Gu Suhua writes from Beijing: Chinese newspapers are full of reports promoting reform. This echoes Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s crusade to change the status quo within the Communist Party of China. The latest pungent phrase is ‘reform has reached a troubled period similar to assaulting fortified positions’. This makes it quite clear that there is strong opposition to Wen and his proposals to deal with the corruption and entrenched interests within the Party. Now everyone is against corrupt and entrenched interests provided that the writer is referring to someone else. Wen has been talking for three years about the urgent need for reform. He used a visit to the German city of Hanover the other day to bang the drum again. This time to an international audience.
Wen is very concerned that the objectives of the 12th Five Year Plan (2011-15) may be compromised if there are not changes in the way the economy is run. He used a meeting of the International Monetary Fund in Beijing last month to sound the alarm again. He talked about the need for the ‘institutionalisation of democratic supervision’. This is code for saying that enterprise managers and ministries are laws onto themselves. He has clearly been frustrated in his efforts to make them accountable to higher authorities – i.e. himself. Editorials ask the simple question: ‘What does reform mean? Why is it necessary to storm fortified positions?’ There are no clear answers to these questions. One can assume that the goal is the strengthening of the rule of the Communist Party. From Wen’s perspective, there is gridlock at the top. Wen is known to favour political liberalisation as well as economic reform. He gained most from the disgrace of Bo Xilai. The latter directly challenged his authority and favoured a return to more conservative norms.
A communist leadership is always concerned about its legitimacy. In democratic societies this is achieved through elections. China has not yet developed to the point when there can be presidential or even parliamentary elections. The latter, of course, do exist but no one regards them as reflecting public opinion. So how does the regime promote legitimacy? By economic growth and rising living standards. By demonstrating that China is playing a more important role in the world. Should the economy falter there is no telling what the consequences would be. Wen is clearly troubled by the existing economic management model. What can he do to change it?
Wen has to argue that his proposed reforms will strengthen Party rule. His main argument is that ‘corruption poses the greatest threat to the ruling Party’. But what is corruption? In the absence of the rule of law and institutions to mediate conflict, the role of the individual is decisive. Powerful politicians become powerful because of patronage networks. They set out to monopolise political and economic decision-making in their bailiwicks. Seven of the nine men in the Politburo Standing Committee who rule China must step down in October. There will be horse trading between Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao to appoint ‘their’ followers. Wen needs to ensure that supporters of political and economic reform are elected. Will he have the clout to achieve this? China needs to change. Will it come through reform from the top or from an explosion below?