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Intellectuals warn the Communist Party faces a crisis of legitimacy that could lead to its collapse

September 14, 2011

Danger ahead


Amid an upsurge in Maoism and tougher political repression, intellectuals warn the Communist Party faces a crisis of legitimacy that could lead to its collapse


Shi Jiangtao in Beijing


Updated on Sep 02, 2011
China's reform-minded liberals and party conservatives often engage in raging political debates. However, the scale and intensity of a gathering where dozens of elite political, economic and legal scholars - including top government advisers - jointly fired a bold salvo decrying Beijing's suffocating repression this year and the revival of Maoist leftism, is still considered rare.

The group of top mainland intellectuals engaged in a spirited debate and launched an unusual broadside at regressive political steps taken by Beijing ahead of a major leadership reshuffle next year. They warned that the Communist Party faces a legitimacy crisis due to long overdue political reforms and its obsession with stability. Political analysts say the criticism comes at a sensitive time as the party gears up for its annual top-level conclave next month, which will pave the way for leadership transition at next year's party congress.

While Saturday's seminar was officially held to mark the 30th anniversary of a landmark party document denouncing the Cultural Revolution, analysts said it was clearly aimed at rallying support for economic and political reform amid fierce criticism from resurgent  conservative leftists.

While political reform has been mired in a self-perpetuating stalemate, concerns about the mainland's overheating economy have escalated. Officials have admitted to daunting challenges in dealing with ballooning inflation and several other key bottleneck issues, such as a lack of progress in breaking up state monopolies in key industries such as telecommunications and railways, a source of rising public grievance.

The "Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party", adopted in 1981, made a rare admission that Mao Zedong should be held responsible for the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution.

Although Saturday's meeting was reportedly organised by a website honouring the late reformist leader Hu Yaobang , who oversaw the passing of the document, and two avant-garde publications including theSouthern Weekend, it remains unclear whether it had proceeded with Beijing's explicit consent.

Unnerved by calls for peaceful pro-democracy rallies since February in the wake of popular revolts sweeping the Arab world, Beijing has markedly tightened its control of the media and clamped down harder on internet dissent and rights activists. Several high-profile seminars discussing the current political situation or marking the centenary of the 1911 revolution have been either banned or called off as a result of the heightened repression.

Mainland media did not cover the highly-charged seminar, but summaries of the speeches delivered by more than two dozen speakers have been posted on Sina Weibo and other microblogging sites by several participants. Earlier this week selected speeches were posted on the website of Caixin magazine. One of the highlights of the one-day seminar occurred when Professor Jiang Ping , former president of the China University of Political Science and Law, lashed out at Beijing's top two excuses - stability and China's "unique national circumstances" - for not breaking the political deadlock.

He said the absurd assertion that stability was the overriding priority at the expense of human rights was totally against the rule of law, and that overemphasising China's political and social uniqueness deliberately disregarded universal values. "Who should make the judgment of stability? Apparently those in power have their standards based on their own understanding," Jiang said.

Professor Yu Jianrong , from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, lamented the enormous deterioration in freedom of expression compared to 30 years ago, as the government stifled public discussion about universal values.

Although many of the mainland leaders, Premier Wen Jiabao in particular, often talk about political reform and universal values such as democracy, rule of law and human rights, such lofty ideas are often attacked by party conservatives as "Western values" unsuited to China because of "its special circumstances". Yu said the party had continued to dodge key questions regarding statecraft - something that the resolution 30 years ago failed to answer. "There is no adequate review of the fundamental ruling concept and basic political system and there is no clear understanding of the purpose of statecraft which should be to protect citizens' rights," Yu said. "What else can the people do if the party does not comply with its own interpretation of the rule of law?"

Professor Zhang Weiying , a former dean of Peking University's management school, put it more bluntly. "There is only one provision in the constitution that has been truly implemented: that is the party's absolute leadership," he said. "Our primary priority is to enforce the  constitution."

Central Party School professor Wang Changjiang was critical of mainland officials who enjoy almost unbridled power but lack the vision to look beyond their tenures or a matching sense of responsibility. "It is deplorable that despite the talk about the party staying in power for a long time, few officials have actually subscribed to the belief," Wang said.

Most speakers, including the meeting's moderator, Hu Yaobang's son Hu Deping , blamed the party's failure to completely negate the Cultural Revolution and fully scrutinise Mao's grievous mistakes for an avalanche of woes, notably a conservative backlash in the past few years. "[Regrettably,] the resolution has only reviewed part of the mistakes [in the Cultural Revolution]," Hu said. A vice-chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference's economic affairs sub-committee, he said the revival of Maoism and attempts by ultra-conservatives to distort history lessons from the tumultuous 1966-76 era were major signs of political retrogression. "Ultra-leftists within the party have tried to put themselves above the party's central committee," Hu said, in a vague reference to an upsurge of the ultra-leftist movement in Chongqing and other areas, featuring the revival of Maoist revolutionary songs and movies.

Guo Daohui , former editor-in-chief of China Legal Science Magazine, warned that the legitimacy of one-party rule was at a dangerous tipping point with its suppression of media freedom and restrictions on discussions of a cluster of politically sensitive historical topics, such as the reappraisal of Mao and the lessons of the disastrous Cultural Revolution.

Both Ma Licheng , a former commentator at the People's Daily, and Professor He Bing , from the China University of Political Science and Law, warned against a self-deceiving theory that has prevailed among senior cadres, which pinned the last hope for stability on the pursuit of economic growth. "The country will be plunged into a calamity if the Maoist left is tolerated and there is no question that singing red songs goes against the scientific concept of development," Ma said. "It is deceitful and economic development alone will not solve the party's legitimacy problem."

'They dare not tell people the truth'

"The worst mistake of the reform and opening-up is [that the Communist Party] has embarked on the capitalist path of development, but dare not tell people the truth." Zhang Musheng , legal scholar

"Reform remains just empty talk as long as we have yet to figure out whether it should be controlled by the government or driven by market forces." Gao Shangquan , economist and veteran government adviser

"Cult of personality, [especially Maoist idolatry] has been embedded in the political system and that's something we have yet to thoroughly re-examine." He Fang , historian

"How come the pro-democracy forces [within the party] have always been sidelined like a housemaid while those favouring centralisation of power are always in the dominant position?" Hu Deping , son of deposed leader Hu Yaobang

"A party which had championed universal values and new democratic constitutional government went exactly the opposite direction after it took power." Zhang Lifan , historian

"I am over 60 but there are still a lot of historical [facts about the Cultural Revolution] I don't know yet." Li Dun , sociology professor, Tsinghua University

"There were two negative consequences of the resolution [denouncing the Cultural Revolution]: while surviving supporters of the Cultural Revolution have used it to advocate the comeback of the Maoist era, it has also been used by party conservatives to resist the reappraisal of Mao and political reform." Guo Daohui , former editor, China Legal Science Magazine

"Many goals set in the resolution regarding political restructuring, such as grass-roots democracy and reform of the National People's Congress' [rubber-stamp] role, have yet to be realised." Wu Si , editor, Yanghuang Chunqiu magazine

"What a party that has an inglorious past in so many ways and has grown accustomed to twisting history to fool its own people ... fears the most is truth." Yang Jisheng , former journalist

"Going back to the days of the Cultural Revolution will come to the same disastrous end as Muammar Gaddafi." Professor Ding Xueliang , China expert, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

"Political reform should kick-start with judicial reform by setting up an independent judiciary system and foster an environment in which politicians and the people respect the law." Chen Youxi , lawyer

"The authorities control history and attempt to wipe out historical memories. We must stay alert and preserve historical memories from oblivion." Lei Yi , historian, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

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