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China's Political Feet of Clay

October 13, 2009

by Willy Lam
Far Eastern Economic Review
October 2009

Somebody has rained on the Chinese Communist
Party’s parade. In the runup to Oct. 1, the 60th
anniversary of the founding of the People’s
Republic, China’s netizens were enthralled by a
10,000-character essay calling for political
reform. As propagandists saturated the media with
paeans to the country’s economic and
technological achievements, this Internet
manifesto lamented that "Stalinism is wreaking
havoc on [China’s] political, ideological and cultural construction."

When China’s development seems to be progressing
smoothly, why should such an attack on government
policy gain so many supporters? The piece has
struck a chord because its critique goes to the
heart of China’s political stagnation. Basic
constitutional issues such as the delineation of
the functions and jurisdiction of the Party,
government, the legislature, the judiciary and
the army remain murky, even as the economy develops at break-neck speed.

"The country is still the Party’s country," the
essay noted, and the Party comes before the state
and the people. "There is no differentiation
between the Party’s and the state’s coffers."
Moreover, the People’s Liberation Army is a
"Party army," and not a "state army" as in the
rest of the world. The CCP still towers over the
legislature, the judiciary and all other
institutions. Despite all its manifold
achievements, the CCP’s celebrations are
overshadowed by its monumental failure to create
modern institutions and political systems.

Even as the leadership boasts about the "China
model" or the "Beijing consensus," the country’s
fundamental political institutions are in
disarray. This is hardly an academic question of
interest only to constitutional lawyers and
political scientists. Institutional dysfunction
underpins problems ranging from corruption and
social injustice to the P.R.C.’s failure to
embrace globalization. In a much-noted speech
last December, CCP General Secretary and
President Hu Jintao vowed that Beijing would
never go down the “evil path” of Western-style
democracy. But the Party’s problems are more than
just an aversion to the idea of “one man, one
vote.” Mr. Hu reiterated that China will continue
to spurn global norms such as checks and balances
among the executive, legislature and judiciary.
This is why the CCP rides roughshod over the
legislature and judicial departments such as the
procuratorate (prosecutor’s offices) and the
courts. The Party’s Central Commission on
Politics and Legal Affairs, headed by Politburo
Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang, assumes
total control over the police, the procuratorate
and the courts. The Party’s dominance over the
judiciary has compromised the integrity of judges
and other zhengfa (“political and legal”) cadres.

Because justice can hardly be sought in the
courts is a key reason why there are an estimated
100,000 cases of “mass incidents,” meaning
protests and riots, annually. Despite promoting
the slogan of “running the country according to
law,” Messrs. Hu, Zhou and colleagues have
heavily politicized the courts, for instance by
appointing Party functionaries as senior judges.
This reverses a longstanding trend toward greater
professionalism in the judiciary. The official
press has admitted that half the provincial-level
chief justices in China’s 31 major administrative
districts do not possess any legal background;
most of them are CCP apparatchiks who worked in
departments dealing with law and order and Party
discipline. President of the Supreme People’s
Court Wang Shengjun and Minister of Justice Wu
Aiying are both veteran Party-affairs specialists
who never attended law school. While such judges
may be more ready to toe the Party line, their
quality and probity has drastically deteriorated.
In the past year, a dozen senior jurists at
central and regional levels have been detained
for taking bribes and related misdemeanors. They
include spc Vice President Huang Songyou,
Executive Director of the Guangdong Higher
People’s Court Yang Xiancai, Vice President of
the Intermediate People’s Court of Qingdao Liu
Qingfeng, Vice President of the Chongqing Higher
People’s Court Zhang Tao and Director of the
Chongqing Municipal Judicial Bureau Wen Qiang.
Several high-ranking members of the bench are
being investigated for abetting organized crime.
Chongqing’s Mr. Wen, a former vice head of the
Chongqing police force, allegedly accepted close
to 100 million yuan ($15 million) worth of
properties and other advantages from the triads.

The devastating sociopolitical impact of the
judicial system’s bankruptcy cannot be
exaggerated. Citizens who have been bullied or
dispossessed by wayward officials can, in theory,
take cadres to court by virtue of administrative
litigation law. Since the early 2000s, about
100,000 citizens a year file suits against Party
and state departments or individual officials.
Yet the plaintives’ success rate is less than
30%, down from more than 50% in the 1990s. Many
of those who have lost faith in the legal system
choose to shangfang, or to personally present
petitions to authorities in the provincial
capital or Beijing. Petitioners, however, are
constantly harassed by the police. In the run-up
to the Oct. 1 festivities, tens of thousands of
petitioners who usually congregate in Beijing
were driven away from the capital. There are
indications that many Chinese are losing faith in
the system. The suspect who wounded an
82-year-old French tourist shortly before
National Day was a shangfang peasant from Jiangxi
province who allegedly committed the crime to
vent his frustration. Since their accession to
power in late 2002, President Hu and Premier Wen
Jiabao have repeatedly emphasized the imperative
of eradicating graft. The just-concluded plenary
session of the CCP Central Committee vowed that
“combating corruption is a major political task,
and that measures must be taken to tackle both
the symptoms and deep-seated causes.” Yet the CCP
has run a nationwide anticorruption campaign
almost every year since the early 1980s, with
little lasting effect. Institutional drawbacks,
however, seem to have doomed such efforts. There
are at least three major anticorruption
bureaucracies in the polity: the CCP Central
Commission on Disciplinary Inspection and its
regional branches; the Ministry of Supervision
and its sister unit, the National Bureau of
Corruption Prevention; and the anticorruption
bureaus within national- and local-level
procuratorates. None of these organs, however,
has any semblance of independence; battling graft
is basically a matter of “the Party investigating itself.”

Thus, cadres and their relatives with political
connections are always one step ahead of the
investigators. Given Beijing’s failure to grapple
with the population’s dissatisfaction, the CCP
has to rely on brute force to keep so-called
“destabilizing forces” at bay. The Tiananmen
Square massacre set the precedent for the CCP
calling on the PLA and the paramilitary People’s
Armed Police—whom late patriarch Deng Xiaoping
famously called “the loveliest people of them
all”—to defend itself against the people’s wrath.
And the unprecedentedly large-scale military
parade on Oct. 1 was a show of force aimed as
much at the Party’s myriad domestic
enemies—dissidents as well as Tibetan and Uighur
“splittists”—as at China’s foreign foes. Hence
the leadership’s insistence that, as CMC
Vice-Chairman General Guo Boxiong said recently,
military personnel “must safeguard the Party’s
absolute leadership over the defense forces” and
“uphold the Party’s military theories as
scientific guidance for army construction.”

While the defense forces’ fast-increasing budget
comes from the taxes and other contributions of
1.3 billion Chinese, the PLA and PAP swear
loyalty only to the CCP, whose 76 million members
represent about 6% of the population. Since
becoming chairman of the policy-setting CCP
Central Military Commission in 2004, Mr. Hu has
banned all discussions that the PLA might one day
be converted from a “Party army” into a normal
state army. Disturbing consequences stem from the
fact that the PLA is at the beck and call of only
the CCP elite. One organ—the CMC, which consists
of 10 senior generals in addition to Chairman
Hu—has authority over matters ranging from the
deployment to the development of China’s
formidable war machine. As the CCP increasingly
relies upon troops and paramilitary police to
maintain domestic law and order, more power has
been given to top brass. Since Mao’s days, about
20% of the seats of the CCP Central Committee
have been reserved for military personnel. In the
past decade, however, the military has garnered a
much bigger say in foreign and security
policies—on occasions even economic issues. For
example, under the doctrine—recently reaffirmed
by Mr. Hu—of the “synthesis of [the requirements
of] peace and war,” new infrastructure projects
such as railways, bridges and airports have to be
vetted by PLA staff to ensure that facilities can
serve wartime purposes. The relentless expansion
of the PLA’s clout and the modernization of
weaponry is behind the popularity of the “China
threat” theory. While the CCP’s poor track record
on the political front is relatively well known,
the Hu-Wen leadership has generally elicited
world-wide admiration for the “Chinese economic miracle.”

This refers not only to the country’s enviable
GDP growth rate but also Beijing’s apparent
success in transforming the Stalinist diktat
economy of the 1970s into a market-driven one.
State media like to tout the fact that the prices
of 98% of commodities and 95% of producer goods
are determined by supply and demand. The reality,
however, is that almost 10 years after China’s
accession to the World Trade Organization, the
economy is tightly controlled by about 150
state-owned corporations. These are mammoth
monopolies in key areas including oil and gas,
steel and other minerals, banking and insurance,
telecommunications, transportation, and military
and aerospace industries. The CEOs and most
members of the board of directors of these firms
are appointed by the CCP Organization Department
in conjunction with relevant government ministries.

The all-too-visible hand of the Party and state
is evidenced by the fact that the great majority
of China’s recently announced “500 Strongest
Enterprises” are state-controlled. And while
Beijing likes to boast that these giants raked in
$70 billion more in profits than their American
counterparts last year, ordinary citizens have no
share of the loot. Much of it enters central
coffers, the companies’ gargantuan investment
funds and the pockets of senior management, who
include offspring of top cadres and former
ministers. Even ordinary personnel in these firms
make four to 10 times more than staff in nonstate
companies. Much worse is the fact that the
monopolistic powers of these behemoths have
stunted the private sector’s development, which
does not even enjoy “national treatment,” such as
getting certain types of loans from state-held
banks. Because the bulk of the 4 trillion yuan
($586 billion) stimulus package unveiled last
November has gone to government-controlled
projects, the state sector has been gaining at
the expense of private enterprises. One reason
why so many bosses of private companies have in
the past year been nabbed for corruption is that
they must pay huge bribes to officials in
different departments to compensate for their
lack of political connections. For instance,
Huang Guangyu, the former chairman of Gome
Appliances and one of China’s richest men, is now
under detention for allegedly greasing the palms
of cadres in the police, customs and other
departments. The two-tier system in China’s
political economy has exacerbated the
polarization between the minority elite and the
majority of workers and farmers.

Members of the privileged upper crust include
gaoganzidi, or sons and daughters of Party and
government leaders, who account for a lopsided
proportion of the country’s superrich. Last
month, four central-level units, namely the
Chinese Academy of Sciences and the research
wings of the State Council, the Central Party
School, and the CCP Department of Propaganda took
the unusual step of publicly denying the
much-circulated figure that “princelings” account
for 90% of China’s multimillionaires. But how
large a percentage of the aristocracy consists of
Party elders’ descendents? The four think tanks’
refusal to give a specific number buttresses
popular belief that senior cadres and their kin
subscribe to French King Louis XIV’s famous L’état, c’est moi adage.

Despite the Hu-Wen team’s slogans about “seeking
profits for the sake of the people,” it has
preserved age-old discriminatory practices
against underprivileged social groupings. The
most obvious example is hukou, the
residence-permit system. Introduced in 1958 to
segregate urban and rural residents, hukou
restricts the ability of farmers to freely work
and settle in the cities. The bulk of Chinese are
thus barred from health, educational and other
benefits taken for granted in urban regions.
According to Sun Liping, a Tsinghua University
sociologist, the standard of living in cities is
six times higher than that in the villages. The
average urban-rural discrepancy world-wide is
only one-and-a-half times. In a briefing on the
P.R.C.’s achievements in the past 60 years, Pan
Jiancheng, a senior official at the State
Statistical Bureau, pointed out last month that
the hukou system has created “social disharmony”
and that “its abolition has become a historical
necessity.” A few days later, the SSB issued a
statement that Mr. Pan’s remarks represented “purely his personal viewpoint.”

Since 2003, the Hu-Wen administration has adopted
redistributive measures to ensure that the
socioeconomically deprived will get a slightly
bigger share of the pie. The agriculture tax was
abolished in 2005, and some forms of social
security payouts—albeit at levels much lower than
those of urban areas—are being gradually extended
to rural areas. However, the odds remain stacked
against the disadvantaged sectors, even as the
authorities are trying to uphold stability and
sociopolitical “harmony.” These antediluvian
systems of governance have remained frozen
because the slightest change is seen as
potentially subversive. This is despite the fact
that not long after he kicked off China’s reform
epoch three decades ago, Deng Xiaoping made an
impassioned plea for institutional change. “Good
institutions and systems can prevent bad people
from wanton misdeeds,” he said in 1980. “Bad
systems result in good people not being able to
do good deeds—and they may even end up doing evil
things.” Even former President Jiang Zemin, who
began his tenure in mid-1989 by shelving
political reform, repeatedly emphasized “institutional innovation.”

Throughout the Hu era, however, not even lip
service has been paid to the modernization of
institutions and political procedures. The
preservation of the virtual omnipotence of the
CCP and allied power blocs is the be-all and
end-all of politics. Taking advantage of the blow
the global financial crisis has dealt the
U.S.-led capitalist system, Beijing’s
propagandists have gone into overdrive extolling
the “China model.” Yet in reality, Mr. Hu and his
Politburo colleagues have become more paranoid
about losing the CCP’s “perennial ruling party” status.

As the president said last December, “whatever we
had in the past may not be ours now; whatever we
have now we may not possess forever.” In its
annual meeting late last month, the Central
Committee pledged to be “brave in reform and
innovation and never to become fossilized and
stagnant.” Rather than looking ahead for new
formulas to cure China’s woes, Hu has dredged up
the discredited dogmas of yesteryear.

At the Central Committee plenum, Mr. Hu stunned
even Party veterans with throwback to the
ideology of Mao in the 1930s, saying that the CCP
would "push ahead with the Sinicization of
Marxism and rendering Marxism contemporary and
popular." In light of the disasters that Maoism
has wrought, Mr. Hu would be better advised to
consider a famous dictum of Deng: "Except reform
and the open door, there is no way out" for either the Party or the country.

And the best way to start what Deng called
"resolute and thorough institutional reform" is
to clearly demarcate--and separate--the powers of
the Party, government, legislature, the judiciary
and the armed forces, and to institutionalize
proper checks and balances among them. Willy Lam
is a professor of China studies at Akita
International University, Japan, and adjunct
professor of history at Chinese University of Hong Kong.
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