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Wen does it again
It is now just over a year since Wen Jiabao went off-message and began to speak about the need for political and legal reform. He was slapped down by the guardians of Communist Party orthodoxy last autumn (see my note on Why China does not reform, 30 Sep 2010), but now he is on the reform track again. He didn’t say anything about it in his formal speech at this month’s World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Dalian where his mention of China’s readiness to invest in Europe raised hopes of bond purchases; that looks unlikely to be realized in any significant way with investment in industry more in Beijing’s mind if it gets concessions in return from the EU, notably on full market status.
But in a subsequent closed-door discussion with Klaus Schwab, the WEF Chairman, and a group of business people, Wen let rip. First he advanced the claims of the central government to be freed from the Communist Party’s grip. ‘The most important mission of a ruling party is to abide by and act in strict accordance with the Constitution and the laws,’ he said. ‘The Party should not replace the government in governance, and problems of absolute power and overconcentration of power should be redressed.’ In Leninist state that is strong stuff.
Next he turned to the implementation of the law. ‘Procuratorial and judicial authorities should keep their due independence and be free from interference by any administrative organ, social group or individual.’ Contrast that with orders to judges from Hu Jintao and senior judicial figures that the first duty of the law and of judges is to uphold Party rule.
Then came the following statement: ‘People’s democratic rights and interests prescribed in the Constitution must be protected. The most important ones are the right to vote and to stay informed about, participate in and oversee government affairs.’ This would mean that the village elections to be held across China shortly should be open contests rather than rigged by the Party and local officials – and that they should be extended to towns and, one day, to the whole country.
What does this portend? Entering his last 18 months in office, Wen is clearly not giving up on his calls for change (though cynics see his remarks as part of an orchestrated campaign to raise hopes of reform without any real intention of delivering). The line taken by Hu and the number two man in the regime, Wu Bangguo, has been unyielding to date. Xi Jinping, the next leader, has clung to orthodoxy in his rare political statements. Bo Xilai’s “red” campaigns in Chongqing open no liberal doors. Wang Yang, the Guangdong Party Secretary, who, like Bo, will probably be promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee next year, has spoken of the need for “thought emancipation”, to get away from political and ideological taboos, but a proposal for the election of municipal officials in parts of Shenzhen has got nowhere and one of China’s few independent publications, Window on the South, published in the province has just been suspended for running a historically incorrect article about Sun Yat-sen.
Interestingly Xinhua ran the full text of Wen’s remarks, indicating some support. Microblog comments have been positive. The Premier clearly feels he has licence to speak out. The question is whether this is because of his long service and relative lame duck-status. My view is still that we are not going to see significant change in the political system and that the forces of inertia have the upper hand. There is no echo of the kind of debates that took place after Mao’s death and ended with Deng’s supremacy or in the 1980s. Of course, even if furious discussion is going on in the leadership compound, it would be kept well hidden from the outside world in view of the Party’s insistence on unity in public. Still, the very fact that Wen can speak out repeatedly in this manner marks an evolution. One can only wait and watch to see if it has a concrete effect. By his repeated remarks, Wen has ensured that, even if it does not come to pass, talk of reform will continue to bubble as the new leadership moves into office next year.