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12-01-09, 14:25
Far Eastern Economic Review -- January 2009

by Willy Lam

Posted January 9, 2009

Hu Jintao is presiding over a Great Leap Backward in China’s ideology and statecraft. This was made clear by the president’s much-anticipated speech on Dec. 18, 2008, marking the 30th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s reform and open-door policy.

Hujintao Publicists for the Chinese Communist Party had earlier in the year indicated that Mr. Hu—a protégé of the late patriarch and “chief architect of reform”—would unveil an ambitious blueprint to take Deng’s reform one step forward. Yet the party general-secretary not only failed to enunciate new liberalization measures, he turned back the clock by reviving an ideal first raised by Chairman Mao Zedong 70 years ago: the “Sinicization of Marxism,” or how to adapt Marxist dogmas to Chinese reality. It was the first time since Mr. Hu came to power in 2002 that he had so nakedly identified himself with what even ordinary CCP members would deem the outdated shibboleths of the Maoist epoch.

The gist of Mr. Hu’s 18,500-character address in the Great Hall of the People was that China should “continue to hoist high the great flag of socialism with Chinese characteristics and push forward the Sincization of Marxism.” The CCP would uphold the “Four Cardinal Principles” of absolute party control and the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” What these apparently obsolete slogans meant was that, in Mr. Hu’s words, the CCP would “boost its ability to guard against changes [to a capitalist system] and to withstand risks” such as sociopolitical instability. While pledging that the party would “not go down the autarkist, fossilized old road,” Mr. Hu delivered a stern warning to relatively liberal cadres in the CCP: “We shall never take the evil path of changing the flag and standard [of the party].” And even as the 66-year-old supremo made a pro forma reference to “implementing democratic elections, democratic decision-making and democratic supervision” as well as safeguarding the people’s “right to know, to take part in politics, to express themselves and to exercise supervision,” his real message was that Beijing “would never copy the political system and model of the West.”

A key reason why the Hu-led Politburo has chosen repression instead of reform is fear that economic doldrums caused by the global recession would engender rising social unrest. Even official economists admit that the unemployment rate in urban areas is much higher than the 9.4% stated in a recent report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). Close to 33 million urban residents lost their jobs in the second half of 2008. Internal party circulars have noted that the number of “mass incidents”—codeword for riots and disturbances—last year was on par with the 87,000 cases in 2005, the last year when such figures were publicized by the Ministry of Public Security. More significantly, the party documents decried “heightened infiltration” by anti-CCP forces in the West. The Charter ’08 movement, which was started early last month by some 300 dissidents, intellectuals and liberal retired cadres, is deemed by Beijing as collusion between “anti-China elements both at home and abroad” with the goal of fomenting something akin to the “color revolutions” that shook up Georgia, the Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Inspired by the Charter 77 of Czechoslovakia, Charter ’08 demands that the CCP take 19 steps toward liberalization, including freedom of speech and assembly, an independent judiciary and democratic elections for all levels of government.

In several CCP meetings late last year, President Hu, who doubles as chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), called on the armed forces and police to pull out the stops to uphold sociopolitical stability by putting down disturbances and assorted conspiracies spearheaded by “anti-China forces.” In his Dec. 18 address, Mr. Hu reiterated a theme struck by the CCP leadership since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989: that “stability is our overriding task, because nothing can be accomplished without stability.” The general-secretary even raised the specter of the party losing its monopoly on power. Talking about the CCP’s ruling party status, Mr. Hu warned: “What we possessed in the past doesn’t necessarily belong to us now; what we possess now may not be ours forever.” Apart from ironclad methods to beat back challenges to the regime, Mr. Hu recommended more efforts to promote patriotic pride and to implement ideological indoctrination: “We must resolutely and tirelessly arm the whole party and educate the people with the latest fruits of the Sinicization of Marxism.”

Mr. Hu’s hard-line speech has confirmed disturbing tendencies that add up to a Great Leap Backward in China’s modernization program. First, the proverbial big bludgeon is being wielded against free-thinking intellectuals, particularly those who have gained a following in the West. While the Hu leadership has forbidden the media to mention Charter ’08, state security departments have detained writer-dissident Liu Xiaobo since early December. Other signatories of the human rights charter, including political scientist Zhang Zuhua, have been interrogated or otherwise harassed by police and kept under 24-hour surveillance. This is despite public appeals for Mr. Liu’s release made by famous Western politicians and intellectuals, including former Czech president Vaclav Havel, the organizer of Charter 77. In fact, the Hu-led Politburo has lumped together several recent events, including the European Union parliament’s awarding dissident Hu Jia with the Sakharov Prize, and the apparent backing that EU leaders, such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy, have given the Dalai Lama, as proof of a well-orchestrated conspiracy by the West to bring about China’s “peaceful evolution” to a capitalist country.

Moreover, Mr. Hu’s remarkably conservative speech has amounted to another nail in the coffin of tenuous efforts made by forward-looking cadres to promote some semblance of globalization in the political arena. In early 2007, Premier Wen Jiabao, deemed the Politburo’s most liberal member, ignited hopes in many quarters when he heaped praise on certain “universal values and institutions.” Mr. Wen indicated on two public occasions that “values such as science, democracy, rule of law, freedom and human rights are not the monopoly of capitalist [countries],” but “universal values that should be pursued by all mankind.” His message was that it was appropriate for socialist China to try out some of these international norms. The pendulum, however, had by mid-2008 swung to the other side. Crypto-Maoist commissars began assailing the concept of “universal values” as “sugar-coated bullets” to lure China to morph into a capitalist nation via “peaceful evolution.” For instance, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences President Chen Kuiyuan stated last autumn that “we must establish self-respect and confidence in our own people.” “We must not engage in blind worship [of the West] and we must not extol Western values as so-called universal values,” the ideologue said. Orthodox theorist Feng Yuzhang added that saluting “global values” was tantamount to “advocating all-out Westernization, which is an effort by [Western powers] to change the socialist order in China.”

Meanwhile, all aspects of political reform have been put on the backburner. Take, for example, grassroots elections, specifically letting peasants pick village-level administrators through the ballot box, which were begun by Deng 30 years ago. In the late 1990s, farmers in a dozen-odd towns and townships, which are one rung higher than villages in the Chinese hierarchy, were permitted on a temporary basis to elect the heads of their local administrations. Then President Jiang Zemin reportedly also harbored plans to experiment with other forms of elections at the township, and even county, levels. All such innovations have been stopped in the past year in the interest of promoting “stability.” According to Li Fan, director of the respected Beijing-based NGO, the World and China Institute, “the issue of expanding grass-roots democracy is now off the agenda.” “The political climate is not right for moves toward liberalization,” said Mr. Li, who had written extensively on local-level elections.

Even worse, Mr. Hu has made notable retrogressions in at least two major areas of the polity: the People’s Liberation Army and the judiciary. The CMC Chairman has called on the PLA to “uphold social harmony and stability” by preparing for “nonwar-related combat missions,” including quelling social unrest. While touring the northeastern Shenyang Military Region last month, Mr. Hu asked the generals to be wary of the serious economic crisis at home and abroad. “New and complicated changes have taken place globally, and our domestic task regarding reform, development and stability has become difficult,” Mr. Hu told local officers and soldiers. “The new situation and responsibilities have made even higher demands on army construction and on the forces’ preparation for ‘military struggle’.” Apart from heeding the “absolute leadership of the party,” military personnel were urged by Mr. Hu to “comprehensively raise the army’s ability to tackle different types of threat to [national and social] security, to improve its capability for multifaceted military missions, and to strengthen its ability to engage in nonwar-related military operations.” While the supreme commander did not give details about what these operations were, the party and army media have made reference to the army—as well as its sister organization, the People’s Armed Police—enhancing their ability to control riots and to defuse all challenges to the regime. In his anxiety to preserve the CCP’s “perennial ruling party status,” however, Mr. Hu seems to have forgotten the lessons of both the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and the June 4, 1989 crackdown, when the army became a major actor in domestic politics.

Thanks to Mr. Hu’s eagerness to use law-enforcement organs to prolong the CCP’s “mandate of heaven,” modernization of China’s legal and judicial establishment has taken a significant leap backward. In his December 2008 address, Mr. Hu repeated his famous theory that cadres in legal and judicial sectors should respect the “organic synthesis” of the goals of “upholding party leadership, letting the people be masters of the country, and running the country according to law.” In speeches earlier last year, Mr. Hu had called upon officials in the zhengfa (“political and legal”) apparatus, including the courts, to observe “three major concerns,” namely “to give top priority to the party’s enterprise, the people’s interests and [the viability of] the Constitution and the law.” Judges, prosecutors and other judicial officers were specifically urged to “earnestly maintain the CCP’s ruling party status, uphold national security, safeguard the people’s rights, and ensure overall social stability.” The blatant politicization of the judiciary became most obvious after veteran apparatchik Wang Shengjun was appointed president of the Supreme People’s Court, the equivalent of chief justice, in March last year. Mr. Wang, a career police officer who never went to law school, has since frequently encouraged the courts’ readiness to serve the party’s goals. For example, Mr. Wang said in a national conference of judges and prosecutors that they must rally behind “party central authorities with comrade Hu Jintao as general secretary.” “We must unify our consciousness, thoughts and action regarding what kind of flag the courts will hoist and what kind of road they will take … in order to ensure the correct political direction of the people’s courts,” he said.

At least for the moment, Mr. Hu seems to have gotten away with the large-scale restoration of Maoist norms due to the apparent success of the so-called China model, or market-oriented economic development under one-party dictatorship. Since the onset of the financial crisis, which was apparently precipitated by the collapse or insolvency of a number of American financial institutions last September, CCP propagandists have heaped encomiums on the “China way,” what Mr. Hu calls the “superiority of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The official media have run dozens of commentaries bashing the “flawed American capitalist system” and eulogizing the “China miracle” or the “China model.” According to Peking University scholar Yu Keping, who advises Mr. Hu on political matters, the “China model” has not only engineered China’s astounding economic growth, but also “promoted multifaceted development [models] in the age of globalization.” As Mr. Hu has reiterated, China under the “absolutely correct” leadership of the party should stick to its unique path and steer clear of “Western” systems and institutions.

It remains to be seen whether the president’s utter refusal to heed the forces of change will consolidate the status quo of party domination—or whether this hidebound attitude will foster more protests staged by disadvantaged Chinese who see fewer and fewer prospects of sharing the clout and wealth being monopolized by the party and CCP-affiliated power blocs.

Willy Lam is a professor of China Studies at Akita International University, Japan, and an adjunct professor of history at Chinese University of Hong Kong.