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The Road Ahead: A Preliminary Assessment of the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party

Post Series: 2007: Volume 6, Number 3
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The Road Ahead: A Preliminary Assessment of the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist PartyEnough time has passed since the 17th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party was held in March, 2007, to begin the assessment of a political event that the Chinese president referred to as being characterized by Party unity, policy victory and theoretical achievement of the Sinification of Marxism.

Three of the many benchmarks are crucial to understanding the effects of the 17th Party Congress. First, will the CCP be able to break away from the past practice of using the Congress to lionize the incumbent or soon-to-retire top leader as a genius whose ideas will be designated as the beacon of the Party’s orientation? Second, will there be a smoother and more institutionalized power transfer? Will Hu Jintao attempt to handpick his successor, much like he was selected by Deng Xiaoping, or will the Party’s institutions play the role of king maker? Third, and perhaps most crucial, will long-awaited political reform be planned and launched in the next five years? We will examine these questions in order.

On the issue of Congress lionizing out-going leaders, the signs are not positive. President Hu Jintao is being lauded in official discourse for championing a “harmonious” society. In this, Hu is merely following a long Communist tradition of thinking that only a small group of leaders are best informed, wisest, and most qualified to represent all the people and make the best possible decisions for them. Karl Marx had figured out all solutions to the problems of his day. V.I. Lenin founded the first Communist nation by “scientifically” modifying Marxism. Mao Zedong adapted Marxism and Leninism and turned China into the people’s nation. Deng Xiaoping salvaged China from the brink of an economic and social collapse. Jiang Zemin made China prosperous. Hu’s brilliance and genius is on the lips of all Party leaders. He is given credit for China’s economic, cultural, scientific and social achievements. Why has Hu failed to eliminate the bad practice of self-glorification? Either he desires it or it is forced upon him. If we are a little cynical, we can even say it is Chinese to be ruled by a “divine” leader. But surely making an individual’s ideas synonymous with the Party Charter is feudalistic, vain and out of step with the principle of popular sovereignty. This is a new source of disillusionment with the top leadership of China.

Signals are mixed on the question of transferring power. Even though before the closing of the meeting there were rumors that Xi Jinping, former governor of Fujian and Party secretary of Zhejiang, would be promoted to the Standing Committee of the Politburo, it was a surprise when it happened. Observers inside and outside China believed that Li Keqiang would emerge as heir apparent. The thought was that Hu would do what Mao and Deng had done before: select a successor long before he exited from center stage. This did not happen, and Xi “helicoptered” to the position that was supposed to be Li’s.

There are multiple explanations for Xi’s sudden elevation. It could be a result of his experience and qualifications:

  • He is a “princeling” and therefore someone who could be trusted with the paramount power of the Party. After all, this power did not come easily. It was obtained as a result of the blood and sweat of the generation that included Xi’s father.
  • Xi was sent down to the countryside as a youth for seven years in Northern Shaanxi and presumably understands rural issues better than anybody else.
  • He worked in Fujian for numerous years and has acquired deep knowledge about Taiwan.
  • He served as Party secretary in Zhejiang, one of the engines of China’s economic growth and a province where state ownership of enterprises is almost obsolete.

But other political factors could be at the heart of the decision. Perhaps the Party is becoming factionalized, and Xi is the compromise candidate for the top job five years from now. Or it might be that there is real intra-Party democracy, and Xi’s takeoff is an outcome of popular support among senior Party leaders in China.

We will have to wait for Xi or other insiders to tell us the real story later. The very fact that the conventional candidate (whose performance is questionable and whose charisma is unknown) was moved to the second position is a good sign. While people in the U.S. lament partisan politics and lack of political unanimity, for the Chinese political system to liberalize, dissent, disagreement and dissonance will be key. They are needed to weaken the power monopoly and make personnel and policy decisions more contentious and therefore more democratic. The Party needs more democratic discussion and less centralism. Decision by majority vote is the only effective way to root out tyranny by a few.

On the issue of political reform the picture is even more complex. Perhaps Hu Jintao understands a people’s democracy is not possible without intra-Party democracy. As reported by Xinhua, Hu is against arbitrary decision-making in the Party. He declares that all possible efforts should be made to increase transparency in Party affairs and to “oppose and prevent arbitrary decision making by an individual or a minority of people.”

On enhancing intra-Party democracy, Hu calls on all Party members and organizations at all levels to “take the lead in upholding the authority of the Constitution and the law.” He also says that the Party will strictly implement democratic centralism, and improve the system that combines collective leadership with division of responsibilities among individuals. Local Party committees will adopt a voting system to decide on major issues and to appoint cadres to important positions.

Hu asks the Party to experiment with the standing committee system, arguing that the Political Bureau of the Central Committee should regularly report its work to the plenary session of the Central Committee and accept its oversight, and that the standing committees of local Party committees at all levels do likewise at plenary sessions of local Party committees.

The Party is supposed to reform the intra-Party electoral system and improve the system for nominating candidates and electoral methods at the grassroots level (namely the township and town party committees). Of crucial importance is the fact that Hu has endorsed the experiments of the so-called “two ballot” electoral system promoted by Sichuan and other provinces in the past few years. In this system, candidates for Party committees are supposed to be determined by a popular poll and a vote by all Party members. Hu vows to gradually extend this system of “direct” election of leading members of Party committees, and explore various ways to expand intra-Party democracy at the local level.

This long overdue democracy roadmap seems intriguing and does contain actionable plans. However, one needs to assess its weight and priority in the context of the overall political report and the undercurrents of the internal debate on political reform. If one checks how Hu Jintao stresses socialism with Chinese characteristics, pessimism and confusion kick in.

What is socialism with Chinese characteristics? According to Hu Jintao, it means the localization of Marxism. “We will, under the leadership of the CCP and in light of China’s basic conditions, take economic development as the central task, adhere to the Four Cardinal Principles and persevere in reform and opening up, release and develop the productive forces, consolidate and improve the socialist system, develop the socialist market economy, socialist democracy, an advanced socialist culture and a harmonious socialist society, and make China a prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious modern socialist country.”

Hu also says in his report, “Practices since the publication of the Communist Manifesto nearly 160 years ago have proved that only when Marxism is integrated with the conditions of a specific country, advances in step with the times and is tied to the destiny of the people can it demonstrate its strong vitality, creativity and appeal. In contemporary China, to stay true to Marxism means to adhere to the system of theories of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Mao Zedong localized Marxist theory by mobilizing peasants to catapult the Party into the cities. Deng Xiaoping localized Marxist theory by saying that improving people’s lives supersedes revolutionary fervor. Jiang Zemin localized Marxist theory by defining what the Chinese Communist Party represents. Hu Jintao is in the middle of a new theoretic localization. We know Hu’s new “scientific outlook” implies balancing economic development, reducing the galloping gap between the rich and the poor, and maintaining social justice. We hope that an element Hu outlined in his speech will be promoted by the Party: building a harmonious society that not only guarantees social justice, but also political liberty and equality. In other words, China should be built into a nation in which people are respected as the sole source of legitimacy and ruling mandate.

Such a policy would not be a brilliant localization of classic Marxist theory of class struggle, alienation, capital, surplus value, and imperialism. If this is not a betrayal of classic Marxism, it is at least an Edward Bernstein type of revisionism that the Chinese Communist Party once spent lots of resources and passion to condemn.

Even if Hu desires to push political reform, the structure of the Party could stand as a major obstacle. On paper, implementation is simple. General Secretary Hu Jintao issues marching orders and the 31 provincial and municipal Party secretaries, representing the will and wishes of 73.4 million Party members, carry out the plan. The problem is that many of the Team of 31 will very conveniently forget what they have seriously said and solemnly pledged and go astray. (Chen Liangyu, who used to be a powerful member of the Team of 31, is currently waiting for a verdict and possibly wondering what he has done wrong to fall from the top all the way to the bottom.) Their unprincipled and sometimes shameless deviation will be mimicked on a massive scale by those who are below them.

The more this kind of straying happens, the more often ordinary citizens question the Party’s truthfulness and sincerity. Anger builds up. How to vent popular anger so that it does not escalate into a quintessential Marxist moment of revolution like the Paris Commune in 1871 could become a central concern.

Problems could easily arise elsewhere as well. Any sudden political, social or economic crisis (such as Taiwan becoming bolder in pursuing independence, global economic recession causing the Chinese economy to tank, the U.S. making China a hostile nation, popular discontent in China caused by inflation, environmental degradation, lack of healthcare coverage) may catch the Party by surprise. Harmony and legitimacy are interconnected. If legitimacy is questioned and even challenged, harmony will be as thin as rice paper. In the Internet age, China may not have the luxury of waiting until the next Party Congress five years hence to settle on a new policy direction and glorify a new leader and new principles. The only way for the Party to ensure unity, solidarity and popular support is to introduce a viable system through which people’s opinions can be freely expressed and people’s input can be meaningfully incorporated into how Party and government leaders at all levels are chosen.

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