China experts see continuing political interference and violations of citizens’ rights.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party has moved to shake off the shadow of the Bo Xilai scandal ahead of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, but calls from liberal politicians for political reform are likely to go unheeded, analysts said.
In its last plenary meeting ahead of the 18th Party Congress on Nov. 8, the Party’s central committee “endorsed the decisions made by the Politburo…to expel former Chongqing municipal Party chief Bo Xilai” from its ranks, official media reported.
Bo, a former political rising star in the Party who was once seen as a contender for a place in the all-powerful Politburo standing committee, is accused of corruption and of bending the law to hush up the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood for which Bo’s wife Gu Kailai has been found guilty.
Prosecutors formally began a criminal probe into Bo last month but have yet to announce charges, while lawyers hired by Bo’s family told Reuters they have yet to be accepted by the authorities and have not been allowed to see their client.
Meanwhile, the son of late disgraced premier Hu Yaobang, whose death sparked a wave of anti-corruption and pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989, has called on the eve of the new Congress for political reform—a path so far studiously avoided by China’s leadership since former supreme leader Deng Xiaoping ushered in economic reforms in 1979.
In a commentary on Saturday in the Beijing-based Economic Observer newspaper, Hu Deping wrote: “Reforms cannot be wasted, promises cannot be abandoned.”
Hu’s warning that China’s problems threaten the nation’s healthy development, violate people’s rights, and undermine the Party’s ability to govern, comes as vice-president Xi Jinping gears up to take over the top job from president Hu Jintao.
Xi is expected to take charge at a time of growing unrest over social inequality, corruption, and environmental pollution, as well as slowing economic growth and an aging population.
According to Hu Deping—who wrote as a member of the advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference—the Party’s unchecked power has resulted in political interference in the judicial system and serious violations of people’s rights that are protected by the Constitution.
According to U.S.-based commentator Liu Nianchun, Hu Deping’s article is unlikely to have much effect, however.
“The [Communist Party] said before they came to power that they would never go in for a one-party dictatorship, but what has the reality been?” Liu said.
“When they got into power, their [dictatorship] was even worse than that of the Kuomintang Nationalist Party.”
Hu’s article said that the Party and the nation currently face two fundamental issues.
“The first is its determination to push ahead with reform and opening-up, including its economic system and its political system, while the second is how to further implement socialist constitutional government and rule of law,” he said.
Bottleneck on reforms
Meanwhile, Professor Xia Ming, a political science teacher at the College of Staten Island in New York, said that political reforms have reached a bottleneck because Deng’s economic reforms haven’t been taken far enough.
“One issue is the separation of government from enterprise, and the other is the lax financial regulation of state-owned enterprises,” Xia said.
“Actually, the current wealthy capitalist elite is in the process of diluting a lot of the market reforms of the 1980s.”
Xia said Hu Deping’s call for the rule of law to apply in Chinese courts is currently undermined by the system of political and legal affairs committees, which influence judicial decisions at every level of government.
He added that freedom of the press will also be necessary for political reforms to be possible.
On the economy, Hu said the monopoly of state-owned enterprises must be broken up and the social security system must ensure that the old, the young, and the sick are provided for.
“We need to create conditions to let private enterprises enter monopoly industries, encourage fair and lawful competition, and create and regulate open and fair markets,” he wrote.
Nine members of China’s highest decision-making body, the Politburo standing committee, are due to step down at the Congress, when 2,270 delegates will begin meeting over several days to decide who will replace them.
President Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao will retire, while Xi Jinping and vice-premier Li Keqiang, who is widely tipped to replace Wen, are expected to have a place on the new committee, which reports say could number only seven.
However, analysts said on Monday that a reshuffle in China’s military top brass to include two generals close to Hu Jintao suggests that the president may remain in his position as commander-in-chief of the military even after stepping down as chairman of the Party.
Hu presided over the promotion of Generals Fan Changlong and Xu Qiliang as vice chairmen of the powerful 12-member Central Military Commission (CMC), Xinhua news agency said at the weekend.
In an apparent bid to stave off mounting criticism over rampant official corruption and the high-flying lives of China’s political elite, outgoing premier Wen has ordered a probe into his family’s assets after a report in the New York Times alleged his relatives hold U.S.$2.7 billion in secret assets.
Fang Dehao, a former journalist for the Chinese-language edition of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, said the probe would probably be an internal, Party investigation, however.
“Currently, not a single member of the Politburo standing committee declares their assets publicly,” Fang said. “None of them is likely to do this individually, either.”
China leaders consider internal democratic reform
China’s outgoing leader and his likely successor are pushing the ruling Communist Party to adopt a more democratic process this month for choosing a new leadership, sources said, in an attempt to boost its flagging legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
The extent of the reform would be unprecedented in communist China where elections for the highest tiers of the party, held every five years, have been mainly exercises in rubber-stamping candidates already agreed upon by party power-brokers.
The Communist Party, which has held unbroken power since 1949, is struggling to maintain its popular legitimacy in the face of rising inequality, corruption and environmental degradation, even as the economy continues to bound ahead.
President Hu Jintao and his heir, Xi Jinping, have proposed that the party’s 18th Congress, which opens on Thursday, should hold elections for the elite Politburo where for the first time there would be more candidates than available seats, said three sources with ties to the party leadership.
The Politburo, currently 24 members, is the second-highest level of power in China from which the highest decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, is chosen.
They are chosen by the roughly 200 full members of the Central Committee which is in turn chosen by the more than 2,000 delegates at this week’s Congress.
Under their proposal, there would be up to 20 percent more candidates than seats in the new Politburo in an election to be held next week, the sources said. It was unclear if competitive voting would also be extended to the Standing Committee.
“Hu wants expanding intra-party democracy to be one of his legacies,” one source said, requesting anonymity to avoid repercussions for discussing secretive elite politics.
“It would also be good for Xi’s image,” the source added.
Xi is considered certain to replace Hu as party chief at the congress, with Li Keqiang, currently a vice premier, tipped to become his deputy in the once-in-a-decade transition to a new administration. Xi would then take over as president, and Li as premier, at the annual full session of parliament in March.
China experts said a more competitive election for the Politburo would mark a historic reform that could lead to surprises in the formation of Xi’s administration, with wider implications for further political reform.
“This is a very, very important development,” said Cheng Li, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“It would provide a new source of legitimacy. It would not just be dark-box manipulation … The party’s legitimacy is so low that they must do something to uplift the public’s confidence.”
However, Li and other experts remained skeptical that the proposal would be adopted, given that it could still be vetoed by party elders or conservatives.
‘OPENING UP THE GAME’
Under the proposal, a Politburo with, say, 25 seats would be contested by a maximum of 30 candidates, leaving five of the candidates put forward by party power-brokers at risk of defeat.
Given the Standing Committee is chosen from the Politburo, such a reform could also lead to surprises at the most elite level of the party, which is normally decided by painstaking consensus in a series of back-room negotiations.
China experts said that of the main candidates for both the Politburo and Standing Committee this time, there are a few whose chances could be improved in a competitive Politburo vote and some who would probably sweat over the outcome.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a Chinese politics expert at Hong Kong Baptist University, said such a vote might help reputed reformers such as Wang Yang, Guangdong party boss, and Li Yuanchao, head of the party’s powerful organization department.
“It gives back a chance to leaders like Wang Yang or even Li Yuanchao to get elected, provided – and this is a big if – they are included on the candidacy list,” Cabestan said.
Wang is well known for launching limited democratic reforms in the village of Wukan this year to quell an uprising, but his chances of reaching the Standing Committee came under question recently when sources said he had been left off a preferred list of candidates drawn up by Hu, Xi and former leader Jiang Zemin.
However, front-runner Liu Yunshan, the party’s propaganda chief, could have the most to fear from a more democratic vote, said Chen Ziming, an independent scholar of politics in Beijing.
“Many people do not like his work,” Chen said. “They also have to take public opinion into consideration,” he added.
Sources said the Hu-Xi proposal would also significantly extend the competitiveness of elections to the party’s third tier, the Central Committee, a body of roughly 200 members where a very limited form of competitive voting already takes place.
At the last congress in 2007, there were 8 percent more candidates than seats for the Central Committee, up from 5 percent in 2002, according to Central Party School professor Gao Xinmin writing in the Study Times, a party mouthpiece.
Under the proposal, that could rise to up to 40 percent this time, the sources said.
The State Council Information Office, which doubles as the party spokesman’s office, declined immediate comment.
The Hu-Xi proposal has been put forward at a time when the party is split between leftists who worry about major economic inequalities that have opened up after three decades of free-market reforms and those who want to accelerate those reforms.
The split revealed itself dramatically this year in the downfall of Politburo member Bo Xilai, a favorite of the left, in a murder scandal in which his wife was implicated and jailed. Bo has been expelled from the party and is to stand trial on charges including corruption.
“If you extend the (number of candidates) then the level of uncertainty opens the game up and allows people to compete and maybe coalitions to form within the party,” said Cabestan of Hong Kong Baptist University.
“It opens the game in both direction – for friends of Bo Xilai as well,” he added.