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China's conservative backlash

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam, CNN Senior China Analyst

Hu may be president, but doesn't yet have the authority or backing to push ahead with reforms he wants.
Hu may be president, but doesn't yet have the authority or backing to push ahead with reforms he wants.

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Chinese authorities have blocked media coverage of the Shanghai corruption allegations.
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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- One step forward, three-quarters of a step back: this is the destiny of China's reform.

The empire of conservatism is striking back even as aides to President Hu Jintao are finalizing what was earlier billed as a major speech on political liberalization.

The address, due on the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) 82nd birthday on July 1, was supposed to spell out for the first time ways to bring about "democracy within the party," media reform and popular supervision of the government.

That the moderate leader will mostly confine himself to fairly hackneyed generalities, however, is clear from a series of disturbing developments.

"Hu wants to push ahead with political reform," said a veteran party cadre in Beijing. "But he does not yet have full control over the party and army -- and quite a number of cadres are still toeing the line of conservative elders such as former president Jiang Zemin."

An obvious instance of retrogression was a series of talks that the Director of the CCP Propaganda Department, Politburo member Liu Yunshan, recently gave to media units including the People's Daily.

Citing remarks made privately by Jiang, Liu told media-related cadres to raise their guard against "people who are taking advantage of the outbreak of atypical pneumonia (SARS) to spread bourgeois liberalization."

"Bourgeois liberalization," a code word for Western political ideals, has rarely been used since the late 1990s.

Liu, deemed a protégé of Jiang and Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) member Zeng Qinghong, added the media must remain "the tongue and throat of the party."

Shanghai Faction

Since mid-May, several publications including the Beijing Xinbao newspaper and the influential Caijing magazine have been censured.

Liu's fulminations are at variance with the much more liberal instructions of PSC member Li Changchun.

Li, an associate of President Hu's, has vowed that the press must honor the people's "right to know" -- and that it must be "closer to life, closer to reality and closer to the masses."

That Jiang and members of his Shanghai Faction are putting considerable pressure on Hu is evident from the lack of progress concerning the case of "premier Shanghai tycoon" Zhou Zhengyi.

Zhou was detained last month for illegally or improperly obtaining loans and land-use rights from dozens of municipal government departments and banks in Shanghai.

It is believed the 42-year-old cowboy speculator could not have gotten these sweetheart deals without the help of influential local officials.

Given that hundreds of Shanghai residents displaced by Zhou's housing projects have written protest letters to Beijing, Hu may be using the Zhou affair as illustration of the authorities' acceptance of "popular supervision."

Former President Jiang still holds power as the chairman of the Central Military Commission.
Former President Jiang still holds power as the chairman of the Central Military Commission.

And since investigations into Zhou and his cronies are being handled by the CCP Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection -- which is headed by Hu ally Wu Guanzheng -- there is speculation several Shanghai Faction stalwarts might be implicated.

Last week, however, the Propaganda Department ordered Chinese reporters to stop covering the scandal.

Moreover, Beijing is awash with speculation that Jiang, who remains Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), is trying to stop Hu and Wu from "monopolizing" the Zhou case.

"Jiang has indicated that PSC member Huang Ju should also play a role in the investigations," said a Shanghai-based Western diplomat.

Jiang's rationale was that Huang, a former mayor and party boss of Shanghai, was best placed to expose Zhou's shenanigans.

The diplomat added: "The trouble is that Huang is among a gaggle of Shanghai cadres thought to be Zhou's cronies."

That the Shanghai Faction is mounting a ferocious counter-attack is demonstrated by Jiang's ability to compel Hu to launch yet another ideological campaign to glorify the "Theory of the Three Represents."

Jiang's pet theory -- that the party should represent the foremost productivity, the most advanced culture, and the masses' interests -- has been lauded as the be-all and end-all of Communist-Chinese wisdom.

However, Jiang's advisers have accused Hu of using the pretext of focusing resources on fighting the pneumonia epidemic to marginalize the Three Represents Theory.

State media reports said on Monday that all party cadres and members must "bring about a new climax in learning how to implement the important Three Represents Theory."

Strategic retreat

Last weekend, the Beijing-affiliated Hong Kong daily, Wen Wei Po, revealed that Hu would play up the contributions of the Three Represents Theory in his July 1 speech.

But how about the president's much-ballyhooed initiatives in democratization, at least, democracy within the party.

A source close to the Hu camp said the 60-year-old leader was beating a strategic retreat.

He said Hu would still insist that "there is no way out for the party save political reform" and that Beijing would start with liberalizing institutions within the party of 65 million members.

However, Hu would temporarily mothball details about intra-party democracy, particularly more open and fairer ways of electing regional cadres, so as not to antagonize the Shanghai Faction.

In internal talks, the president has indicated that a new provincial party chief should be voted into office by all members of that province's party committee -- and not merely designated by the PSC upon the CCP Organization Department's recommendation.

"Intra-party democracy is partly aimed at breaking the stranglehold that Jiang protégé Zeng, who controls the Organization Department, has over personnel appointments," the source added.

"It is likely that Hu will introduce the reforms after Jiang's expected retirement from the CMC in a year or so."

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