders emerge, we had the curious events of earlier this month, in which Chongqing Deputy Mayor Wang Lijun (王立軍) turned up at the US consulate in Chengdu, reportedly seeking political asylum.
The incident was met with a strong reaction in China and keen interest from abroad, as a conflict almost broke out between police officers from the two cities. The symbolic significance of all this and the tantalizing glimpse it affords of what is happening behind the scenes is indeed noteworthy.
The incident and the response should serve as a wake-up call to the few people in Taiwan who still view China through rose-tinted spectacles. It should help them face the fact that China is still a society on the edge, both politically and economically.
Ever since it was founded, transfers of power within the People’s Republic of China have been mired in the power struggles that are the necessary product of communist dictatorships. In the early days these power struggles were particularly ferocious, often going beyond internal party struggles to involve mass movements and even intervention by the army. They were enough to send the entire country to the brink of civil war.
In ancient times, transfers of power in China took the form of dynastic change in which imperial power was wrested from the incumbent. Not much changed when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took over, although it did so under the banner of putting an end to feudalism. Indeed, power transfers under this new regime were every bit as barbaric and violent, if not more so, than under the old system. With every transfer of power the contenders sought not just to topple their opponents, but to wipe out any trace of dissent, often getting ordinary people involved and leading to the imprisonment, or even death, of millions.
Following the death of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東), party, political and military power became consolidated in the hands of former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), who had very few, if any, serious challengers. Deng instigated a path of economic reform and opening up to the outside world and, under the name of socialist market economics, started China on the road of state capitalism and long-term growth. Where the economic system may have changed, however, the political system did not. There is a well-established system for the exercise and transmission of power, but it is exclusively controlled by a small, powerful elite.
The system of power transfer in the CCP operates in a way we might find difficult to conceive. The party’s second-generation leader, Deng, not only chose his successor, Jiang Zemin (江澤民), but also decided in advance who was to be Jiang’s successor: Hu Jintao (胡錦濤). Now that Hu is president, his own successor is all but decided, as Hu is presumed to have nominated Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) to follow him.
This invention of the Chinese communists, these Chinese-style politico-economic development models that they call “socialist democracy” and “socialist market economics,” are just veils. In essence they are completely in line with Chinese communist ideology.