Rise of the 'Radical Red Capitalists'
HONG KONG, China -- Contrary to popular perceptions, political reform is very much on the agenda of Chinese cadres.
And while only ginger steps toward liberalization are being contemplated, they are worth studying as pointers to bigger things to come in the event of major socio-economic changes.
Despite the Jiang Zemin administration's harsh stance toward dissidents, the underground church, and the quasi-Buddhist Falun Gong sect, political reform has been cited by top officials in a number of unpublicized speeches and at meetings with foreign delegations.
While talking to a Japanese labor delegation last week, Jiang indicated the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was still pursuing reform of the political structure.
The 74-year-old supremo also denied being a dictator.
"I'm not a dictator," he said. "Major decisions are made by the Politburo Standing Committee, and we meet every week."
During his recent swing through southern Guangdong province, National People's Congress (NPC) Chairman Li Peng had this to say to local cadres: "It is wrong to assert we have put a stop to political reform."
Li then cited the open recruitment of senior officials in several provinces and cities as an example of reform.
Indeed, at the plenary session of the policy-setting CCP Central Committee last October, it was decided that the party should "strengthen the construction of democracy" and encourage "citizens to take part in politics in an orderly manner."
Political reform theme
A party veteran said it was likely political reform would be a theme in the 16th CCP Congress next year, which would witness a wholesale changing of the guard at the party and government's top echelons.
However, the political and administrative reforms introduced the past year or so have been cautious to a fault.
This has lent credence to the theory that the leadership is merely out to placate an international audience that includes the International Olympic Committee and foreign investors interested in opportunities after China's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Yet it is important to note that the reforms that have been undertaken are the result of the leadership succumbing to pressure from political and social groupings such as workers and private entrepreneurs.
And should this pressure intensify after the country's WTO accession, it is possible the CCP leadership may be forced to yield more.
Let us first examine efforts to modernize the CCP, which has yet to shed its Leninist roots.
One change suggested by reform-minded cadres in recent internal discussions is strict retirement ages for senior personnel including Politburo Standing Committee members. Unlike government officials, party cadres have no mandatory retirement ages.
Other liberals want a broader degree of consultation when the nation's 56 million party members pick the 2,000 or so delegates to the 16th Party Congress. They also want more transparency when these delegates cast their ballots for members of the Central Committee -- and when the 200-odd members of the Committee elect Politburo members from among themselves.
Analysts familiar with the Jiang camp said affiliates of the president's think tank are working on two radical ideas: letting private entrepreneurs or "red capitalists" join the CCP; and "separation of party and government," at least in industry and commerce.
The latter means party committees in state-owned enterprises should no longer have administrative powers, which would only be exercised by the board of directors and managers.
The analysts said if these relatively daring initiatives became reality by 2002 or so, the chances for a faster pace of democracy the rest of the decade would be higher.
Likewise, reform has been cautious in the area of government and administration, including the much-vaunted experiment with village-level elections.
In the short-lived Beijing spring of 1997 and 1998, quite a few think tank members suggested that grassroots polls be upgraded to direct elections of the heads of townships and counties by 2003 -- and of mayors by 2008.
However, sources close to the Ministry of Civil Administration, which is in charge of elections, said it was unlikely this ambitious plan would come to pass any time soon.
The sources said the leadership would only consider the indirect election of township and county chiefs -- meaning they would be voted into office by the popularly elected village heads, but not by universal suffrage.
More headway is being made in administrative and civil-service reforms, particularly the public recruitment of officials.
A Guangdong province source said the special economic zone of Shenzhen was pushing through the bold experiment of the open recruitment of about one third of municipal officials with the rank of heads of bureaus and departments.
"For such a relatively senior post as head of department, candidates must have a master's degree, special expertise, and a record of public service," the source said. "But CCP membership is not a requirement."
Candidates responding to advertisements for the jobs will take a written test on their professional skills. They will also be quizzed orally by a number of deputies to the local people's congress and political consultative conference before the final hiring decisions are made by Shenzhen's top leaders.
It is believed the Shenzhen experience may spread to other provinces. And if this experiment succeeds, even higher-level positions -- which are normally appointed by the party's Organization Department -- might be recruited through open competition.
Indeed, the CCP has for years been saddled with a Catch 22 situation. Senior cadres have pointed to socio-political instability such as protests by laid-off workers as a reason for dragging their feet on political reform. Their argument is that giving away too much power to the people will lead to anarchy.
Recently, however, there is the gradual realization that unless social sectors and interest groups are given more say, socio-economic tensions may lead to an explosion.
A recent article in the pro-Beijing Hong Kong journal The Mirror quoted unnamed cadres as saying that grassroots elections could no longer do the trick of accommodating the aspirations of social groupings.
"The recent activities of the Falun Gong and large-scale riots by Muslim residents in Shandong [province] show the masses have no channels to express their dissatisfaction with the government," The Mirror article said.
Diplomatic analysts say the country may have to wait until the second half of the decade before the fourth or younger generation of leadership -- which will have been entrenched in power by then -- will be willing to tackle the crucial issues.
These include lifting the ban on forming new parties and on private papers and TV stations, which is considered key to the real modernization of the political structure.
For example, extending grassroots election to the municipal or higher levels presupposes the formation of different political parties. After all, it is almost impossible for a candidate to campaign in a city or province without a party-like organization.
And even conservative leaders such as NPC chief Li have saluted the role of the press in supervising party and government departments.
Through proxies such as academics and think-tank members, Fourth Generation leaders such as Vice-President Hu Jintao and head of the party's Organization Department Zeng Qinghong have hinted they will make bolder reform efforts later in the decade.
The actions they take will affect not only the chances of economic integration with the global marketplace but also the long-term viability -- and survival -- of the party.
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