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The Chinese Communist Party Should Fade Into History Peacefully, Avoiding Violence and Minimizing Social Unrest

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.

The mindset of preserving

power at all costs ruined the


of those involved.

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.

Zheng Yefu.

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?

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.

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.

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?

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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The Ideological Continuum Between Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping

Hu Ping, November 19, 2018


Recently, there have been two hot topics in China: the Sino-U.S. trade war and the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of China’s Reform and Opening up.

We have noticed that many people in the system have written articles or made speeches enthusiastically praising Deng Xiaoping while covertly and in some cases even openly criticizing Xi Jinping. They believe that in bringing back lifelong leadership terms and the cult of personality, abandoning Deng’s policy of “hiding one’s capabilities and biding one’s time” (韬光养晦) and promoting state-owned businesses over private firms, Xi Jinping has significantly deviated from Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up.

For this year’s May 4th anniversary, Fan Liqin (樊立勤), a Peking University alumnus and an old friend of Deng Xiaoping’s eldest son Deng Pufang (邓朴方), posted a 24-page big-character poster in the Campus Triangle at Peking University calling Xi Jinping out for “going against the tide.” On July 24th, Xu Zhangrun (许章润), a law professor at Tsinghua University, published an article titled “Our Fear and Expectation,” which explicitly demanded restoration of presidential term limits and even the vindication of the June 4th Incident.

Also, some economic scholars criticized the boastful propaganda of “Awesome, my country!” that was launched a while ago, saying it invited the U.S. to begin the trade war and caused serious difficulty for the Chinese economy — with this they implied that the leadership was to blame. In the past six months, more people in the system are choosing to support Deng’s policy over that of Xi. Such phenomena has been quite rare during the six years since Xi Jinping took office.

Not long ago, on Sept. 16, Deng Pufang said at a conference of the Disabled Persons’ Federation that: “We must persevere in seeking truth from facts, keeping clear-minded, knowing our actual ability without being boastful or self-deprecating. We should adhere to our national conditions and plan all work based on the reality of being in the primary stage of socialism.” Anyone who is even remotely keyed in can immediately see who Deng is referring to.

Interestingly, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence expressed similar views promoting Deng and opposing Xi in his Oct. 4 speech given at the Hudson Institute. Pence criticized Xi Jinping several times without naming him directly. For example, he mentioned that “China’s top leader” had visited the China Global Television Network (CTGN) headquarters and said that “the media run by the Party and the government are propaganda fronts and must have the Party as their surname.”

Pence said that when the United States decided to develop extensive economic relations with China, they had hoped that Beijing would allow its people to move toward greater freedom. At one point, Beijing did make slow progress toward giving greater respect for human rights. However, in recent years, China has turned sharply in the direction of controlling and oppressing its own people.

Hu Ping, Deng Xi, 1The vice president noted that now, “while Beijing still pays lip service to ‘reform and opening up,’ Deng Xiaoping’s famous policy now rings hollow.” Pence hopes that Chinese leaders will change course and “return to the spirit of reform and opening up” when relations between the two countries began decades ago.

Slovenian scholar Slavoj Žižek recently published an article titled “Will our future be Chinese ‘capitalist socialism?’” in which he mentions an anecdote told many years ago by a Chinese scholar who knew Deng Xiaoping’s daughter. “When Deng was dying, an acolyte who visited him asked him what he thought his greatest act was, expecting the usual answer that he will mention his economic opening that brought such development to China. To their surprise, he answered: ‘No, it was that, when the leadership decided to open up the economy, I resisted the temptation to go all the way and open up also the political life to multi-party democracy.’”

We can’t confirm whether Deng Xiaoping actually said this before his death, but it would be in keeping with his legacy. In the 1980s, the Chinese Communist Party, the Soviet Communist Party, and many other communist parties in Eastern European countries were pushing for economic reforms. However, while the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe moved away from dictatorship, the CCP held onto and even reinforced the Party’s authoritarian rule.

Deng Xiaoping played the most crucial role in guiding China to embark on a path different from these other communist countries. He differed from the communist leaders of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in that he promoted economic reforms while rejecting political openness.

Within the CCP, the forces demanding political openness were once strong and it was unclear whether the CCP would be able to maintain its authoritarian leadership. The reform of the communist countries, even if confined to the economic sector at the beginning, was symbolic of digging their own graves. Because the communist countries’ economic reforms were essentially equal to altering socialism and restoring capitalism, it effectively became a self-denial of the communist revolution and with it the communist dictatorship.

Hu Ping, Deng Xi, 2In the past, the only “magic weapon” for the Communist Party to suppress freedom and democracy was to accuse others as “bourgeoisie” and “taking the capitalist road;” but once the Communist Party itself consciously and openly took the capitalist road and became the bourgeois class, what other excuse would it then have to insist on communist dictatorship? In this way, even if they did not actively choose to change the system, then tens of thousands of people would do it for them — by demanding the end of one-party dictatorship and the implementation of liberal democratic reform. To paraphrase American scholar Adam Przeworski, the leadership couldn’t convince themselves to pull the trigger.

This is how the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe embarked on the path of peaceful democratic reform. How did Deng Xiaoping resist calls for political openness coming from both outside and within the CCP? The answer is the June 4th Massacre.

As I said earlier, China’s reform is not one but two reforms. June 4th, 1989, was a turning point. Deng Xiaoping ruthlessly suppressed China’s democratic forces and led Chinese reforms in the wrong direction.

There is no essential difference between the Xi Jinping route and the Deng Xiaoping route. Xi Jinping’s actions are basically an extension of Deng Xiaoping’s political line, but he has deviated from it by bringing the pernicious elements inherent to Deng’s policy to extremity. In this regard, it is something of a positive sign that there are people in the system who oppose the Xi route in the name of returning to the Deng route and promoting Deng. The Xi route is indeed worse than the Deng route.

Furthermore, if Xi’s policies are stopped and he loses power, things will not simply return to the era of Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao. When Hua Guofeng (华国锋) arrested Jiang Qing and the other Cultural Revolutionaries, China didn’t just return to the pre-Cultural Revolution period; instead, a strong impetus brought China into a new era of Reform and Opening up. Similarly, if anti-Xi forces within the CCP strike down the Xi route in the name of returning to the Deng route, then the resulting political momentum would surely break through and beyond the boundaries set by Deng Xiaoping.

The June 4th Massacre was not just a brutal event, but an atrocity by many measures. Only by clearly recognizing this truth can we understand the nature of “Chinese characteristics” and the “Chinese model,” and what it means for the future of humankind if such “characteristics” and such a “model” are allowed to triumph.



Hu Ping (胡平) was one of the most respected and prolific dissent intellectuals living in New York. He edited Beijing Spring (《北京之春》), “a monthly Chinese-language magazine dedicated to the promotion of human rights, democracy and social justice in China” for more than two decades before retirement. This article combines two recent articles (here and here) by Hu Ping, and edits were made for clarity and fluency with the author’s authorization.


Also by Hu Ping:

How the Tiananmen Massacre Changed China, and the World, June 2, 2015. (This is one of the most read essays on this site.)


Reconsidering Deng Xiaoping the Reformer: What Did He Really Reform? Li Xuewen, February 21, 2017.

For Over 36 Years, Grassroots Elections in China Have Made No Progress – An Interview With Hu Ping, November 1, 2016.



Support Our Work


At China Change, a few dedicated staff bring you information about human rights, rule of law, and civil society in China. We want to help you understand aspects of China’s political landscape that are the most censored and least understood. We are a 501(c)(3) organization, and your contribution is tax-deductible. For offline donation, or donor receipt policy, check our “Become a Benefactor” page. Thank you.


Reconsidering Deng Xiaoping the Reformer: What Did He Really Reform?

Li Xuewen, February 21, 2017



Li Xuewen. Photo: New York Times


In the world of Chinese Communist Party propaganda, the image of Deng Xiaoping (邓小平) has been molded into that of the master architect of China’s reform and opening up. He’s said to have helped China through two major transformations: the reform and opening up following the Cultural Revolution, and then the development of a market economy following his Southern Tour in 1992. Thus, in the mythology of the Chinese Communist Party, Deng is the second deity following Mao Zedong (毛泽东).

But if we step back, take in a broader historical perspective, and make a rational examination at the twentieth anniversary of Deng’s death (February 19, 1997), it quickly becomes clear that Deng Xiaoping managed to effect only one transition: launching China onto the road of crony capitalism after the June 4 massacre. The baneful consequences of crony capitalism have saved the Party but are a crime against the nation.

Historians have already used a wide variety of documentary sources to show that during the anti-rightist movement of the 1950s, Deng Xiaoping was a “leading vanguard” and a chief perpetrator. But there’s no need to rehearse that history here — after all, the chief culprit in the anti-rightist campaign was Mao, and Deng only truly came into his own as a historical figure following the Cultural Revolution, as the so-called “second generation core” leadership. This essay aims at analyzing why Deng Xiaoping only oversaw a partial, not a full, transition, and it argues that this is the key in any evaluation of Deng.

The first matter to address is why the first so-called transformation wasn’t a transformation at all.

By the end of the Cultural Revolution, China had been so thoroughly ravaged by Mao that people could hardly get by, the economy was ruined, and the Chinese people were living in unspeakable misery. Mao, as head of the Party, had driven the country into the ground. When Mao died and the Party carried out so-called “reform and opening up,” they said it was to save the nation and save the people — but it would be better put that they were mainly about saving themselves. The Party’s decision for Deng Xiaoping to take the lead was no more than a passive historical choice, the only option when there were no options. In the years following 1949, all the outstanding political leadership of the Nationalist Party had either fled to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek, or were slaughtered by the communists. During Mao’s dictatorship, the communist’s own pragmatists, for instance Liu Shaoqi (刘少奇) and Zhou Enlai (周恩来), had either been struggled to death or had their careers stifled out. The designated successor, Lin Biao (林彪), died trying to flee to Mongolia, and other veteran revolutionary cadres were either too old to be of any use or were already dead. The remnants of this corps, including Ye Jianying (叶剑英) and Li Xiannian (李先念), had ideals, but were too old to be at the helm. The only two remaining figures who had the resourcefulness and strategic measure to rule the country were Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun (陈云). Overall, Deng was more capable than Chen, and so it became a matter of “none but Deng.”

Given what a wreck China was at the end of the Cultural Revolution, no matter who the successor was to be, their only option was to reform and open the economy. This was a product of circumstance, the trend of history, and not something that any individual could reverse. The fact that Hua Guofeng (华国锋) was unable to keep the Maoist antics going is a prime example. If it wasn’t Deng who took control, it might have been, for instance, Lin Biao — and he may have taken things much further than Deng, and been still more groundbreaking. Simply taking a glance at the seditious, anti-Mao thought in Lin Liguo’s (林立果, son of Lin Biao) “Project 571 Outline” (《五七一工程纪要》) makes clear the possibilities. My claim that the circumstances overrode the individual is to say that at that point in China, whoever took charge simply had to carry out economic reform and opening. Besides, the official propaganda around Deng Xiaoping being the grand architect of reform and opening doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. As scholar Wu Wei (吴伟) revealed in his recent book “On Stage and Backstage: China’s Political Reform in the 1980s,” (《中国八十年代政治改革的台前幕后》) Deng lifted many of his ideas about governance from Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) and Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳). In particular when it came to political system reform, Deng was no architect. Thus, attributing the entire reform and opening program to Deng, as Deng’s achievement and the first post-Mao transformation, is simply not supported by the historical evidence.

These days, there are many people of my father’s generation who hate Mao but feel a great sense of gratitude toward Deng. The reason is simple: they were persecuted in the Mao era, and in Deng’s time they were able to live a normal life. But rarely do they think it through a step further: they should have been able to live unmolested in the first place. The Party under Mao robbed them of that, and under Deng it simply gave them back a bit — not all — of what was stolen. Not to mention that their youths, and most of their lives, had been wasted — giving them their lives back shouldn’t be seen as the grace and magnanimity of the Party, but simply the basic rights they are entitled to as citizens.

At the end of the Cultural Revolution, a group of veteran cadres used classic coup d’état-style tactics to purge the remaining Maoists. The Party, with Deng at the helm, then transitioned from Mao’s mode of frantic political violence to a form of stable, pragmatic politics: so-called abandonment of class-struggle as the guiding principle, and a turn to economic development as the central focus. Through this, Deng was able to gradually establish his personal power and authority, and forge for himself the historical role as so-called grand architect.

And yet for all this, because what Deng presided over was always merely a maimed transition — economic reform without political reform — China’s reform never resolved the most fundamental issues and it failed to achieve the genuine transformation that would have brought true political modernization. Throughout the 1980s, Deng constantly suppressed the political reformist leanings of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, he personally ordered the June 4 massacre, and then he used his personal power and prestige to make clear that “whoever fails to promote economic development will be sacked.”

This was the direct catalyst for ushering in the period of China’s crony capitalism, which persists to this day. It’s not only through the Jiang Zemin (江泽民), Hu Jintao (胡锦涛), and Xi Jinping (习近平) eras that discussion of political reform has been out of bounds — nothing comparable to the political reformist aspirations of the 1980s in the Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang period has been allowed to appear. As Wu Wei reveals in his “China’s Political Reform in the 1980s”: “Deng Xiaoping added a line to a draft of the document ‘Overall Considerations in Political System Reform’ (《政治体制改革总体设想》), saying: ‘We absolutely won’t carry out Western-style separation of powers, with periods of elected office.’ Without this line being added, Deng wouldn’t have felt reassured. And without Deng’s approval, the entire political reform program at the time would have died in its crib.”

The liberal intellectuals have mocked the “Five Nos,”* proposed by the then-National People’s Congress Chairman Wu Bangguo (吴邦国) in 2011 that summed up the key political changes that the Party rejects. Few know that Deng Xiaoping was the one who first set out the “Five Nos.” Rejecting political modernization is in fact rejecting reform, because true reform must have at its heart reform of the political system. Any reform without political reform is ersatz reform — all simply a matter of using the banner of “reform” to monopolize power and plunder the people of their wealth. For these reasons, following Deng there was simply no more so-called reform. Reform was long dead. What was left were a pack of political swindlers.

People who think clearly ought to be able to see that Mao and Deng were not at loggerheads. Their commitment to the sustenance of Communist Party totalitarianism was identical. Mao pointlessly set the Cultural Revolution in motion, and Deng caused the June 4 massacre; Mao created a one-man dictatorship, Deng demanded eternal adherence to the Four Cardinal Principles (四项基本原则).** Whether under Mao or Deng, the same one-Party dictatorship was up there all the same, lording it over the people. This is the fundamental commonality in the ruling power clique, and could be said to be the Party’s core, unshakable mafia code.

The only true transition that Deng Xiaoping oversaw was his opening the road to crony capitalism. It was this transition that threw the Communist Party a lifeline following the 1989 massacre — and which also threw open the floodgates for the mass expropriation of the Chinese people by corrupt officials, which continues to this day.

This historical turning point that Deng presided over comes into clearer focus twenty years after his death because, as the Party’s crony capitalists continue their mad plunder of the citizenry, the regime is getting closer and closer to the mouth of a volcano that threatens to erupt. If we concede that his reform and opening following the Cultural Revolution saved the Party, then we must say that his inauguration of crony capitalism will lead to the death of the Party, and the June 4, 1989 massacre was the historical inflection point.

Deng ended the madness of Mao, but he ushered in another form of madness. The latter has led to an enormous wealth disparity in China, to a corrupt class alloyed with power who act as they  wish, to environmental disasters, moral collapse, and the plunder of the country’s patrimony. Perhaps even Deng failed to foresee all that.


*Five Nos: No multiparty rule; no diversification of the Party’s guiding principles; no separation of powers and no two parliaments; no federalism; no privatization.

**The Four Cardinal Principles of Deng Xiaoping: Keeping to the socialist road, upholding the dictatorship of the proletariat, upholding the leadership of the Communist Party, and upholding Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought.



Li Xuewen (黎学文) is an independent writer in Beijing. This article was first published to WeChat, and later censored. China Digital Times preserves an archived version.



《黎学文:邓小平转了什么折?》 translated by China Change.




Exile in My Own Country – A Letter to Domestic Security Officer Li in Beijing

By Yang Zili, published: December 13, 2014

The Transition Institute researcher is on the run, and his letter provides clues (or no clues) about the recent detention of Guo Yushan and other TI personnel. – The editor


Dear Officer Li,

This is Yang Zili (杨子立), a veteran employee of Transition Institute (传知行社会经济研究所). For lack of a safe way to reach you, I decided to write you this open letter, which I hope you will see, to let you know my thoughts and my position. Out of my own initiative, I also want let the public know what has happened to Transition Institute (TI), now that all of its main leaders have been detained.

Yang Zili (杨子立)

Yang Zili (杨子立)

Among the current employees of TI, two are detained, and one is criminally detained. If we are to include former colleagues of TI, there are a total of six who have been taken into custody, if we don’t count Xia Lin (夏霖), the lawyer who represents Guo Yushan (郭玉闪), the founder of TI. One after another, TI employees were taken away or summoned for interrogation, and in most cases, their homes were raided­. Some have been released, perhaps out of sheer luck, while others have not been heard from. Like a herd of sheep waiting to be slaughtered, we watched our colleagues disappear without protest, indeed without so much as a whimper. We are merely confused and afraid.

We don’t understand why a blow like this is being dealt to a NGO such as TI that engages in social policy research. We did not advocate for street action. Even when we were holding a purely academic seminar, we tried not to do anything that would tick off the domestic security police officers. On the struggle for universal suffrage in Hong Kong, thousands of miles away, TI was nonetheless careful not to take any sort of public stand Why, then, did this strike fall on our heads, out of the blue? We are afraid because we don’t know why. Nor do we know what to expect next. Didn’t the Communist party emphasize rule of law in its recent 4th Plenary Meeting? How can your colleagues disregard the basics of the Criminal Procedure Law? Guo Yushan and Huang Kaiping (黄凯平) have been detained for over 50 days already. If they have been formally arrested, why have the authorities not notified their families in accordance with Article 91 of the Criminal Procedural Law? If they are not being arrested, you should have released them.

When, than rather the shield that protects civil rights and liberties, law is reduced to a weak pretext to be wielded at the pleasure of the proletarian dictatorship, how can we not be afraid? You probably know more about the case of Guo Yushan and TI than I do, since your job used to include monitoring TI. But still, I would like to explain to you how fear has, step by step, come over everyone working at TI.

Transition Institute website. Chinese: English:

Transition Institute website. Click to enlarge. 

The first domino that fell was the energetic young woman Ling Lisha (凌丽莎). About two years ago she came to work at TI, following her boyfriend Chen Kun (陈堃).  In honor of her lively humor, we called her Little Hot Pepper. She did illustration, design and typesetting, and was a big help to us researchers. She left TI after a few months but we have always regarded her as a little sister of ours. It was said that she was detained because she staged performance art on October 1st in support of the Hong Kong students and Occupy Central. There was nothing surprising about our Little Hot Pepper showing solidarity for the student movement in Hong Kong. After all, nowadays trendy youth and forward-thinking artists all express their individuality in unconventional ways. As her friends, those of us at TI did not protest her detention; instead, we wanted to help this young woman, full of naïve notions, to get out of custody as early as possible. Of course our efforts were in vain, and the detention center did not even accept the money and supplies we tried to deposit for her.

At that time, we did not worry about ourselves at all. After all, TI didn’t have anything to do with Occupy Central. And according to past experiences, people who were taken away for “picking quarrels and creating disturbances” would be released in a few days, or at any rate no more than 37 days. But a week had passed, and Lin’s mother called TI to ask about her situation. By then each one of us was feeling uneasy, so much so that we forgot to comfort Lisha’s mother over the phone. I later called her up to apologize for our behavior. By now Lisha has been detained for more than 60 days, way beyond the legally prescribed duration for criminal detention, but her family has not received any notice of arrest. [Ling Lisha was released on probation on December 11, 2014, two days after this letter was written. – Editor]

From October 6the onward, we were no longer able to reach Lisha’s boyfriend Chen Kun (陈堃). We grew more anxious, but not yet fearful. Chen Kun was in charge of organizing conferences, and as recently as this March, helped me to put together a training session on how to interview the underprivileged and downtrodden members of Chinese society. Mid-year this year, he had left TI to go work for Liren Academy (立人大学). To me, both Liren Academy and Liren Libraries are public interest projects, similar to what TI does, except that they serve the public even more directly. Though we seldom saw him after he left, we were still shocked by Chen Kun’s detention. Given that more than 20 Liren Libraries had recently been shut down, we thought his detention was part of the destruction of Liren Academy. We didn’t speculate what would happen to him.

Liren board members (credit: New York Times)

Liren board members (credit: New York Times)

Two weeks later, Chen Kun’s family received notice of his criminal detention that says he is detained in Haidian Detention Center, but his lawyers made four trips there without being able to meet him. The detention center told the lawyers that Chen Kun wasn’t there. In other words Chen Kun has been disappeared. According to Chinese law, he should not have been disappeared for so long no matter what crimes he has committed.

Fear struck us only when Guo Yushan was detained. He was taken away at 2 am on October 9th, and his home was searched. TI’s office was also raided around the same time. I did not find out until I was called up the next day to go attend a meeting at our office. Even though we all had foreboding that the authorities were going to finally settle score with TI, we still held out a ray of hope, little justified as it was.  At the time the rumors had it that Lisha had a receipt that she put in TI’s name, but the truth remains that what she did had nothing to do with TI. If this was the reason Guo Yushan was detained, he should have been let go in at most 37 days. Even if this is about settling scores, Guo has broken no laws; TI had paid taxes for every penny it made. Don’t tell me that the government waited a whole two years to punish Guo Yushan for his role in the Chen Guangchen incident, whose persecution at the hands of the security forces was manufactured in a flagrant abuse of power by the disgraced ex-chief of the secret police Zhou Yongkang (Guo and friends picked up Chen Guangcheng from Shandong and helped him to enter the U. S. embassy in Beijing in April, 2012. – Editor].

But the fact remains that Guo Yushan has already been detained for over two months, and his wife has not received a detention notice. A leading figure in growing nascent civil society in China, Guo Yushan has made an enormous contribution, and his reputation, ability and connections are unparalleled. If even he is denied the due process under the law, how can the rest of us expect fair treatment?

Huang Kaiping (黄凯平)

Huang Kaiping (黄凯平)

By the time Huang Kaiping, director of TI, was “disappeared,” fear spread among all of us. On October 12th, your colleagues took him away and there has been no word of him since. In order for TI to survive, Guo Yushan and the Institute have learned to bite the bullet over the years, and Guo Yushan even resigned from the directorship and withdrew from TI projects. Huang Kaiping, a young man born during the eighties, was completely absorbed in his research projects. None of us ever saw this coming. The day after Guo Yushan was detained, Huang Kaiping filed for the dissolution of TI, giving up everything its researchers have done over the past seven years, willingly putting up with low salaries. Having embraced so much sacrifice and paid such a high price, TI still did not manage to preserve itself. Is that the fate of Chinese NGOs?

It came as no surprise, then, when He Zhengjun (何正军), another TI employee, was summoned for questioning and ended up detained. What surprised us was that other TI employees actually made their way out again after interrogations and even house raids. If these detentions were not about Occupy Central, then this can only mean that TI is now being treated as a criminal group. It is then no wonder for you to detain He Zhengjun, the administrator and financial officer of TI. It’s possible that each one of TI employees has now become a criminal suspect.

He Zhengjun (何正军)

He Zhengjun (何正军)

So, when your colleagues looked for me urgently on November 27, I had to weigh it carefully: Do I go or do I not go? If I go, I would no doubt be detained as well, and I don’t know for how long I would be in custody. I will absolutely not be providing witness testimony regarding Guo Yushan, so I would not be making a simple trip to the police station. In my interaction with you, I believe that as an individual you have some goodness in you, but since all of my colleagues who have thus far been detained have not received fair treatment in accordance with legal procedure, how could I trust the system in which you work? If I don’t go, I will have to choose self-exile. After consideration, I chose the latter. It means that I will not be able to go home to my wife and child; I will not be able to find a job to support my family and myself; I will have to constantly worry about being captured; and at the same time I will not want to cause my old parents to worry about me. This is exactly my current situation. But if I were thrown into jail, the situation will be worse. Luckily, I have a lot of friends and, wherever I go, I can get help from them.

It was only after I chose self-exile that I heard about my ex-colleague, Liu Jianshu (柳建树). It turned out he has also been criminally detained, in secret, for several days already. He is a stellar law graduate who studied overseas [at Oxford University]. We have not seen much of each other recently, and people told me he was doing public interest law projects. News on the Internet has it that he is being indicted for “illegal business operation,” which I suspect the government pulled out of a hat, since to my knowledge he has never done anything like that. His arrest convinces me once again that I was right to get out.

You may be thinking: If I were confident I had broken no laws, why don’t I just explain everything to the authorities? It would all come out alright then. Well, that is exactly what I would have thought myself fifteen years ago. The price for my naivete was eight years spent in prison. The group we started, the New Youth Study Group, was nothing more than an amateur get-together of recent college graduates, where we talked about the problems rural areas faced and what we came across in our research. For that, the four of us received a total of 36 years.

Four Gentlemen of the New Youth Study Group.

Four Gentlemen of the New Youth Study Group. Click to enlarge.

Was it possible that Liu Yong (刘勇), the head of the Pretrial Office, did not know the truth about our case? That the two procurators, Li Leisen (李磊森) and Han Xiaoxia (韩晓霞), as well as the two judges Bai Jun (柏军) and Jin Xing (金星), did not know that we never planned or did anything? Can anyone who looks at the mission of our group, “proactive exploration of social reform,” bring himself to say that we were there to overturn the government? However, anything that we were allowed to say or was brought in as evidence in court went to prove our guilt. All it took was an airily trumped-up charge for the four of us to turn into middle-aged men behind bars, where our health, willpower and intellect all suffered.

I had the good luck to meet Guo Yushan the day after I left prison. Joining the organization he founded, Transition Institute, helped me get back into society. My first marriage fell apart after my sentencing, and now I was able to remarry and have a child. Even though we could not afford a house, which meant our son was unable to have the Beijing household registration that would have entitled him to enroll in school, at least I had a stable job that pulled me out of severe post-prison depression.

At Transition Institute, my job was to research the problems that rural areas and migrant workers face. I am sure you know all about our reports and workshops. Over the last three years, I organized some twenty lectures and workshops, wrote seven research reports and three analysis papers. I also organized almost two hundred interviews of grassroots Chinese with the help of volunteers I trained, and we published three volumes of these interviews. If you had taken me against my will, I may not have told you as much for your interrogation record, so I might as well tell you about what I did at TI in this letter.

You may also want to know why I often find lawyers for human rights activists. The reasons are very simple. First of all, as someone who has suffered deeply from political persecution, I understand all too well that only genuine rule of law can guarantee the rights of citizens. I particularly feel sympathy for the victims of power abuses by the underlings of Zhou Yongkang, the disgraced ex-chief of the secret police. Secondly, I got to know a lot of human rights lawyers through the Internet; they know about what happened to me, and trust me. I believe that these lawyers, whose ranks keep swelling, will be the mainstay of China’s progress towards rule of law and attainment of a civilized society. I cannot become a lawyer myself because of my criminal record, but I can be a good friend to lawyers.

Finally, please convey my apology to your colleague, E. I promised to meet with him, but could not keep our appointment in the end. In a life-or-death situation, our first reaction is going to be to run for our lives. That is not quite where I am at, as I am only sidestepping danger for the moment being. Lies are often told in order to get to a suspect, but to date no one who has told such lies in order to catch somebody has ever apologized to those he arrested.

I would have liked to, if I could, come off as a fearless hero, but my disastrous past warned me that I still have to do my duty by my family. I have parents and a child, our monthly rent poses quite a burden, and my wisest option is to avoid prison. I can also believe that Officer E would not wrong me on purpose. But in my mind, all of you must put the orders from your superiors above the law, since you have no other way to a promotion as police officers.

If my crimes are indeed egregious and a warrant for my arrest is put on the Internet, I will turn myself in immediately. Otherwise, I will continue to be on the run, until the case against Guo Yushan and TI is over. You may tell me that if I were guilty I would not be able to get out of it, and if I were innocent, there would be no need to go into hiding. Theoretically, you are quite right, but the gap between theory and China’s reality is rather too wide.

I can tell you about an example I experienced personally. Haike, my New Youth peer sentenced to ten years for subversion, has a classmate Yanhua who participated in New Youth Study Group alongside Haike every step of the way. However, he was not formally arrested. Yanhua wrote to the judge saying that since Haike got ten years, as someone who took part in everything Haike did, he asks for a ten-year sentence for himself. He never got a response.

The real reason for the discrepancy in the way they were treated was that Haike was picked up in Beijing and Yanhua in Tianjin. The Beijing Security Bureau wanted to make a big deal out of our case to score a success, while the Tianjin Bureau looked at the exact same thing and thought it did not constitute a crime.

Many of the Beijing officials who slapped together the wrongful conviction against us have since gone to jail for corruption, but the system that allowed them to trap the innocent has never changed. After leaving prison in 2009, I had the occasion to deal with the domestic security police force, and feel much better about these interactions than my dealing with the National Security folks. The former are people you can at least deal with. However, it is still undeniable that political power operates above the law. My boss and colleagues, now in custody, have personally testified to that fact. So I ask you and Officer E to please understand my choice.

Even though I chose to run, we can still be in touch. This can only be done through my Google email, The more advanced Chinese Internet technology becomes, the more I believe only Gmail can guarantee both my privacy and safety.

Best Regards,

Yang Zili

Researcher, Beijing Transition Institute

December 9, 2014


Yang Zili (杨子立), born in 1971 and has a master degree in mechanical engineering from Peking University in 1998. In August 2000, he and a group of young intellectuals formed the New Youth Study Group (新青年学会) to “explore ways to reform the society.” He and three others (Xu Wei, Jin Haike and Zhang Honghai) were detained in March 2001. On May 28, 2003, a court in Beijing convicted them of “subversion of state power,” and Yang was sentenced to eight years in prison while Xu Wei and Jin Haike were sentenced to ten years, and Zhang Honghai eight years, in prison. Yang Zili was released on March 12, 2009. He has since been working at Transition Institute.



Transition Institute website, Chinese, English

Just Man Guo Yushan, by Xiao Shu, November, 2014

Friends Gone to Jail – Chinese Activists Kou Yanding and Guo Yushan, by Zeng Jinyan, October, 2014

Few Clues in Chinese Editor’s Detention, Sinosphere, the New York Times, December 3, 2014

Rural Library Chain Closes, Citing ‘Tremendous Pressure’, Sinosphere, the New York Times, September 22, 2014

Chinese Government Moves to Limit and Eliminate Public Service NGOs: the Case of Liren Rural Libraries, by Song Zhibiao, November, 2014

Young, Idealistic and Caught Up in a Wave of Detentions, Sinosphere, the New York Times, December 10, 2014

Civil Disobedience in Sodom – A Letter to Xu Zhiyong, by Guo Yushan, August, 2013


More on the New Youth Study Group:

Two Chinese Dissidents Freed After Years in Prison, the New York Times, March 14, 2009.

New Youth Study Group Members to Become Eligible for Parole, CECC analysis, March 16, 2006.


(Translated by Louisa Chiang and Yaxue Cao)

Chinese original

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.