Sunday, 5 September 2010

In the Tradition of Reformers

Hu Shuli is the influential editor of Caixin, and used to be editor of Caijing magazine until she was forced to find a new platform for independent reporting elsewhere.

Caixin recently published an editorial following Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to Shenzhen to mark the 30th anniversary of that city's designation as a special economic zone (SEZ).

While he praised the economic development of Shenzhen, he also said economic and political reform need to go hand-in-hand. He added that without political reform, China could not develop further.

It's an interesting remark from such a high senior official, though keep in mind Wen retires in 2012 and is desperately looking for ways to cement his legacy. Also his ideas for "political reform" are probably different from the ones we expect. And it seems like Wen is following in the tradition of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, speaking out for change in hopes something will follow. But will it?

In any case, the Chinese editorial is here. The following is the translation:

Wait's Over for Political Reform in China

The 30th anniversary of the Shenzhen special economic zone recently reignited debates over China's reform process. In particular, discussions focused on a speech made by Premier Wen Jiabao in Shenzhen a few days before the anniversary in which he said political and economic reform must go hand-in-hand.

Without political reform, Wen said, the nation's economic gains cannot be sustained, and the drive to modernize will fail.
The premier's remarks were not prominently reported in the official press, but they sparked strong reactions at home and abroad, underscoring the depth of citizen angst for political reform.

Reform was cited as a target three years ago in a report entitled Building a Socialist Democracy, released at the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party. Now, the challenge lies in acting on that plan.

Economic reform has reached a point at which political reform is critical to further progress. The economy's improvements have been technically consistent in recent years but, despite solemn promises from the government, there have been no reform breakthroughs in areas such as taxation and factor price. The reasons are complex, but the main obstacle to change has been a lack of progress on the political front.

Cultural and social reforms have stalled along with political reforms, dividing public opinion on the value of and prospects for reform. Yet political and economic reforms complement one another. Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China's open-door policy, understood this fact early on. Political reforms, he said, will ultimately determine whether China succeeds in its overall reform project.

There was a time when economic and political reforms complemented one another. At the start of the open-door policy more than 30 years ago, China abolished a tenure-for-life system for leadership posts, promoted the separation of party and government, and strengthened functions of the National People's Congress, enhancing dialogue between government and the people.

But political reform has stagnated for the past 20 years, mainly due to practical fears that any misstep could result in social unrest. This is a valid concern. At the same time, overblown worries that delay what's needed only exacerbate the very tensions threatening to destabilize society.

Some have argued that China's phenomenal economic success is proof that its political system works. According to this logic, China's political system, although largely unchanged for the past 60 years, has shown it can adapt both to a planned economy and a market economy. This shows the advantage of the Chinese development model, they argue, and just as there was no need for reform in the past, so there is no need now.

But this line of reasoning ignores evidence that China's political system is increasingly at odds with its economy. It also not only contradicts the Communist Party's decision to undertake reform, but disregards the will of the people.

Because political reform is a sensitive topic, discussions over the past two years have focused on "government reform" or "administrative reform." These sidestepped key issues. Wen offered more concrete direction by urging political reform in four areas:

-- Protecting democratic and legal rights of the people;

-- Mobilizing and organizing citizens to manage the nation's state, economic, social and cultural affairs, in accord with law;

-- Resolving the problem of a centralized power that lacks checks and balances, tackling corruption, and opening channels for public monitoring and criticism of the government;

-- Building a fair and just society that upholds rule of law while protecting the vulnerable, giving citizens a sense of security and confidence.

As the framework of a market economy have continued to take shape, China's socioeconomic structures have been fundamentally transformed. Economic ties between different social classes and regions are now stronger than ever, while laws and private property rights are more clearly defined.

Citizens are becoming increasingly aware of their personal rights. They're also demanding a larger say in civic affairs. NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are sprouting up, while a well-educated generation is poised to serve society.

With these conditions in place, political reform – if gradual and orderly – need not be the destabilizing force some leaders fear. Experiences in neighboring countries show that, while reform inevitably creates some social ripples, modern economic mechanisms can survive the tests of any steady push toward genuine democracy. Political reforms must be implemented alongside social and cultural reforms, and these in turn would strengthen – and be strengthened by – economic reform.

There was heated debate 30 years ago at the founding of the Shenzhen economic zone about whether reforms were needed at all. It was a tussle over ideology. Today, the reform debate centers on competing interests. For comprehensive reforms to take root, we must build mechanisms that let parties with different interests negotiate, thus preventing an arbitrary rule by few or a tyranny of the majority.

Social conflicts are on the rise, and mass protests are increasingly common. A thirst for change is palpable. Now, politicians with the courage to seek allies for reform can work to satisfy public demands.

China's economy has grown to become the world's second-largest. But many leaders are still repeating an outdated promise to politically "pursue reforms so that the country can have a bright future." The profound principles recently set out by the premier in Shenzhen represent a breakthrough in attitudes toward political reform. The key now is to act. We cannot wait any longer.

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