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China still grapples with political reform

A Chinese policeman stands guard at Tiananmen Square in Beijing
A Chinese policeman stands guard at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Friday. The annual session of China's top political top legislature, the National People's Congress, begins on Saturday.Jason Lee / Reuters
/ Source: NBC News

Two years ago, the "Shenzhen experiment" was hailed as a momentous step in China's effort to reform its political system.

The program in the southern Chinese city was aimed at introducing a system of checks and balances for the local government while curbing the power of the local Chinese Communist Party.

Eleven months later, the ambitious program, which had the blessing of the nation's top leaders, was quietly dismantled.

Its demise offered a sobering lesson about China's experiment with reform. While the Chinese economy has charged forward, political changes have been a case of “one step forward, two steps back.”

On Saturday, China's Parliament convenes to again discuss how far to take the reform process. More than 15 years after the violent crackdown on democratic protesters in Tiananmen Square, the Communist Party has yet to answer whether it's willing to countenance true changes in the political system.

Stability and economics
The Chinese government has publicly promised to pursue political reforms, assuming the pace of these reforms doesn’t threaten “stability.” 

“The Chinese government has pushed the message that ‘stability is paramount,’” said Dr. Yawei Liu, Associate Director of the Carter Center’s China Election project, which has worked to provide assistance and advice on standardizing direct election procedures in local and provincial areas of China. 

Liu, like many others, believes that the “stability” motto is used in part to mask the fact that the Communist Party has been very timid in taking the first step that could lead to major reform. “The argument for stability has become too handy and too convenient.”

Another reason however why political reform has not moved as quickly as economic reform is the priorities of the Chinese citizens.

“Most people in China nowadays do not care much about political reforms, but they do care about their pocketbooks,” said Youli Sun, professor of history at American University. “For the majority of people, [any Chinese leader’s] popularity depends on economic progress.” 

It is this economic concern that many, including Sun, believes puts political reform safely at the bottom of the ruling party's agenda.

Although many argue that economic progress can help usher in political change, Sun is  dismissive of the notion. “China has proven economic and political reforms to be separate.”

Politics of the past
Another factor that may contributing to the slow-moving pace of political reform is the inner-party power politics of the Communist Party. The derailing of the Shenzhen experiment, Sun suggested, might not have had as much do with ideology as it did with power.

The Shenzhen experiment was the brainchild of Zeng Qinghong, a Standing Committee member of the Political Bureau.

Perhaps more importantly, Zeng is also one of the closest confidants to Jiang Zemin, the former Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. Jiang stepped down in 2002, but still wields a great deal of political power, which is something that current Chairman Hu Jintao would most likely prefer all to himself.

Overtures toward openness
While most political reform might still be stuck behind the message that “stability is paramount,” China has made serious progress in encouraging more openness.

The right of free speech is still nonexistent in China, but the government has become much more relaxed in its control of public opinion, allowing newspapers to disagree with government policies, and professors at state-run universities to be critical of the Communist Party.

Even as Sun lamented the lack of progress in the area of political reform, one can see by his very demeanor the changes that have already occurred in China.  For a government historically opposed to intellectuals and famous for throwing people in jail and silencing criticism, Sun does not hesitate to publicly criticize the government.

“I am not afraid of the Communist Party arresting me,” replied Sun with a smile when asked if he wished to remain an anonymous source. “That would make me famous.”

Still a long way to go
Despite some progress, the U.S. State Department is still highly critical of China and released a 70-page report on China’s human rights practices for 2004 on Monday.

The report bemoaned China’s rate of improvement, noting that its “human rights record remained poor, and the government continued to commit numerous and serious abuses.” The State Department specifically noted the deeply flawed legal system, the absence of freedom of expression, the harsh imprisonment of political activists and journalist, and the authoritarian control by the Communist Party. 

The report did note the governments initiative and public support for numerous political reforms, but concluded that, “At year’s end, it remained unclear how widely these reforms would be implemented and what effect they would have.”

Unclear path
Where China will go from here is anyone’s guess. For Sun, political reforms seem to be an eventuality for China.  His prediction is that the next 10-15 years will see a “voluntary retreat of the Communist Party” into a system where public disagreement, and opposition is voiced within the Communist Party itself. 

Sun views this as a continuity of China’s push for openness, which will help facilitate elections on a national level to a point where the Communist Party could potentially evolve into a government “similar to the Liberal Democrats in Japan,” who have remained in power for more than 40 years.

For Liu, China’s future seems to have several very distinct possibilities. But the one that he finds to be the most likely is the one he calls the “Putin Resolution,” a reference to the Russian experience with democracy. (Most recently, President Bush has chided Moscow over what the White House views as a retreat from democratic values.)

Under Liu's scenario, the CCP would adopt some set of democratic reforms, while still distancing itself from Western democratic formulas. “China could have some sort of reform combination of Western democracy and ‘Chinese elements,’” said  Liu.

Although not perfect from a Western perspective, Liu points out that this partial democracy would only be a steeping stone to greater reforms.

For most Chinese political experts, the question is not “if” China will have political reform, but “how” and “when?”  Many, like Sun, are just waiting for the Chinese  government to take that “first major step.”