In November 1978, Deng Xiaoping presided over the Third Plenum of the Eleventh National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which launched China’s reform and opening up. Thirty five years later, the Third Plenum of CCP’s Eighteenth Congress was held with Xi Jinping at the helm. There has been occasional chatter by Chinese government officials and scholars that without political liberalization, reform and opening up would not have been possible, and the consensus is that what happened after the historic meeting in late 1978 was only the beginning of economic reform. Even Deng Xiaoping himself said that all reforms in China would eventually come down to political reform. In other words, without political reform all reform measures were doomed to fail. When Wen Jiabao went to Shenzhen to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the establishment of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone in 2010, he echoed what Deng said many years ago: “We should not only promote economic reform but also political reform. Without the guarantee of political reform, the accomplishments of economic reform will be lost again and the goals of modernization will never be achieved.”
Shortly after he was anointed CCP’s general secretary in November 2012, Xi Jinping went to Shenzhen to pay tribute to Deng Xiaoping. Xi said that reform had entered into the zone of deep waters and that it was necessary to muster political courage and wisdom to seize the opportunity to deepen reform measures in important areas. Xi declared that in order to remain focused on the correct direction for reform, both ideological shackles and obstruction by special interest groups should be removed. Political commentators were euphoric, and all eyes were fixed on the upcoming Third Plenum. Some were optimistic that there would be significant measures in the political reform arena.
But many were disappointed by the series of remarks made by Xi since he replaced Hu Jintao as CCP’s leader. He talked about national rejuvenation and the rise of China and asked all Chinese people to dream the Chinese dream. He lamented that when the Soviet Union collapsed there was not a good man around to stop the fall. He called on the military to be ready to fight and to win wars. There was a glaring absence of the kind of thinking that Xi had presented in 2010. That year, during a speech at the Central Party School in Beijing, Xi said all CCP members should pay attention to the issue of power authorization and the fact that CCP’s power was bestowed by the people. The five-character term that “power comes from the people” (权为民所赋) sent a cheerful breeze to the political reform community in China because popular bestowing of power to the CCP would certainly involve a set of procedures that has always been missing from CCP’s action, despite the common chant that people are the “masters” of the state. Nonetheless, hope lingered that Xi was an open-minded Communist leader who believed political power derives from the people and a fixed process to bestow that power must be introduced. If such a proposal were to be discussed and written into the Plenum resolution, meaningful political reform would soon unfold in China.
Those who placed high hopes on Xi Jinping and expected the Third Plenum to engage in icebreaking measures in the arena of political reform were very much disappointed when they read the language on political reform in the Resolution that was adopted. Chapter Eight of the Resolution is entitled “Strengthen the Construction of Socialist Democratic Political System” and it contains three sections detailing how the CCP wants to expand and deepen democratization. The first section focuses on improving China’s People’s Congress system with high-sounding language, declaring that the congresses at all levels adopt laws and make the most important decisions. It emphasizes that “people’s government, people’s court and people’s procuratorate are elected by, responsible to and supervised by the people’s congresses.” China has people’s congresses at five levels: township/town, country/district, municipal, provincial and national. There are about three million directly (at township/town and county/district levels) and indirectly elected people’s congress deputies. This means Chinese people, at least on paper, have no less representation than their counterparts in democratic nations.
If the people’s congresses can do what they are charged to do by law and by the Resolution, there would be more accountability and transparency at all levels of the government and the so-called letter and visitation channel through which ordinary people try to file complaints against corrupt, abusive or negligent officials would become obsolete immediately. Sadly, the Resolution has not addressed the actual weakness of the people’s congress system. It made no mention of measures to correct the deficiency. The most serious problems of the people’s congress system in China are that 1) the Party still runs roughshod over it, and most party secretaries at the provincial level also are chairs of the standing committee of the provincial people’s congress; and 2) elections of the deputies, both direct and indirect, are not fair and competitive. When the foundation is soft and the top subject to Party control and manipulation, the people’s congress system cannot play a meaningful role. In this sense, the Resolution has simply repeated what had been for the past three decades and broke no new ground.
The second section elaborates on deliberative democracy, which is different from the kind of deliberative democracy that is known in the West. While Western deliberative democracy is usually applied at the grassroots level with societal activists pushing the government to be more transparent and accountable, the Chinese deliberative democracy discussed in the Resolution refers to the united front and its platform, the political consultative conference system. The actors on this stage are retired government officials, members of the eight democratic parties, celebrities, famous people without party affiliations and model workers. They are noisy, sensitive to social and political developments and keen on making policy recommendations but there is very little evidence this high-flying platform is having policy impacts at any level.
The last section talks about grassroots democracy, which includes village self-government, urban resident self-government, and worker self-government. Direct village committee elections and village self-government used to be the beacon of China’s expanding democratization. Urban residential committee elections have never been very competitive. Employee committees have always been attached to unions, which have never been rights bargaining mechanisms. The drafters of the Resolution seemed unable to clear a path for real grassroots democracy.
All in all, Chapter Eight of the Resolution calls for expansion of orderly political participation by Chinese citizens but offers little detail in delineating the specific channels through which participation will be allowed and become meaningful. The old wine was poured into a new bottle. The subsequent disillusion and disappointment in the political reform community is palpable. The sense is that Xi Jinping is no longer a credible champion of political reform. Disappointed as they are, Chinese scholars have tried to see the best in a worst-case scenario. Sun Xiaoli, a professor at the National Academy of Public Administration, makes two points when asked by the media why there is little mention of political reform in the Resolution: 1) deepening and expanding economic reform is in itself political; and 2) there is enough space created by the Resolution to plot further political reform.
A New Space in the Making
If Chapter Eight of the Resolution offered disappointment about political reform, Chapter Twelve provides a rhetorical opening for the pursuit of social justice. This section lists a plethora of measures that call for deepening of social reform. The most important seems to be an effort to ensure a more equitable distribution of wealth through a more seriously graduated income tax, and creation of a larger and wider social security net. The following paragraph in the Resolution sounds like a page from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal:
We will regulate income distribution procedures and improve the regulatory systems and mechanisms and policy system for income distribution, establish an individual income and property information system, protect legitimate incomes, regulate excessively high incomes, redefine and clear away hidden incomes, outlaw illegal incomes, increase the incomes of low-income groups, and increase the proportion of the middle-income group in society as a whole.
The lack of a more equitable distribution of wealth no doubt stirs anger deep within Chinese society, but according to Harvard sociologist Martin Whyte, this has not led to an eruption of unrest. His surveys indicate that Chinese people are more upset by social discrimination that favors the large urban centers. For example, a Beijing high school graduate can enter Peking or Tsinghua University with a 500-point score on the national college entrance exam, but a similar person from Changsha in Hunan Province needs a score of 600 or more to get into these universities. The Resolution makes it clear that authorities will tackle this kind of regional discrimination through reforming the matriculation system and giving universities more authority in admitting students.
It is indeed shameful for CCP to call China a socialist country when it has a healthcare system that builds in the kind of injustice that characterized segregation in the U.S. South before the Civil Rights Movement. Whether one in China can get good and comprehensive healthcare depends on your rank, your income and your residency. Hundreds of millions of Chinese farmers did not have any kind of health insurance until a few years ago when a new rural cooperative healthcare system was introduced. But in comparison to the benefits extended to the urban dwellers, government employees and military personnel, Chinese farmers still have to travel very far to receive proper care. They also must bear a larger financial burden to pay their healthcare costs. Therefore, the CCP vows to “deepen the comprehensive reform of grass-roots medical and healthcare institutions, and improve the network of urban and rural basic medical and healthcare services.”
Civil servants, military personnel and Party officials in China have the best pension system and retirement benefits. Ordinary residents of China have inadequate pensions, and many older people are dependent on their children for senior care. The only social security anchor for the farmers used to be the family plot of land. The pension system introduced by the government two decades ago is not entirely portable and management of social security funds is not transparent, making it highly susceptible to misuse and illegal transfer. The primitive nature of this system is highlighted by the proposed measures to reform it:
We will adhere to the basic old-age insurance system that combines social pools with individual accounts, improve the individual accounts system, complete the incentive mechanism in which those who contribute more will get more, guarantee the rights and interests of the insured, place basic old-age pension under unified national planning, and uphold the principle of balance based on actuarial mathematics.
These social reform measures, if fully implemented, would change the nature of the Chinese government overnight, making it more concerned with providing services to its citizens than with regime survival and enforced obedience to its reign. But these reform measures must have popular input, open access to government information, transparency, and accountability to be successfully implemented. In other words, without institutionalizing popular participation in deciding and supervising which social services are going to be provided and how they are going to be provided, these reform measures will either fail or will become window dressing to hoodwink people. If the CCP is serious about implementing what it has proposed in the Resolution, it will need to adopt relevant political reform measures, even if that occurs through an indirect process.
While many praise the proposed economic reform measures, Chapter Thirteen of the Resolution contains language that is innovative and even revolutionary in the context of CCP leaders who see any call related to expanding civil society as subversive and an evil plan cooked in the hallways of the U.S. State Department and bunkers of the Pentagon. This part of the Resolution does begin by saying social governance reforms will be conducted under the leadership of CCP committees and government agencies at all levels. But this is followed by a few paragraphs that rarely appear in CCP’s societal governing circulars.
If its language were realized, Section 48 could help liberate society from crushing state domination and infuse a checking and balancing force that modern, progressive states possess. The section calls on authorities to “intensify efforts to separate government administration and social organizations, encourage social organizations to clarify their rights and obligations, and enforce self-management and play their role in accordance with the law.” The iron hand of the state is told emphatically to relax or even to move away because now the CCP wants “social organizations to provide public services that they are apt to supply and tackle matters that they are able to tackle.” According to the section, “These organizations can directly apply for registration in accordance with the law when they are established. We will strengthen the management of social organizations and foreign NGOs in China, and guide them to carry out their activities in accordance with the law.”
Liberating as it sounds, there are challenges to putting these reform measures in place. First, the law that is supposed to govern the registration and management of the NGOs has yet to be submitted to the National People’s Congress for review and adoption. At this point, only a few cities in the south allow the registration of NGOs under provincial or municipal regulations. Second, the CCP has made it clear that it wants only certain kinds of NGO: trade associations, chambers of commerce, scientific and technological associations, charity and philanthropic organizations, and urban and rural community service organizations. NGOs with political missions or the intention to hold government accountable are not encouraged to form and can be declared hostile and illegal forces threatening social and political order. It is not a good sign that NGOs whose mission is to conserve nature and protect the environment are not mentioned as preferred social organizations.
What is even more alarming is that seven months after the adoption of the Resolution, there appears to be a concerted effort to investigate which institutes of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences have been penetrated by foreign NGOs or foundations. This revelation came from a speech made by a member of the Central Commission on Discipline Inspection when he spoke at the Institute of Modern History. The CCP evidently does not want to govern foreign NGOs according to law, as was indicated in the Resolution. It simply desires to see them disappear in China. It is possible that many Chinese universities, colleges and existing NGOs will be subject to the same kind of investigation. Small wonder that many partners of Westerns NGOs have backed out of joint projects since late last year.
Chapter Thirteen ends with a proposal to establish a public security apparatus that includes creating a national security council that will coordinate with all national agencies involved in safeguarding national interests in information-gathering and decision-making. Unlike the U.S. National Security Council, whose sole mission is to stop threats that originate from abroad, the Chinese NSC would also respond to domestic threats to political and social stability. In traditional CCP discourse, all NGOs, domestic or foreign, are seeds of domestic instability, sources of so called “color revolutions” that are funded by Western powers eager to undermine the rise of China or to lead China into the wilderness of disintegration. Wang Zhenyao, former Ministry of Civil Affairs official and current dean of the China Institute of Philanthropic Studies at the Beijing Normal University, told the media that half of the one million NGOs in China are underground because of fear. These NGOs cannot register, dare not register, and will certainly not be able to register because the government sees them as enemies of the state. The stability maintenance apparatus nurtured by Zhou Yongkong—who is currently the subject of a criminal investigation in China—has been more richly funded than the country’s defense establishment. Many reform-minded Chinese hope the ouster of Zhou, who has been seen by many as the single most daunting obstacle to the growth of China’s civil society, may create an opening to expand civil society. When the Resolution was made public there was initial euphoria and media hoopla about the potential of this reform measure. It is too early to say that social reform is dead but not too late to say political reform will never be real and meaningful when there is no vibrant civil society and NGOs are always met with iron fist of the state.
The final balance sheet
In an interview with a newspaper in 2012, Zhou Ruijin, a retired media professional who is a strong advocate of political reform in China, said China’s reform, although interconnected and interwoven to a large extent, will have to be divided into three phases, namely economic, social, and political. The first phase of economic reform began in 1978 and was somewhat completed by 2004. The social reform phase began in 2010 and shall be completed by 2025. The final and the most important phase of the reform may kick in by 2030.
No Chinese leader, from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping, has ever set a timetable for political reform. When asked in 1945 how the CCP would avoid the notorious dynastic cycles of the previous emperors, Mao said to Huang Yanpei proudly but vaguely that the CCP had found a miraculous mechanism to ward them off: democracy. During his negotiation with British politicians on the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong to China in 1986, Deng Xiaoping predicted that China might adopt national presidential elections by 2050 after overcoming the wealth, educational, economic, and geographic gaps between urban dwellers and rural residents. A year later, at CCP’s Thirteenth National Congress, Zhao Ziyang submitted a seven-point political reform package. This is the first time the CCP had introduced a political reform action plan. It did not have a five-year-plan kind of timetable and was quickly shelved after the political turmoil in 1989. It was not until 2008 when another top Chinese leader, Wen Jiabao, brought up a political reform plan that had implementable specifics. In a meeting with John Thornton, former chairman of Goldman Sachs, Wen outlined a three-prong action proposal: 1) direct elections moving up from villages to towns and to counties; 2) restraining government power via independent judiciary oversight; and 3) enhancing government accountability through a freer and more autonomous media. It appeared this proposal was more of Wen’s own personal aspiration than a CCP institutional push. He made his ambitious statement only to foreigners and never conveyed it to his own people.
Almost six years passed between Wen’s lofty plan and the adoption of the Resolution of the Third Plenum. In between, Xi came to power, Bo Xilai, a Politburo member of CCP’s Seventeenth Congress, was sentenced to life in prison, and two former high CCP officials—General Xu Caihou, a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, and Zhou Yongkang—were placed under Party investigation and will eventually go to jail. The legitimacy of the CCP is under unprecedented self-inflicted assault. Will serious political reform be entertained? Prospects may seem unlikely, but if Xi Jinping is serious about keeping the CCP in power by making it less corrupt, more responsive to the people and more easily accountable to the people, political reform cannot wait until 2030 as was suggested by Zhou Ruijin. After all, there is a timetable that Xi and his Party are racing to keep. The goal is that China will become a democratic, prosperous, and wealthy nation in 2049 at the People’s Republic’s centennial. China watchers can measure whether the Xi Administration is moving closer to the timetable by examining how the Party is implementing proposed measures to 1) redistribute wealth via a new tax scheme and cast a wider social security net that includes all people regardless of differences in employment, residency, race, or age and 2) allow NGOs and other societal forces to participate in building China into a fairer and more just state. If the CCP can achieve this goal without instituting any political reform measures such as free speech, free elections, free press, and a judicial system free from CCP manipulation, the world will need to take a second look at China’s development and governance model. There may indeed be such as thing called Chinese exceptionalism. But that prospect seems dubious. Chinese leaders likely will find that democracy cannot be ushered in without thorough and deep political reform.