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After the Party By: Hugo Restall
The Wall Street Journal | Tuesday, November 19, 2002


Communists love slogans, so much so that one can chart the course of the People's Republic of China by its leaders' favorites: Mao Tse-tung told his followers "Unity Is Strength"; Deng Xiaoping proclaimed "To Get Rich Is Glorious." At the 16th National Congress of the Communist Party, which ended last Friday, outgoing General Secretary Jiang Zemin changed the party charter to include what he calls "The Three Represents." While this may sound like a clunky, if not empty, slogan, it may one day be recognized as a watershed reform with significant unintended consequences.

Goodbye Marx

Indeed, the changes made at the Party Congress in regard to ideology and personnel, while not earth-shattering on their face, could have a huge impact on China's future. The Three Represents commit the party to representing "the fundamental interests of the greatest majority of the people." So while the party's structure will still be Leninist, it will no longer follow Lenin in the sense of being a vanguard of the proletariat and a practitioner of class struggle. Ideologically, the party has cast off the last vestiges of Marxism.

It is significant, however, that the party charter does not include Jiang Zemin's name as the author of this doctrine. That is a change from old practice. Mr. Jiang's failure to claim the amendment as his own suggests that there is still disagreement about how the Three Represents are to be used. If he were noted as the author, Mr. Jiang would have the right to interpret and re-interpret his creation. As things now stand, the party leadership is freer to reach a new consensus on their meaning going forward.

Over the last year, we have seen evidence of conflict within the party on where the Three Represents are taking China. Mr. Jiang kicked off the propaganda campaign promoting the new doctrine in March 2000. It was generally well received, and opposition was muted. But on July 1, 2001, the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party, Mr. Jiang unveiled the idea of admitting capitalists as members. That did spark a major backlash in the form of protest letters circulated among party members. And the small number of new capitalist members present at this congress is one indication that the move still isn't widely welcomed.

China's few remaining Marxists oppose letting capitalists into the halls of power because they fear the party will lose touch with its power base of ordinary workers. But liberal reformers are also against the idea because they recognize that without checks on the power of the party, admitting capitalists could make the problem of corruption even worse. Party members who know how to work the system can operate above the law, which already creates a tremendous temptation to turn privilege into cash. Fighting corruption requires separating the regulators from the regulated, but Mr. Jiang's plan would further combine the two.

The alternative is to make the Communist Party more representative in a literal sense, promoting the use of elections for both party and government posts. This is unlikely to happen for at least a year or two after the congress, as the new leaders consolidate their power. Indeed, it's a reasonable question why it would happen at all. China has pursued economic reform for more than two decades and the party still crushes any group that could conceivably become the seed of an opposition.

But China's pressing problems will create pressures on the new leadership. Over the last decade the Chinese government has granted its people increasing freedom and they have enjoyed economic opportunity as a result. That has become the main pillar of the regime's legitimacy. But now it has reached a point where it must disadvantage some groups for the sake of the greater good. Democracy's strength in balancing competing interests will then come into play.

State-owned factories must be closed down and many older workers laid off to stop destroying the bank capital needed to fund new businesses. Investors in stocks must lose much of their investments as the markets are reformed to make them into efficient allocators of capital. Incomes and social stability in urban areas must take a hit as farmers are allowed to migrate into the cities in order to become more productive. China is already experiencing losses because these changes have been put off. But equally, they can't be accomplished without a strong mandate.

China's leaders, mostly dull apparatchiks originally trained as engineers, hardly seem like they could serve as democratic founding fathers. But they are nothing if not pragmatic. Party scholars have been dispatched to study Europe's social democratic parties as a possible model for China, and there is quiet discussion within the party of a possible timetable for democratic transition, with democratic elections progressing from the grass-roots to the national level over 15 years. Combined with a program to make the judiciary independent and give it power over party members, this would create a tremendous surge of good will, much like at the end of the Cultural Revolution, allowing the party to undertake more ambitious reforms.

Many accounts of the Party Congress emphasized that Mr. Jiang has managed to stack the deck against his successor, Hu Jintao. This suggests there could be a power struggle within the elite that would cripple the government's ability to make difficult decisions. While this is a possibility, the congress also showed that, despite talk of promoting cadres according to merit, many promotions are still made according to seniority, perhaps as a way to damp down elite conflict. As a result, China is largely led by committees of bland cadres who got to the top by keeping their heads down. The greater danger to reform is their ingrained resistance to pluralist politics.

Cautious Optimism

So has this Party Congress helped or hurt the idea that political reform must follow economic reform? That won't be known fully for another couple of years, but there is reason for cautious optimism. China is now led by a generation of men who rose to prominence after 1949, proved themselves as capable administrators rather than ideologues, and so do not have so much personally invested in Mao's revolution. The problem of how to make the party more representative of all Chinese is already on the table, and that opens up opportunities for the new leadership to champion democratic reform as a solution to China's problems.

Mr. Restall is editor of The Asian Wall Street Journal editorial page.




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