There is an interesting debate in China today: was Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier 'putting on a show' when he spoke about democratic reforms in Shenzhen in August or more recently in the US (in an interview with Fareed Zakaria for CNN). Due to the extreme opaqueness of the regime in Beijing, the question is not easy to answer.
People like Yu Jie, the author of China’s Best Actor: Wen Jiabao do not believe that ‘Grandpa Wen’, as the Chinese media loves to call him, is a reformist. In an interview with BBC's Chinese service, Yu said: "Wen Jiabao and [President] Hu Jintao are like the two sides of a coin. They are on a tandem bike, heading in the same direction. I think they are playing the good-guy-bad-guy routine, like the harsh-dad-loving-mum sort of thing.”
In another interview, he affirmed: “they share the same goal, which is to strengthen their power base. I think they have more in common than differences. That's why I don't agree with the unrealistic view held by many Western scholars and China observers, as well as many Chinese people, that Wen is a reformist, that he is more open."
When the same question was asked to Du Daozheng, director of the editorial board at Yanhuang Chunqiu magazine (former Chinese edition of Asiaweek), he replied: “In my view [Wen] has always worked tirelessly for opening and reform. In terms of action, among the highest-level leaders in the Central Committee, he has not only made his position clear, but he has also worked very hard. His style and manner are about closeness and service to the people. …He is also a living person, with his own thread of life… This is not ‘putting on a show’. I think that his manner and actions are based on his wide knowledge and the excellent traditions of Chinese culture.”
Well, this does not help. We will probably have to wait a few decades to know who the real Wen is. One thing is however certain: Wen will retire in 2012/2013. Further, whether he speaks his mind or put on a show, nothing will happen to him after retirement because too many people in China believe reforms are necessary. The fact remains that the Premier of the State Council (Prime Minister) is today being censored.
The South China Morning Post last week mentioned a letter on written by some former senior editors and journalists (including the nonagenarian secretary of Mao). The Hong Kong paper wrote: "Sponsors of the open letter seemed most outraged by the fact that even Wen had been censored. They cited examples of his speech in Shenzhen on August 21, a talk with journalists in the US on September 22 and his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 23.”
Living in a democracy, it is difficult to imagine a Prime Minister not free to speak his mind or portions of his speeches deleted by an all-powerful Publicity Department.
There is a more interesting side to Wen's declarations: it brings a new dimension to the on-going discussion/debate on what is supposed to be a smooth leadership transition in 2012.
A few months ago, most of the observers had already 'guessed' who would be the Middle Kingdom’s new leaders, not only in 2012, but also in the 2020’s.
The Jamestown Foundation published a paper ‘Changing of the Guard: Beijing grooms sixth generation cadres for 2020’ written by Willy Lam. The veteran China-expert explained: “President Hu and the Director of the CCP Organization Department Li Yuanchao have pulled out all the stops to elevate CYL-affiliated cadres from the Sixth Generation—those born in the early- to mid-1960s—to ministerial level positions. Foremost among these Young Turks are the Party Secretaries of Inner Mongolia and Hunan, respectively Hu Chunhua and Zhou Qiang. In the footsteps of late patriarch Deng Xiaoping, Hu may designate the successor of his successor by ensuring that either Hu Chunhua or Zhou will take over from the ‘core’ of the Fifth-Generation leadership, Xi Jinping, at the 20th Party Congress in 2022.”
For Hu and his colleagues of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, it may now only be wishful thinking since two new factors have crept into the scripted play.
One: the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to Liu Xiaobo, the initiator of the Charter 08, a text signed by 300 prominent intellectuals, suggesting the introduction of some democratic reforms into the opaque one-party system of China.
As the Communist Party met last week to decide the next five-year plan and discuss China’s future, Beijing prevaricated on the fate of the new laureate; interestingly, Lui’s award has become a divisive issue in the precarious political equilibrium within the Party.
Two: I already mentioned the publication by a group of former senior officials of strongly worded open petition addressed to top legislative body, calling for an end of media censorship.
In the years to come, China is bound to witness new demands for the ‘fifth modernization’ dear to the intellectuals who wrote large posters on the Democracy Wall of the Tiananmen Square in 1979 (Deng Xiaoping had spoken of 4 modernizations).
Today these Elders (who probably participated to the censure of the Beijing Spring thirty years ago) asked for free speech, which, they believe is enshrined in the 1982 constitution. The points raised by them cannot simply be swept aside.
Wen’s utterances on democracy demonstrate that there is probably today another faction in the power struggle for the 2012 succession. The main factions may remain the Communist Youth League Clique (lead by Hu Jintao) and the Gang of Princelings (lead by Xi Jinping), but a 'reform faction’ seems alive and may even have some ‘popular’ support.
In the paper quoted earlier, Willy Lam says: “Yet Fifth and Sixth-Generations cadres have yet to display originality of thinking and capability for breakthroughs in governance. The dearth of visionary leaders could have an adverse impact on the nation’s ability to meet its goal of attaining superpower status in the coming decade or so.”
It is true that the present apparatchiks have no originality of thinking; most of them are obsessed with the China Model.
As Party’s publications explain, the China Model, far superior to the Western Model is “to absorb the nutrients from capitalist bodies so as to strengthen China’s socialist body ….to win time and accumulate strength via economic development in order to eventually conquer capitalism …to take advantage of China’s nationalized system and do the big things the CCP wants. With the success of the China Model …question the universality of the West’s values and the Chinese Communist Party can redefine the prevailing world ideology.”
The Party may consider the China Model as “a multi-dimensional system that covers almost every aspect of China’s development. It includes political, economic, cultural, social, and military sub-models”, but it appears again wishful thinking from the leadership.
However within China (and even within the Party) many believe that there are possibilities of ‘reforms’ and it is necessary if China really wants to build the harmonious society so dear to President Hu.
Is the ‘reform gang’ strong enough to tilt the balance and bring about real changes in China? Only the future will tell us. Could the Nobel Peace Prize to Lui Xiaobo, which was an 'embarrassment' for the Party, trigger the 'reform' faction to come in the forefront?
It appears that during the recent Plenum of the Central Committee of the CCP, the question was not raised, but it is difficult to know what is going on in the corridors of Zhongnanhai.
In the 2012 succession race, one should forget another faction: the People’s Liberation Army. In the recent months, the Army has shown that it can influence China’s foreign policy; we have seen it for policies vis-a-vis the US, Korea or Japan. The PLA clique will probably fight hard against the introduction of 'political' reforms into the party-unique system. Ironically even amongst the generals there are 'reformers'. General Liu Yazhou, Political Commissar of the National Defence University recently declared: "The secret of US success is neither Wall Street nor Silicon Valley, but its long-surviving rule of law and the system behind it... Democracy is the most urgent; without it there is no sustainable rise. Ideals of democracy are not restricted by national borders, or by historical ones."
Everything is not only opaque, but it is complicate.
In the meantime the Plenum of the Central Committee of the CCP has appointed Vice-President Xi Jinping as a Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission. It means that he will step in Hu’s three pairs of shoes in 2012 (PRC President, General Secretary of the Party and Chairman of the Military Commission).
Will Xi Jinping follow his father’s footsteps? Xi Zhongxun, an associate of Deng Xiaoping is still “remembered for his friendship to his colleagues, his tolerance to diverse cultures and religions, his idealism of an open market socialist country and his integrity in his beliefs.”
Xi Zhongxun was one of the architects of the economic reforms. He proposed and implemented Shenzhen, China's first economic zone which later became the standard model for the other economic zones. Will the Son emulate the father by introducing political reforms?
An interesting two years lie ahead.