Ten years ago, there were hopes that Hu Jintao would bring reform to a Chinese Communist Party that had opened up the economy but maintained a hard-line, authoritarian style of governance. Now, with Hu stepping down as the nation’s president and the party’s general secretary, that central challenge remains.
On Thursday, Hu himself warned in a report to the Chinese Communist Party congress that corruption and a lack of political integrity “could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state,” despite China’s having become the world’s second-largest economy.
The party’s 18th National Congress began here Thursday, but its opening session provided little clarity into how willing officials are to pursue political change. In fact, much of Hu’s speech and the atmospherics of the congress so far have seemed to signal that the party’s senior mandarins are moving in large part to solidify legacies and power bases, not shake things up.
When 69-year-old Hu stepped onto the stage of the Great Hall of the People – with a giant hammer and sickle on the back wall and an illuminated red star looming overhead – he was followed closely by Jiang Zemin, his 86-year-old predecessor.
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Just last year, Jiang had been rumored to have died or fallen into a vegetative state, but recently he has made a series of public appearances. Considered a conservative force among party elders, Jiang is thought to have flexed considerable muscle in the stacking of the politburo standing committee, the inner circle that runs China and whose new membership is expected to be announced after the congress ends Wednesday.
His seat on the stage was next to that of 70-year-old Premier Wen Jiabao, who has striven to present himself as a reformer in the regime. The men’s body language and the physical space they maintained between each other did not suggest an easy relationship.
Sitting a couple spots away, and seeming to studiously follow the Hu report line by line, was 59-year-old Vice President Xi Jinping, who is soon to take over from Hu as president and general secretary. While sketches of Xi’s biography are known – the son of party elite who as a teenager was “sent down” to the countryside during Mao Zedong’s reign and later worked his way up the party hierarchy – his intentions once at the helm are unknown to the outside world.
The congress’ primary duty is to select a new party central committee of about 200 members. Soon after, probably the day after the congress ends, the party’s top decision-making body, the politburo, and its all-powerful standing committee will be unveiled. There’s reportedly considerable factional rivalry about who’ll fill the standing committee, expected to have seven or nine members.
Some observers have suggested that two candidates seen as possible reformers have been shut out, but China’s rulers operate in a deeply opaque system, and messages are often conveyed by subtle gestures or obscure turns in party-talk that are easily misread. That leaves open the possibility that the weeklong assembly could yet introduce considerable reform.
Party officials have made clear they understand that serious change may be needed to stanch rising public anger over issues such as official corruption and income inequality. But that understanding so far has not been matched by anything resembling a revamping of the system.
Despite speculation that senior leadership was looking to move away from the thorny legacy of Mao, both the historical bedrock of the party and a man whose policies led to the deaths of millions, the importance of “Mao Zedong Thought” remained enshrined in Hu’s words.
Hu’s report, the result of an extensive party review process, hewed a familiar line of calling for both economic growth and “social management,” an approach that has brought national wealth while leaving social issues to fester. The document asserted that “we must, under the leadership of the Communist Party of China and basing ourselves on China’s realities, take economic development as the central task.”
Hu’s report recognized the need for people to have a way to voice their complaints, especially about corrupt officials. But there was no word on precisely how that would be accomplished in a China where party officials wield almost absolute power. In provincial settings, local leadership’s latitude to do whatever it wants at times appears feudal.
Hu’s report said that “people’s democracy should be expanded. The institutions of democracy should be improved and its forms enriched.” Hu stressed that there should be “regular and open channels for the people to voice their demands.” He added that “no one in a position of power is allowed in any way to take one’s own words as the law, place one’s own authority above the law or abuse the law.”
As the party congress continues, many will be watching for changes in “intra-party democracy,” the concept that party posts be obtained through actual elections instead of decisions made in secret and then rubberstamped in public.
After Hu’s presentation, Liao Zefang, one of the congress’ 2,268 delegates and a lawyer from southern Jiangxi province, was asked how competitive the election process will be for getting onto the central committee this year.
“This is not a question for me to answer,” he said.
Zhao Guangjun, a social worker from coastal Guangdong province, said, “The time has not come yet, I cannot say.”
A third delegate, who did not give his name, walked off, saying, “I don’t know, I don’t know.”
During a press conference the day before, congress spokesman Cai Mingzhao was queried about intra-party democracy.
His response was thick with jargon and suggested there could be movement, though only under the very careful control of the party.
“We must combine centralism on the basis of democracy with democracy under centralized guidance,” Cai said, “so that we will create a political situation within the party in which we have both centralism and democracy, both discipline and freedom.”
At the Great Hall of the People on Thursday, Yu Jingzi, a delegate and hospital administrator from Shanghai, gave a straightforward answer for how long she hopes one-party rule can last in China: “Forever.”