In China, What Power Can Replace the Communist Party

By Wang Tiancheng

Leading up to the Party’s 18th Congress, the phrase “political reform” had buzzed around like a butterfly, fluttering with pretty hopes. Then, 15 minutes into Hu Jintao’s speech on the 8th, that buzz fell silent; by the time Hu finished his speech, it was as good as death. When we talk about political reform in China, what are we talking about exactly? Different people will have different answers to this question, and according to the Party, it has never stopped reforming for all these years. Weighed in before the Party Congress opened, the Economist said thatultimately, this newspaper hopes, political reform would make the party answerable to the courts and, as the purest expression of this, free political prisoners.” Today let’s hear what a Chinese dissident and a renowned constitutional scholar has to say in a concise manner and where he sets the bar for political reform.

When the Chinese student movement erupted in 1989, Wang Tiancheng (王天成) was graduating from the Law Department (now the School of Law) of Peking University with a master’s degree. He became a lecturer and edited a legal publication there. In 1992 he was arrested for founding a party called the “Chinese Literal Democratic Party” and sentenced to five years in prison. After years of harassment by the Chinese government, he left China in 2008 for the US where he has conducted research at several universities. His new book, The Grand Transition: A Research Framework for the Strategy to Democratize China (《大转型:中国民主化战略研究框架》), published earlier this year in Hong Kong, examines over 30 cases of democratic transition around the world and lays out a blueprint of how a democratic China can be realized. An immediate sensation in the circles of Chinese dissidents and liberal intellectuals, banned promptly by the CCP’s Propaganda Department, the book is widely regarded as the most important work in Chinese political science in the last two decades. With Mr. Wang’s permission, we offer you a translation of his comment, originally published on the BBC Chinese website on Nov. 12.  –Yaxue

Wang Tiancheng (王天成)

Let me start by taking stock of a few events and the messages behind them. Together they paint the political scene of current China:

  • Rapid economic growth has so far been the most important source of legitimacy of the Chinese Community Party’s rule. But the good time of two-digit annual growth has gone forever. People are deeply concerned that an economic crisis is fast approaching;
  • To advance his political standing, Bo Xilai, a member of the princeling class, drew wide attention to himself by “singing red and striking down black.” But by an unexpected turn of events, his career folded dramatically in front of the world, and he faced corruption and other serious charges;
  • Public security spending has skyrocketed to exceed military spending, and much of it is spending on “stability maintenance.” The actual spending is probably even higher than the official numbers;
  • At first, Wen Jiabao only talked to foreigners about the need for democracy and political reform; then he talked about it frequently to domestic Chinese audiences. Meanwhile, Wu Bangguo (吴邦国) stated that China must insist on “Five Wont’s” (“China will not engage in a multi-party system; China will not promote diverse ideologies; China will not institute the separation of the three powers; China will not adopt federalism; China will not implement privatization”);      
  • Wang Qishan (王岐山), it’s said, recommended Tocqueville’s Old Regime and the French Revolution to his colleagues, for what Tocqueville said in that book: It’s the most dangerous time for a bad regime to begins to reform itself; that’s when it can be more easily overthrown;
  • The public’s craving, and call, for political changes have never been stronger.

These circumstances and the messages behind them present us an ever clearer picture of a gathering storm. Now, the question is, will the new leaders installed by the 18th Party Congress embark on political reform?

Key to Changes

Leadership transition always inspires hope among many people, and indeed it is an important cultural phenomenon in contemporary China.  Ten years ago when new leaders took over the scepter, many held high expectations for them, hoping they would implement a “new deal” and move towards political reform.

The same is being repeated today. Disillusioned with Hu and Wen, people are certainly more cautious than before with what hopes they harbor for the new leaders, but all in all people are even more enthusiastic than 10 years ago discussing, and speculating about whether the next leaders will kick start political reform, because, this time around, they feel China has come to a point where “it has no choice but to change.”

Leading up to the 18th Party Congress, there had been a constant stream of online “revelations,” by some overseas Chinese websites in particular, that the incoming leaders intended to push for political reform. These messages, it now seems, had a clear intent—to mitigate the widely palpable hunger for change.

I will refrain from speculating on whether Mr. Xi Jinping will, or will not, implement political reform. I want to simply point out one thing: the key to gauge China’s transition toward a democracy is to see whether or not freedom of association can be realized and independent political parties can be allowed to exist.

Reform or Transform?

The idea of a gradual reform has been prevalent since post-1989. People of this credo believe that reforms should begin with small issues that would not touch on the fundamental principles of the current system and would not challenge the ruling status of the Communist Party. Most of these people have not proposed to lift the ban on forming political parties, even fewer of them have suggested a direct election in the near future for selecting the country’s leaders.

To this faction of people, the most important thing lies in persuading the ruling group to launch political reform. This necessarily means that the bar cannot be set too high as to seriously threaten the Party’s ruling status. Or the reformist demand would be unrealistic for the ruling group to accept.

But what’s so obvious to all is that, without lifting party ban and holding national election, those major changes have even less of a chance to take place. In reality, by steering clear of these two demands, people touting gradualism are putting China’s democratic transformation off to an indefinite future.

Meanwhile, the so-called “political system reform” is an ambiguous term, first used in the early 1980s by the government. For them, the socialist economic system and political system were never to be changed; changes could only be made to certain ways of doing things. So they created terms like “economic system reform” and “political system reform.”

It’s time now to move beyond the vague expression of “political reform” and replace it with a clear demand for democratic transition.

Democratic transition includes two stages: liberalization and democratization. Liberalization refers to the ability to exercise the freedom of expression and the freedom of forming political parties. [For the Communist Party,] the key is to tolerate the existence of oppositions. Democratization refers to free and direct election of the government.

Viable Alternative

When talking about China’s political transformation, some people often lament the lack of viable opposition parties, and from there, they find justification for the one-party system. So evident are the paradox and confusion of such a notion: the non-existence of viable alternative parties is the result of one-party’s dictatorial rule; for it in turn to become the justification for the one-party system is inherent to the self-perpetuating nature of that dictatorial system.

Over the last 30 years, nearly 70 countries in the world have transformed themselves into democracies. Only a small fraction of these countries, such as Brazil, Uruguay, and South Korea, had strong opposition parties prior to the transformation, and they were the benefit of these countries’ respective historical legacy: They had been democracies before and they were returning to democracies, and the military coups that had overthrown democracy didn’t eradicate the existing political organizations altogether.

Most of the other countries, such as the eastern European countries whom we know more about, didn’t have any independent, influential political parties before the transformation occurred, with perhaps the rare exception of Solidarity Union in Poland, if it can be seen as a political party.

Over the course of democratic struggles, there can be seeds or early forms of democratic parties. But rapid growth of independent political parties is only possible when the ban on forming parties is lifted. In 1988, as soon as Hungary issued new laws to allow free associations, various parties quickly emerged. In 1989 when Bulgaria abolished from its Constitution articles about the Communist Party’s leading status, opposition parties quickly came into being.

When, in September, 1986, the Democratic Progressive Party announced its establishment in the Grand Hotel in Taipei, Chiang Ching-kuo’s  (蔣經國) government acquiesced its existence without clamping down. It was seen as the beginning of Taiwan’s democratic transformation.

Lifting the party ban is the beginning stage of democratic transformation, the core of liberalization. Democratic transformation is only possible when the monopolizing party is willing to accept multi-party competition and embrace the risk of losing power. In eastern European countries, after the transformation, the communist parties have all re-organized into Social Democratic Parties and taken turns to govern with parties evolved from oppositional organizations. In Taiwan we know that’s the case too.

My conclusion is therefore clear: To gauge whether or not political change is coming to China, the key is whether the ban on forming political parties will be abolished or contravened, whether the Communist Party, in power for over 60 years now, will engage in equal competition with other political parties, and whether it will face up to the issue of the party ban or avoid it.

9 responses to “In China, What Power Can Replace the Communist Party”

  1. Dave says:

    I emailed this to one of the moderator as week or so ago, but China Left Review has a collection of writings by the New Left in China that want to go beyond both the party-state and the liberal democracy
    Favourite quote:
    “For Chinese people who truly are concerned with democracy, we should expand our imaginative horizons, going beyond ‘choosing one’s master’, and searching for ways to realize popular democracy in theory and practice. China must establish democracy on the foundation of the socialist system, and this democracy should take the interests of the broad laboring peoples as its starting point as it attempts to realize broad disk toward democracy. We must not make any concessions to property owners, thereby watering down our democracy. If we are unable to realize this point, and instead blindly adopt the democratic model imported from the West, then we will only be further from our goals”

  2. Casey says:

    Thanks once again for a great article, yaxue.

  3. […] via Wang Tiancheng: In China, What Power Can Replace the Communist Party | Seeing Red in China. […]

  4. Charlie says:

    Tremendous article, I really enjoyed reading this. Any suggestion on where I can find Wang Tiancheng’s book, The Grand Transition?

    • Yaxue Cao says:

      It’s available in bookstores in Hong Kong. I wonder if there will an English translation–haven’t had a chance to ask him.

  5. kingtubby1 says:

    I don’t think the Party money-power elite have got around to seriously considering the issues you raised except in terms of what miss-steps to avoid. All this status quo – reform waffle which has kept a large part of Western punditry occupied misses the real point of this changeover. Rather, it is all about competition between different factions of patronage, high level guanzi networks and protecting one’s families very large interests in mostly SOE pies.

    Why was Jiang Zemin so prominent after his near death in the media ….family interests to protect.

    As I written elsewhere, Wang Yang, who has been indulging in reform theatre anyway, went nowhere in the promotions department, and General Liu Yaun, who has been calling out the massive patronage and corruption in the PLA, got the shaft rather than the expected elevator.

    This is all about protecting truly massive bank accounts within a zero sum environment.

    Money politics, nothing more or less.

    • Yaxue Cao says:

      kingtubby1 : I very much agree with your assessment. To me, articles like this serve as benchmark-setters so that we understand what real reform is supposed to be and not mistake what they do to avoid missteps, and to mitigate tension, as reform. A lot of people have had a lot of illusions over the years, and it’s time to try to clarify what we mean by “political reform.” It’s a very necessary discussion.

      I’m in the process of translating another piece that comments on the other side of the story: the side you are talking about.

  6. kingtubby1 says:

    @ Yaxue. Thanks for the response and look forward to the translation. As soon as I encounter a sobriety platform, I want to extend my points which have been niggling away at me for the past few days. As you are well aware, economic and political reform are two very different creatures.

    That aside, I still loathe and detest christianity (lower case).

  7. T says:

    So often I hear people who think the only road to democracy is by forming a viable opposition party. Unfortunately that doesn’t always work because to be distinguishable from the ruling party the viable opposition party need to take ideological positions directly opposite of the ruling party and have the machinations to effectively do so, which is not easy to do when the ruling party historically occupies the entire political spectrum after decades of dictatorial rule. Multiple parties do not automatically check and balance each other if they were ideologically similar, and that has happened before even in advanced Western democracies such as New Zealand where both major parties tries to occupy the same political center-right position.

    It’s even possible to have multiple parties, each with restrictive membership requirements such that the majority of the population still have no say in political affairs. For instance when all parties competitively rig the election, the small group of election riggers become the only true voters in the system, leaving the rest of population disenfranchised. A more subtle way would be to make enrollment in primary/caucus so onerous, or make the cost of running an election campaign so prohibitively costly that the general population has no say in who gets nominated on the ballot. Such a system would only be marginally better than what CCP is today even if they have the title of representative democracy.

    The key to democracy lies in its definition: whatever the form it takes the majority of the adult population must be able to participate in policy making effectively. Consequently an innovative “small-step” solution would be for CCP to first open up its membership so every adult in China can join its rank freely and effectively choose their representatives to the People’s Congress. The most viable opposition parties are generally formed after the majority population has been given participation rights through natural fragmentation of former totalitarian parties along ideological lines or historical ties.

    With that in mind the most important aspect of giving China true democracy is via increased participation of the general population in political discussions regardless of birth or party membership statuses. CCP knows this of course which is why they instinctively spend so much resources in propaganda, censorship and selective retaliation to discourage unwanted participation by disenfranchised populace in Chinese politics.

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