Towards a contentious reform

The proceedings at the recent 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China suggest that more reform is indeed on the way in the Middle Kingdom, though only within the rigid confines set forth by the party’s top leadership.

The 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), held 9-16 October at the Great Hall of the People in downtown Beijing, demonstrated a determination to quell dissent, particularly within the party. The first signs of this crackdown came three weeks prior to the Congress with the sudden ouster of five key ministers, including Finance Minister Jin Renqing and State Security Minister Xu Yongyue, as well as the replacement of the editor of China's official news agency, Xinhua. Much of this stress is directly related to how ongoing economic reforms will be melded with the CPC's traditional ideology.

The CPC central committee's 22,000-word report, presented to the Congress by the party chairman, President Hu Jintao, officially ignored any tension within the world's largest communist party. Factionalism, inevitably, dies hard within the regimes of official and post-Lenin communist parties, particularly when it comes to the question of economic reform. Meanwhile, Beijing's commitment to the changes prescribed by the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organisation appears to remain in place, despite the fact that the World Federation of Trade Unions and the International Confederation of Trade Unions both consider the Bretton Woods trio to be a distinct threat to the poor. In this regard, Beijing's commitments are directly in line with President Hu's re-affirmation of his control during the course of the Congress.

The five-yearly Congress represents the consolidation of policy, both new and old, within the CPC, and as such is the single most important regular event in China's political sphere. Hu's report cements the perception that the CPC is increasingly, though still somewhat confusedly, abandoning its heritage of struggle for an egalitarian society. On the one hand, it emphasises "the great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics" for Chinese development, while on the other "rallying the whole Party and the people of all ethnic groups in the country".

Taking a vow to move towards "a moderately prosperous society" by 2010, the report extends the post-Mao line of thought that Deng Xiaoping set forth in 1978. In a policy of reform and opening up that is today deemed by many as the most profound turning point in the CPC's history, Deng asserted that the party members should "emancipate their minds", seek truth in facts, and unite as one. Later, the CPC re-emphasised discipline within the party and its fronts, but kept reform as its top priority. In an ostentatious display of his allegiance to Deng, President Hu enthusiastically announced upcoming celebrations of the 30th anniversary of the start of Deng's reform.

Anxious entrance

One particularly notable aspect of this Congress was the maiden participation of eight delegates representing the CPC from the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), following months of redoubled efforts by the CPC to smoothen out the country's social fabric. This culminated on 4 September, when the CPC's Discipline and Inspection Commission issued a memo directing the eight ethnic Tibetan communist delegates to carry out a "rectification campaign" to rid Tibetan comrades of any and all dissension.

The eventual entry of the Tibetan delegation, conspicuous by their ceremonial white silk khata, or scarves, was accompanied by a flurry of historico-ideological broadsides published by Xinhua and scripted by academician Shi Shan against Tibetan Buddhism and the 14th Dalai Lama. These appeared in papers across the country just days before the start of the five-yearly jamboree. Though very different in tone, Shi Shan's article and Hu Jintao's report to the CPC bore some important similarities, particularly in terms of dissent. At just 1250 words, the former was a clear signal that Beijing is in no mood to adopt any reconciliatory moves towards Tibetan dissidents, as the abject failure of the sixth round of talks between Beijing and Dharamsala earlier this year made clear.

While the CPC central-committee report made no direct mention of the Dalai Lama, many delegates endorsed the Xinhua tirades in seminars conducted outside the Congress proceedings. While the first-ever insertion of the word religion into the report at the closing session of the Congress could be seen as a flicker of hope, most are waiting to see the effects of that inclusion on the ground. Indeed, the official reaction was outright anger to the news, the day after the Congress ended in Beijing, that George W Bush would be awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama – the first time that an incumbent US president has ever been publicly photographed with the Buddhist leader.

Debating the underbelly

Dalai Lama-related anger aside, there seems to be a marked decline in China's anti-US rhetoric, which is directly in line with the economic reforms that President Hu has been spearheading. The fact that the president's report makes no mention of US imperialism or of any global communist solidarity is a conspicuous departure not only from the tradition of the CPC but also from the fundamentals of thought as influenced by Mao Zedong. Instead, the CPC's new catchphrase is "Scientific outlook of development", a perspective that is sure to frustrate both hardliners and reformists.

In the face of China's 10 percent annual rise in gross domestic product in recent times, the central committee dutifully claimed that "efforts to build a new socialist countryside yielded solid results, and development among regions became more balanced". Yet President Hu was also forced to send a message to pacify aggrieved workers and peasants, and to admit, somewhat contradictorily, to "an imbalance in development between urban and rural areas, among regions, and between the economy and society". He conceded that achieving steady growth in the agricultural sector and boosting farmers' incomes are difficult aims, and identified a lengthy list of areas that still need work, including "employment, social security, income distribution, education, public health, housing, work safety, administration of justice and public order".

At the same time, there was no mention of child labour, low wages or prostitution. Despite Beijing's efforts, environmental issues have also continued to worsen, to the detriment of local communities, particularly those in the poorest regions of the country. According to a recent official report, the countrywide incidence of birth defects has increased by an astounding 45 percent since 2001. Despite the high-sounding rhetoric of "theoretical innovation", the Hu report actively attempts to discourage intra-party ideological debate on a variety of issues, most importantly the pace and flavour of China's continuing economic reform. But this does not mean, of course, that controversy does not exist.

Three months before the 17th Congress was held, 19 party veterans, including former ministers, ambassadors and provincial party chiefs, circulated a 4100-word note called "Our Views on the Black Brick Kiln and Other Incidents and Recommendations for the 17th Party Congress". This missive came on the heels of the international uproar over the revelations of this past June that the use of slave labour in the brick kilns of Shanxi and Henan provinces was widespread. Subsequent media coverage claimed that the 'dark underbelly' of China's highflying economy had been exposed, and proved highly embarrassing to Beijing. The "Our Views" document suggested that party members planning on participating in the then-upcoming Congress engage first in an intensive "study of Marxist theory". Such suggestions were quickly shelved, and no reference to the schism was made in the Congress's official report.

Although the CPC continues to propound people's democracy as "the lifeblood of socialism", President Hu's report unmistakably prioritises the establishment of a market economy, albeit with legal shields. With the president and his allies having long been pushing China's growing preference for privatisation, this Congress saw the first promulgation of constitutional amendment dealing specifically with the development of the private sector – termed the "non-public sector".

Indeed, perhaps the most crucial element to arise from the CPC's 17th Congress was the evidence it provided of President Hu's increased influence on the direction that the CPC will take over the next five years and beyond. But establishing his stamp will not be easy. Ever since President Hu took over from Jiang Zemin, he has been at pains to prove his independence from his predecessor. President Hu's emphasis on such concepts as a "harmonious society" and "putting people first", says Indian political scientist Manoranjan Mohanty, arises from "a realisation of serious problems existing in contemporary China". Between 2004 and 2006, the number of officially confirmed mass protests shot up to 120,000 from 76,000. Many are now suggesting that such incidents will prove to be an acid test of whether or not the president will be able to strike a delicate balance between wooing the private sector and pushing the economy towards a conspicuous egalitarianism.

Ideological fellow-travellers are certainly watching this evolution closely, though with some confusion. Much of the left in India took the opportunity of the 17th Congress to offer its plaudits. The octogenarian general-secretary of the Communist Party of India, A B Bardhan, observed with pleasure that the CPC's current projects were purportedly uniting the Chinese people across ethnic lines. His counterpart in the CPI (Marxist), Prakash Karat, also congratulated President Hu, though in a slightly more guarded manner. The CPI (M)'s research unit, after all, has recently showed keen interest in the "Black Brick Kiln" document – undoubtedly to the chagrin of the CPC – and will likely feature it prominently in preparations for its own upcoming 19th Congress next March. India's other communist groups, including the Maoist and Marxist-Leninist Liberation, refrained from publicly acknowledging the CPC's Congress at all, disapproving of what they perceive as the Chinese drift away from proletarian internationalism and anti-imperialism.

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