Zheng Yefu, January 25, 2019
“Now it’s time to lay it bare: You can’t fool the Party into starting this journey, nor can you allow the calls for political reform that lack a clear final goal to numb the minds of the people.”
I. Why Hasn’t Political Reform Happened?
In the late 1970s, China undertook a reform; the main elements were the restoration of the household production system in rural China [that allowed individual families to take control of their farming], opening up the private economy, and allowing farmers to go into the cities to find work. In the early 1990s, seeing that it was likely that this reform would run aground, Deng Xiaoping once again pushed a reform agenda, which was known as “reform of the economic system.” As for corresponding political reform, Deng Xiaoping and the leaders that came after him all mentioned it in succession, and even said: “Without successful reform of the political system, reform of the economic system will be impossible to carry through to the end.” Subsequent history proved this argument.
It is precisely because political reform did not happen in China that “reform and opening up” fell far short of meeting people’s expectations, and the developments up to the present have led to a fear of further regression. Why did political reform always remain in the realm of words, with not even one step taken towards action? The truth is actually quite obvious, but unfortunately, it seems that it was never clearly pointed out.
When referring to political reform in speeches, the above-mentioned leaders meant the following: first, the separation of Party and government and the separation of government and enterprise; second, decentralization of power, avoiding excessive concentration of power; third, improving the legal system; fourth, initiating social and political consultations.
Why did these leaders propose political reform? Because they realized that if rule of law is lacking and power is abused, then social and economic life cannot get on the right track.
But why, ultimately has political reform not been implemented? Because intuition has also told the Communist Party leaders that every component of political reform weakens the Party. First, the separation of Party and government, and the separation of government and enterprise, means that the Party is losing power to others, and that the Party will lose control of the administration of the state and the society and economy. Second, the soundness of the rule of law will, on the one hand, guarantee citizens’ rights and freedoms such as speech, association, assembly, and demonstration, and on the other hand, limit the sphere of action of the Party. The society will not be completely controlled by the ruling group as in the past. Third, once genuine political consultations are initiated, it’s possible the Communist Party’s views will fall into a disfavored position. In order to avoid such a situation, the Party leaders eventually created political consultations in form only, in which they had the final say. Fourth, in the competition with the Party’s internal and external opponents, the rulers are increasingly firmly convinced of this: in order to suppress and respond to the trend of social diversification, democratization, and liberalization, even internally the Party cannot practice democracy and must concentrate power.
Before the reform of the economic system, and afterwards too, it’s difficult to say that most of the Communist Party’s guiding principles and policies have been in the fundamental interests of the vast public. But ahead of us there is something that is in the common interest of both the broad Chinese public and the Party, and that is, the Communist Party should fade into history peacefully, avoiding violence and minimizing social unrest. I think that the one great thing the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party can do that would enter the annals of history is to honorably and with dignity lead the Party off the historical stage.
During its 70-year rule, the Party has brought too many disasters to the Chinese people. And as the Party has evolved up until now, its power structure as well as its ecology have predetermined that it can no longer deliver excellent leaders for Chinese society at all levels; it has almost completely lost its self-correcting mechanism. Its nature has already completely degenerated: for a long time it’s been a group that lacks belief; people join the Party to become officials, and they defend the Party to protect vested interests. The mindset of preserving power at all costs ruined the souls of those involved: hatred of different political views grows ever stronger, and the fear of a crisis has led to their own dysfunction.
The path to escape the shackles on their souls is to strive to melt the Party into the larger society.
However, to make the Party that has ruled Chinese society for 70 years end the one-party dictatorship by itself, there will be a long period of transition. During the transition period, the Party will necessarily be the one to guard social order. This transition period will allow other political forces to emerge, preparing to launch real and meaningful political consultations. Every school of thought and political faction can have its own ideas, but China’s blueprint for the future, and the path it will forge, can only be produced through negotiations involving many political groups.
Don’t we already have the “Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference” (CPPCC)? It is difficult in this world to find a business like the CPPCC that squanders taxpayers’ money and is so hypocritical, contrived, pointless and boring, and deceptive. I’m speechless as how to describe it. If the rulers had courage and confidence, they should either disband the CPPCC and engage in a real one-party dictatorship; or give different political factions a platform for dialogue and engage in real political consultations.
Ending autocracy is in the interest of the Chinese people, but bloodshed and turmoil are not. A peaceful transition is in the interest of the Communist Party, because it is the only dignified path of retreat.
In sum, pursuing prosperity while fearing for its political security has resulted in the Party professing interest in something it fears for more than 30 years, and swaying to and fro, left and right, in the economic and ideological fields. However, in the past few years, the seesawing has come to a halt at the left side because the Party leaders realized that the private economy and the liberalization of thought bears a threatening and close relationship to the survival of the Party. In contrast to the increasingly stereotypical conduct of the power oligarchy, the call for political reform has not declined at all in society. Unfortunately, the latter has been weak at best. It’s been weak because everyone is scared; it’s been weak because those few in the know have stopped short of telling the whole truth. Chen Ziming (陈子明) said: We should promote democracy together with the Communist Party. Zhou Duo (周舵) advocated Party-led constitutional government.
Just exactly what will the position of the Communist Party be when democracy and constitutional government are realized in China? Now it’s time to lay it bare: You can’t fool the Party into starting this journey, nor can you allow the calls for political reform that lack a clear final goal to numb the minds of the people.
II. Rarely Seen Common Interest of the Party and the People
The core of the theory is “the Communist Party of China must always represent the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people.” Unfortunately, during most of its rule, the Party’s principles and policies have not represented the interests of the vast majority of the Chinese people. Property rights are the greatest manifestation of interests. In the rural areas, through the chain of land reform, mutual aid groups, cooperatives, and people’s communes, the land has changed from privately owned to state-owned. In the cities, private economy vanished following the public-private partnership movement. The benefits of the economic reforms of the 1980s proved that the above-mentioned two revolutions seriously violated the fundamental interests of the Chinese people, and suppressed their zeal for production. Otherwise, why would there have been a need for reform to begin with?
So after the reform, did the policies represent the interests of the vast majority of the people? When land was nationalized, what did the government do? Creating revenue by selling land. It sold lots at high prices to real estate developers. This is the first cause of excessive housing prices in China and a great portion of the population became slaves to their mortgages. Isn’t it too tyrannical to say that a policy that enriches the state and impoverishes the people is in the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people?
Has there ever been a policy of the Communist Party that has been in the fundamental interests of the Chinese people? Yes, but it really is rare; that was the reform of the economic system in the late 1980s. I stated the following view at a seminar in 2008: top-down reform is not common; it is a rare thing because the reform aspirations at the higher level and motivation to reform exist only in rare moments. For 60 years, from 1949 to today, only once did I see a time when most of the people in the ruling class had reform aspirations, and that was in 1978. Just once.
What was the motivation for the reforms in 1978? Because they were at a point at which they could either choose to reform, or see the Party demise. “If the Party falls, so does the nation” is the axiom so often repeated by the state propaganda machine. But there is no such thing as the demise of the country. The age of colonialism is all but in the past; China and its people no longer face the same threat of extermination. It’s the Party that is going down. Thanks to its dismal management of the country, there are so many people who can’t make ends meet. What happens if the Party falls? The Party will fade into history. Of course, they want to avoid that scenario, so reform was implemented.
We can credit Mao Zedong for creating this consensus among them: Mao, in his dogmatic ways since 1956, had drawn himself ever further apart from his colleagues. No one except for the bootlickers and careerists were inclined to support him. By the time of his death, he had driven upwards of 95 percent of the people within the Party into the ranks of a hidden opposition. The end of Mao led the other senior officials to jointly discuss how they should move away from Mao’s political line. I have yet to find a second dictator in history whose subordinates stood together in such unity after his death. It is extraordinary and rare: the Party elders were of one mind, working in concert to turn things around.
Reform is not a novel concept: going back to 1956, and even earlier. In the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368–1911), and all the way back in the Qin Dynasty (221–206 B.C.), household production system had been the model for agricultural production. Throughout history, there had been a private economy that existed to varying degrees in urban areas. Reform isn’t some sort of groundbreaking thing, it’s actually conservatism: look at what the ancients did and follow the path they took. It’s just that Mao Zedong introduced his utopian thinking that repudiated common sense. This thinking led to constant disagreement during the reform period despite the broad consensus; as a result, the general secretary [of the CCP] was replaced time and again. Today, that rare moment of consensus that once permeated the leadership is gone; they will not come to this kind of understanding again. What reason do we have to hope that any new top-down reforms can be sustainable?
III. Successful Transition Requires the Cooperation of Two Forces
No discussion regarding the end of the one-party dictatorship in Taiwan can do to omit Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國). At the same time, the Taiwanese themselves firmly deny the notion that the course of their history was shaped by one individual. They think that Chiang would not have made that choice if not for the perseverance of Taiwan’s democratic activism as well as the massive pressure that arose from the social diversity at the time. I am of the same opinion.
The ruler is created by the ruled, and vice versa. Ruler and ruled sculpt one another, together creating a vicious circle. The ruler bears most of the responsibility, but his wantonness is also induced by the meekness and submissiveness of the Chinese themselves. They have spoiled the CCP too much. Only when we the vulnerable speak up can China escape this vicious cycle. If there is no pressure from outside [the political system], no demand for the independence of the press or tolerance of opposition parties, there can be no change: Even supposing the Party leader himself is willing to reform, he would encounter opposition from his colleagues — they would think that he has gone insane. It needs not be said that without external impetus, the idea of reform will never occur to them. If we don’t voice our opinions and exert pressure, we don’t deserve to see the dictatorship come to its end.
On the other hand, a wise leader is needed to bring a peaceful end to dictatorial Party rule. Otherwise, violence will be inevitable. It is hard to say if this sort of positive development has much probability of occurring, but at least there’s the possibility, since those in the upper echelons of power know the truth, better than anyone on the outside, that the Party can hardly change its ingrained habits. For the Party to voluntarily give up its power in a way that saves face would be a win-win outcome.
There’s a third “win” involved: I have always believed that politicians must possess ambition. For one’s name to be honored by history should be enough to satisfy the ambition of any politician. This is the best way out for the Chinese people, the Party, and the Party leader.
Being the Party leader though, it’s really no easy task to take the Party on this path. The challenge comes not necessarily in the form of opposition from the outsiders, but the lack thereof, which is also a consequence brought about by the Party itself. As it doesn’t face any credible opposition, it has little reason to choose the path of ending its rule.
This is also the reason why I have decided to “poke through the paper window” and point at the truth hidden within. Let us gather and pool our efforts to take the single path that will lead to an amicable resolution. This opportunity will not last long.
IV. Blame Not He Who Speaks But the Wise Men Who Remain Silent
It is written in the Chinese constitution that the “socialist system is the basic system of the People’s Republic of China.” and that “the leadership of the Communist Party of China is the defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Given that the central theme of this article goes against the words above, should I be considered a criminal for writing it? No, because it is an expression of opinion and not an action. There should be no such thing as a thought criminal in a civilized country.
The Thirteenth People’s Congress convened in 2018 is instructive. There used to be a rule in the constitution limiting the number of presidential terms, and a motion to remove the term limit was proposed prior to the conference. Is it a crime to suggest a constitutional amendment to the presidential term limit? No. I am in favor of terms being limited, but I don’t think it’s wrong to suggest any amendment to the constitution. The characteristic of the law is that it is authoritative and inviolable under a specific setting, but it also progresses along with the course of history and as such is subject to revision. The process of revision is dependent on the ability of citizens to freely discuss and criticize the laws, so long as their criticism remains in the realm of speech and not action as this would be illegal.
While I write this primarily in my own self-defense, I also write them for the people who came before, or will come after, me. For a peaceful transition to become reality, China needs citizens who abide by the law. I am such a citizen. Everyone shares a collective responsibility for the welfare of the nation, as it’s said, and this is one of the reasons I wanted to write this article. A humbler reason is to allow myself some semblance of self-respect. Over the years I have scribbled millions of words. How could I forgive myself if I fail to write a few words on the one question that has been on my mind for so long, the question that concerns the future of our country?
In January 1948, three months after the CCP published the “Outline Land Law of China” (《中国土地法大纲》), late Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong (费孝通) wrote an article titled “Standards for a Moderately Prosperous Society Free of Hunger and Cold” (《黎民不饥不寒的小康水准》) to argue against violent land reform. He wrote: “History is not always reasonable, but in any historical setting there has always been a reasonable solution available. Whether history can develop along a reasonable course is dependent upon whether people can make rational choices. Those in the position of scholars have the responsibility to point out rational solutions, while it is up to the politician to bring it into history.”
I don’t believe we’ve reached the point where we can hold the politicians responsible for everything. This is because at present, the intellectuals have yet to fulfill their duty. Had they stayed true to their conscience and mustered the courage to speak their minds, China would not be in the state it is in today.
Drafted August 2018; finalized December 2018.
Zheng Yefu (郑也夫) was born in 1950 in Beijing. He was one of the 17 million “educated youths” sent down to the countryside, and served in the Heilongjiang Construction Corps. He is now a retired sociology professor from Peking University. The Chinese version of the article can be found here.
A Great Shift Unseen Over the Last Forty Years, Xiang Songzuo, December 28, 2018.
Bid Farewell to Reform and Opening Up –– On China’s Perilous Situation and Its Future Options, Zhang Xuezhong, translated by Andrea Worden, January 7, 2019.
An Interview With Xu Youyu: ‘The Worst Is Yet to Come’, China Change, October 31, 2018.
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