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Economy: Continuing Calls for More Democracy in China As Party Congress Begins

Interviewee: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
October 15, 2007

Elizabeth C. Economy, CFR’s director for Asia studies, says that the Chinese Communist Party has changed considerably since the days of Mao Tse-tung, “from a party rooted in Communist ideology to one whose ideology is primarily individual political and economic advancement.” As China heads into its Seventeenth Party Congress, Economy says there are increasing calls for more democracy in all walks of life. The congress will have to deal with who will become the so-called fifth generation of Chinese leaders.

The Chinese Communist Party holds its Seventeenth Party Congress starting on Monday. These occasions are usually pretty scripted, but I would like to talk about the state of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Certainly China is a country of contradictions these days. What do you think about the Chinese Communist Party? Does it still have a strong footing?

As has been said in the past, the Communist Party has morphed since Deng Xiaoping initiated reforms in 1979 to 1982 from a party rooted in Communist ideology to one whose ideology is primarily individual political and economic advancement. So that if in the past ten years or so, you wanted to play a role either politically or economically in the leadership of the country, the CCP would be the most effective means for meeting the right people and developing the kinds of political and economic ties that would let you do that.

All this talk about billionaires and millionaires in China leads me to ask if they are by and large members of the party.

Some are and some aren’t. Certainly it is possible to make a lot of money in China and not be a member of the Communist Party. It is also possible now to achieve a fairly high position in the government and not be a member of the party. For example, Minister of Health Chen Zhu is not a party member and neither is Wang Gang, who became the minister of science and technology earlier this year. Certainly the party wants to recruit the best and the brightest as its members, but it also needs the most talented to lead the country, and if they are not one and the same, then the party can get credit both domestically and internationally for being “democratic” enough to let non-party members into top government positions. Of course, the party isn’t going to permit anyone too far outside the Communist tent to help govern.

How strict is the party? Does it really control the media? Given the fact that the Internet is so widely available, it seems impossible to think of the CCP as really controlling public thought.

The Chinese Communist Party continues to maintain pretty tight control over the print media. Certainly some newspapers and magazines occasionally venture into dangerous political territory—sometimes it is permitted and sometimes journals are closed and editors fired. Part of the strength of the party’s control is in the seeming capriciousness of its actions. At the same time, the Internet and text messaging are media that the party cannot control as easily. There are plenty of bloggers out there speaking very frankly. For example, they have been writing about Burma in a way that is quite different from anything published in the Chinese press. You can read Chinese blogs and find them making connections between the protests by the monks in Burma [Myanmar] and the protests by the students in Tiananmen Square in 1989. No print media would dare make such a link.

On the leadership, there will be a new Central Committee and Politburo elected. There is no question that Hu Jintao will remain as general secretary, is there?

No. He is also head of the Military Commission. That won’t change. But there has been a lot of speculation surrounding the so-called fifth generation of Chinese leaders, and who among that generation will be promoted into the Politburo or the Standing Committee of the Politburo. Speculation is around Li Keqiang, the fifty-two-year-old party leader of Liaoning province in the northeast; Xi Jinping, the fifty-four-year old party chief of Shanghai; and Li Yuanchao, the party secretary of Jiangsu province, although he is not mentioned quite as much. There are also some other names tossed into the mix. For the most part, these are reasonably progressive, forward-thinking people, with some differences among them. All the Beijing-based journalists have been trying to figure out which horse Hu Jintao is backing, and whom Jiang Zemin, the former general secretary, might be supporting. It’s been surprisingly uncertain as to what is going to happen with the leadership lineup come Monday and Tuesday.

Even though Jiang Zemin no longer has a high office, he still has influence?

He still has influence because a number of the people on the Standing Committee of the Politburo are people he brought into power. He is still lurking in the background trying to pull some strings and trying to influence the process. To some extent, his legacy is at stake. But this is Hu Jintao’s time to try to bring more of his own people into the top echelon of the decision-making body.

Is there a big difference between him and Hu?

There is a big difference, actually. Hu is trying to take the country in a different direction. Jiang, like Deng [Xiaoping], was much more gung ho about unfettered economic growth. Frankly speaking, things were also a bit more open politically under Jiang Zemin. Hu Jintao’s thrust so far has been to try to redress some of the enormous inequality that he sees having emerged under Jiang and Deng, to figure out how to improve the environment and public health, and to support a big push to rout out corruption, through which he has also eliminated some political rivals. In general, he has tried to tighten up the political system. While their policy paths were certainly not diametrically opposed, some key differences have emerged.

What is China’s influence in the developing world, these days? Do people look to the Chinese “model”? Or is not taken very seriously outside of China?

A few years back, there was a lot of attention being paid to this particular issue. Joshua Ramo published an influential article that identified a “Beijing Consensus” as opposed to the “Washington Consensus.” As you might imagine, China’s leaders loved the idea that China had developed a new model of development that was different, special, and more suitable for many countries than the Washington Consensus. Today, however, I don’t think there are that many people talking about a Chinese model of development. China’s own growth-related challenges in the environment and public health have become well-known and are nothing any country would want to have to tackle. In addition, China’s engagement with countries such as Zimbabwe, Burma, and Sudan has also undermined the notion that China conducts its business in a fundamentally different way than the colonial powers that went before it. So, both for reasons of how China governs domestically and how it manages its affairs internationally, there is substantially less interest in the China model.

In China today, how strong is the movement for more democracy?

At virtually every level of society, there are people who are agitating for greater democracy. They might be calling for direct elections, or greater transparency, or the rule of law. It boils down to a call for official accountability, finding a mechanism through which the Chinese people have some say in how they are governed. Just a few weeks ago, Mao Tse-tung’s private secretary, Li Rui, who is now ninety years old, published an article in a Beijing journal saying that China needs real democracy.

Really?

Yes. In the lead-up to the party congress there were a number of party intellectuals arguing for greater political reform. Certainly within civil society and the NGO [nongovernmental organization] community there are people who believe that you are not going to make progress on the environment and public health and others of these important social issues unless you have political reform, and democracy is the best way to do that. You have also, within the middle class, homeowners’ associations and others demanding a voice in the local government decisions that are going to affect them. At various levels of society there are people agitating for change. Whether they can coalesce into something more in the near future remains to be seen.

It is striking how entrepreneurial the society is, with all these businesses. It seems like nineteenth-century Britain. It is not centrally directed, is it? Is there any direction in the economy?

There is still a large portion of the Chinese economy that is state directed. Many of the industries that deal with infrastructure, the oil and gas companies, the power companies, the banks—most of these are state-owned enterprises. Some of them may have subsidiaries that trade and have stakes from foreign multinationals, but they in essence are all state owned. The government keeps a big finger in the economic pie. But you are also right that outside the state-owned sector, there is incredible vitality and entrepreneurship.

Lastly, on relations with the United States, how would you describe the ties?

The relationship is stable and generally in reasonably good shape. China is working and has been closely working with the United States on North Korea. The Chinese have stepped up to the plate at least partway on important issues such as Burma and Sudan. We also haven’t pressed them very hard on issues like human rights recently, and, of course, President Bush has already accepted President Hu’s invitation to attend the Beijing Olympics next year. The president’s decision, by the way, undermines the efforts of some U.S. NGOs that had been hoping to use the threat of an Olympics boycott to get the Chinese to move on issues such as Darfur. On the other hand, there are trade difficulties and the Taiwan-PRC [People’s Republic of China] relationship always has the potential for trouble. Overall, however, the commitment to stability by both China’s leaders and our own seems to trump any single [issue] or set of troublesome issues.

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