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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Step by step to democracy in China

July 27, 2008

By Kent Ewing
Asia Times
July 25, 2008

HONG KONG -- While China's crackdown on Tibet and heavy-handed
approach to dissidents in general have reinforced its international
image as a ruthless, totalitarian state ahead of next month's Summer
Olympic Games, the reality on the ground is that the Middle Kingdom
has never been more democratic and is, step by small step, becoming
even more so.

That reality was bolstered with the recent announcement by the
Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as reported by the official Xinhua
News Agency, that it has adopted a "tenure system" that will give
real power to traditionally rubber-stamp delegates to party
congresses. In the past, party elites made all the decisions. The
future could be quite different - but that all depends on
implementation of the new system.

Today's China is rife with inspiring policies and initiatives - on
beating back inflation, fighting corruption, cleaning up the
environment, enacting political reform and more - but results so far
have been decidedly underwhelming. If, however, China is indeed
undertaking a long, cautious march to democracy, that should be
encouraged by Western powers, even if Beijing's democratic vision
does not live up to Western models.

That said, it is important to remember that the ultimate goal of
China's leaders has not changed since Mao Zedong routed the
Nationalist (Kuomintang) army, winning the Chinese civil war and
declared to the world in the autumn of 1949: "The Chinese people have
stood up." Social stability and the unchallenged rule of the CCP have
been the double obsession of Chinese leaders ever since. The great
difference between the dictator Mao and those currently wielding
power, however, is that today's leadership understands that, without
democratic reform, the country risks widespread social unrest that
could ultimately bring down the party.

But don't be fooled by the rhetoric. The limited brand of democracy
being trotted out by Beijing will not give a political voice to the
common man or woman or brook any opposition to communist rule. It
will, however, give party delegates more say in their country's
affairs and, hopefully, create a system of checks and balances that
will lead to greater efficiency and better decision-making. Moreover,
the leadership is desperate to come to grips with the massive
corruption that has become a way of life for officials, especially at
the local level, and sees so-called "intra-party democracy" as a way
to do that.

China's move toward greater democracy is set to happen at such a
carefully slow pace that it is likely to go largely unnoticed in the
West. But it is nonetheless a potentially significant development not
just for China but also for the rest of the world, which will have to
deal with China as a major power in the 21st century. A less corrupt,
more efficient, more humane China is in everyone's interest - whether
or not the democracy it practices passes the Western litmus test.

That's why the recent CCP announcement about the tenure system should
be welcome news. True, it is a small step. But that is how every long
journey begins.

In the past, delegates to national congresses of the CCP held mostly
nominal power, gathering every five years at party congresses to put
their stamp of approval on policies and candidates already vetted by
the central committees. Technically, the central committee - which
currently consists of 204 members and 167 alternates - is "elected"
by the delegates, but members are largely pre-selected by party
elites. The newly formed central committee then chooses the ruling
Politburo, which now numbers 25, and the nine-member Politburo
standing committee, the country's inner sanctum of power presided
over by President Hu Jintao. In the end, delegates help to provide
atmosphere and pageantry at party congresses, but their impact on
decision-making is minimal. The decisions have already been made.

While party congresses are likely to remain heavily scripted affairs
for the foreseeable future, the tenure system is aimed at granting
national delegates greater and more meaningful participation in party
affairs before a congress takes place. The new initiatives allow
delegates to attend party meetings throughout the year, offering
suggestions and feedback. The open invitation apparently includes the
plenary session of the central committee, usually held once a year.
In addition, in a sign of how concerned Hu and his leadership team
are about corruption, delegates may take part in meetings of the
Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI), the party's
top anti-graft body, where they can monitor committee reports and
even challenge them if they see fit.

Taken at face value, all this means that the central committee and
the CCDI will now be accountable to delegates whose previous role was
mostly ceremonial. And changes at the national level are being
mirrored by changes in the way party committees will be run at the
provincial and local levels. Local delegates have been promised a
role in party appointments and in the evaluation of those who receive
those appointments. They will also be encouraged to meet when party
committees are not in session for discussion of important issues and
to research and investigate party decisions.

Again, establishing checks and balances for a one-party system that
is reeling out of control is the goal - but there may be a hitch: the
party committees that delegates would be investigating are at the
same time responsible for paying the costs involved. How many of the
legion of corrupt local and provincial officials are going to be
willing to fund a probe that would reveal their venality? Of course,
Xinhua's report promised that such obstructionists would be found out
and punished, but, at this point in China's development, that needs
to be seen to be believed.

Unfortunately, this whole effort in democracy could turn out to be
yet another exercise in official hypocrisy. But let's hope not. For
China truly to emerge as a world power, its political structure - not
just its economy - must command respect. Right now, that is simply
not the case - and corruption and sometimes brutal authoritarianism
are a big reason why. At the top, it is clear that the leadership
desires reform. At the local level, however, those reforms are not
just resisted; to the embarrassment of the nation, they are openly
mocked, and ordinary citizens are fed up. That's why mass
demonstrations, which often turn into riots, are a regular
occurrence. Most of these protests go unnoticed beyond the village or
county in which they take place, but increasingly the official media
have been given license to report them.

For example, state media have followed the disturbing story of
17-year-old Li Shufen, who was found dead last month in a river in
Guizhou province's Weng'an county, a place notorious for police
collusion with gangsters. The official story of Li's death is that
she committed suicide by jumping off a bridge into the Ximen River.
But her parents and others insist that she was raped and murdered
before being tossed into the river. Since Li's suspicious death,
30,000 people have rioted in Weng'an. Officials claimed the riots
were led by gangsters taking advantage of an explosive situation. In
reality, the rioters were more likely residents whose tolerance for
corruption has worn out. (See Tilting at China's red windmills, July 16, 2008).

And the Weng'an riots are hardly an isolated incident. As Beijing
struggles to present an image of social stability ahead of the Games,
police opened fire this month on rioting residents of a
rubber-farming community in Yunnan province, which borders Guizhou,
killing two people. Violent incidents have also occurred in Guangdong
and Zhejiang provinces - and those are just the ones reported.

The threat of wider social unrest, spurred by corruption and income
inequalities created by China's rapid economic boom, is what lies
behind Beijing's push for democratic reform. While the perception of
China from the outside is one of authoritarian control, the reality
is that the social and political balance in the country is more
fragile. Chinese leaders clearly recognize that, and so should at
least a few of the 30,000 foreign reporters descending on Beijing to
cover the Olympics.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer at Hong Kong International School.
He can be reached at
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