Willy Wo-Lap Lam. Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era: New Leaders, New Challenges. M.E. Sharpe, 2006.
New Ideas to Safeguard the CCP’s “Perennial Ruling Party” Status
Despite his frequent appearances on Chinese television—and increasing numbers of forays abroad—President Hu Jintao has remained a largely mysterious personality. The same can be said of his sidekick, Premier Wen Jiabao. In the first three years after coming to power at the Sixteenth Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress of November 2002, Hu and Wen successfully projected the image of can-do, proactive leaders who “put people first.” Yet apart from promises to take better care of the ruoshi tuanti (disadvantaged groupings) such as peasants and low-income workers—and to create a “harmonious society”—not much is known about the thoughts and aspirations of the two Fourth-Generation stalwarts. Of particular concern is how these relatively young and forward-looking leaders will push forward much-needed reform, particularly in the political and ideological arenas.
While it is expected that Hu and Wen will remain in power at least until the Eighteenth CCP Congress of 2012, the basic thrust of their governing philosophy and worldview had become clear by late 2005. Hu and Wen, both born in 1942, are what the Chinese call tizhinei gaigezhe, or relatively cautious “within-the-system reformers,” not Gorbachev-like figures who are ready to overhaul the Communist system through shock therapy or other radical means. Indeed, the Fourth-Generation leadership’s basic philosophy is that they must balance the needs of self-preservation—meaning the perpetuation of the CCP’s mandate of heaven—with the requirements of reform. And the Hu-Wen team is convinced that despite the CCP’s backward ideology, plus a quintessentially Leninist political structure, it can maintain its ruling-party status and spearhead the drive to attain the age-old goal of fuqiang (strength and prosperity) for China.
As the following sections will show, President Hu, who spent the bulk of his career as a party affairs specialist, does not believe that there is anything intrinsically wrong with CCP ideology—especially one-party authoritarian rule and “socialism with Chinese characteristics”—or the ethos and structure of the party. He is aware, of course, of the abuses and problems such as corruption and gross inefficiency. Yet Hu, Wen, and like-minded moderates are convinced that these aberrations have taken place because of mistakes and misapplications made by individual leaders, and not due to fundamental flaws of the system. Hence their decision not to perform Gorbachev- or Yeltsin-style surgery on the CCP. The Hu-Wen team believes in the “self-perfectionism” of the party: this means that if the party’s ideology, approaches, and policies can be retooled properly, the CCP’s 70 million members can still lead China from strength to strength.
Hu, a former president of the Central Party School who has done thorough research on ideology and governance matters, is convinced that he and his colleagues can even raise CCP statecraft to a “scientific” level. In other words, party rule can be perpetuated—and Chinese civilization revived—through a “scientific” theory of development and a “scientific” ruling apparatus. Moreover, weaknesses and blunders like corruption and dictatorial decision making, which the outside world has ascribed to fifty-seven years of CCP rule, can basically be rectified. Hence, it is not necessary to undo or break up the system—particularly no need to introduce “Western” concepts and mechanisms such as multiparty politics or one-person-one-vote polls. As we shall see, Hu and Wen are avid proponents of limited reforms such as “intra-party democracy” as well as the streamlining of the administrative structure. But they are hardly converts to the cause of democracy.
It is significant that Hu’s idea about reform, including political reform, is different from that of his supposed mentor, former general secretary Hu Yaobang, and the latter’s successor, Zhao Ziyang. This is despite the fact that both Hus had headed the Communist Youth League (CYL), which was until the late 1980s famous for being a hotbed of talents and ideas. The late Hu, and especially Zhao, subscribed to a certain extent to the theory of benevolent neo-authoritarianism. As U.S. political scientist M.J. Sullivan noted, Zhao and his advisers were convinced that after a strong zhongyang (center) had achieved economic progress, “this political elite could implement ‘top-down’ political reforms to liberalize the political system without immediately threatening the CCP’s central position.” Zhao and his radical advisers also believed that the party could at a later stage afford to yield substantial powers to other groupings in the interest of reform. The newly deceased former party chief also thought that selective “Western-style” mechanisms such as separation of party and government as well as institutions of checks and balances should be introduced. However, it is evident that President Hu’s interests consist mainly of boosting CCP power so as to better consolidate its ruling mandate. And there are no provisions for genuine political liberalization or power sharing with other socioeconomic blocs and sectors.
The Lure of the New
Ex-President Jiang Zemin’s Exposition of “New Thinking”
The protracted political engineering to repair the CCP’s somewhat tattered mandate of heaven started in the last two or three years of the rule of ex-general secretary Jiang Zemin, whose major theoretical invention, the “Theory of the Three Represents,” could be construed as a bold if belated attempt to resuscitate the party’s falling political fortunes. The theory noted that to remain relevant—and to thrive—the party “must represent the foremost production forces, the most advanced culture, and the broadest interests of common people.” While Jiang would like to claim personal credit for this so-called major breakthrough, advisers including Zeng Qinghong, Wang Huning, and Hu himself had chipped in with ideas and nuances.
There are two main thrusts to the theory. One is that since private entrepreneurs, managers, and other professionals can be said to represent the highest-level productivity and culture, these members of the “new classes”—including the fast-rising middle class—should be admitted to the CCP and even promoted to senior positions. In a now-famous speech in July 2001, Jiang formally opened the party’s door to “outstanding elements” of the “new social strata,” including capitalists. The other point is that because China has entered into the era of the market economy, Marxist- and Maoist-style class struggle—which used to be integral to any communist party’s raison d’être—should no longer be pursued. The corollary is that the CCP has for all intents and purposes metamorphosed into a party for all classes and all people, that is, a quanmindang, literally, “party for all the people.”
Thus, the retooled party charter endorsed at the Sixteenth CCP Congress had revised the key concept that only workers constituted the foundation of the party. The amended version said: “The CCP is the vanguard of the Chinese working class; it is at the same time the vanguard of the Chinese people and the Chinese race.” This Jiang-style “new thinking” obviously contravened many orthodox Marxist edicts. Marx and Lenin insisted on the primacy of class distinction—and class struggle—meaning that proletariats should fight and vanquish the ugly, marauding capitalists. Now, as a de facto quanmindang, the CCP will have to justify its rule as a party that promotes the welfare of all Chinese, regardless of “class origin.” Because Jiang and his colleagues were treading on treacherous ideological terrain, the then president was careful in laying out his new doctrine. While the “Three Represents” was repeated ad nauseum in the media as well as in ideological classes for cadres and workers, Jiang and company never made a clear-cut pronouncement that class struggle was now passé and that the CCP had evolved into a quanmindang. Nor did Jiang mention that the elevated status of proletariats such as workers and peasants was no more in the new age of the market economy.
Rather, Jiang put his emphasis on the fact that “we need new ideas for further development, new breakthroughs for reform, and new vistas for the open-door policy.” Echoing the famous axiom of the late reformist party boss Hu Yaobang—that “Marxism cannot solve all the problems of today”—Jiang said in a speech at the Central Party School in mid-2002 that “it is mistaken to treat Marxism in a doctrinaire manner.” Marxism required new breakthroughs, he added. In an interview with the New York Times in August 2001, Jiang underscored the importance of “improving” the teachings of Marx and Engels “in light of changing historical conditions.”
According to Chinese sources close to the Jiang Faction, the veteran leader was asked the following question during the annual leadership conference at the seaside resort of Beidaihe in the summer of 2001: “If the CCP is now a quanmindang—and one that pursues market economics—how different will it be from bourgeois socialist-democratic parties in Europe?” Jiang’s answer was that the party must undergo a thought liberation akin to that staged by Deng Xiaoping soon after the fall of the Gang of Four. In 1979, Deng launched the campaign of “seek truth from facts”—whose slogan was “practice is the sole criteria of truth”—to parry the Maoists’ attack that his economic reforms had contradicted Marxism and Mao Thought. Jiang hoisted the flag of a Deng-style thought-liberation crusade in the two years before he vacated the Politburo in late 2002. “We must make progress with the times, and modernize theory accordingly,” the ex-president liked to say. “If development of theory is lagging behind practice, the party’s enterprise will be hurt—and it could even fail.”
President Hu’s Emphasis on Theoretical Breakthroughs
Despite the doubts about the Hu-Wen team’s commitment to reform, Fourth-Generation leaders do have new ideas—and they are determined to break out of the mold laid down by Jiang, deemed an intellectual lightweight. After all, the Fourth Generation comprises the first bunch of Chinese cadres who are arguably free from the yoke of Stalinism. Third-Generation stalwarts could not escape the past, that is, the long shadow of the Soviet model. This is even true for former premier Zhu Rongji, the supposed “Chinese Gorbachev.” While unlike Jiang or Li Peng, Zhu never studied or worked in the USSR, the Soviet model of state planning had through the 1950s exerted a deep influence on the ex-premier.
However, Hu and his Fourth-Generation colleagues grew up in the post-Cultural Revolution era of reform. They attended typically well known universities in Beijing, Shanghai, and other big cities in the 1960s. Hu and Wen were both thirty-six years old when Deng proclaimed the theory of reform and the open door in late 1978; at that time, Hu was a hydraulic engineer in Gansu and Wen a geologist in the same northwestern province. In the Politburo endorsed at the Sixteenth CCP Congress, only two members had Soviet roots: Luo Gan had studied in East Germany, General Cao Gangchuan in the USSR. Yet almost the entire corps of Fourth-Generation cadres are beneficiaries of Deng-style reform. And on their shoulders falls the task of completing the transformation of China into a modern, nonideological, market-oriented country.
Hu’s success formula is simply that cadres must break new ground in reform partly through coming up with “scientific” models for reform and development. And this became evident well before he was made party general secretary in late 2002. Take, for example, the speech given by Hu at a ceremony marking the twentieth anniversary of the celebrated 1978 campaign on “Practice is the sole criterion of truth,” which set the stage for the ascendancy of Deng. “Under the guidance of scientific theories, we must boldly put into practice [our beliefs], make bold explorations … and liberate our thoughts in order to tackle new tasks and new contradictions,” Hu intoned. While touring Shanghai in late 2000, Hu told local officials to “grasp new opportunities, face new challenges, create new conditions of superiority, and realize new developments [for the city’s future].”
The party chief has continued to push his doctrine of never-ending innovation after the Sixteenth CCP Congress. In a mid-2004 conference on how to make advancements in the study of philosophy and the social sciences, Hu admonished scholars and officials to delve into both Chinese and foreign works so as to “break new ground in scholarly viewpoints, in systems and institutions, and in methodology of research and development.” And in a Politburo session later that year, the supremo tried to strike a balance between “sticking to the socialist road with Chinese characteristics” on the one hand, and “thought liberation and keen innovation” on the other. Hu urged cadres to “ceaselessly search for new ideas, new approaches, and new methods for solving problems.” Hu, of course, sees no contradiction between upholding old ideals such as party supremacy and the socialist road on the one hand, and the imperative of thought liberation and “new thinking” on the other. In fact, the president and his colleagues are convinced that they can come up with innovative ways and means to attain the age-old goal of indefinitely extending the CCP’s ruling-party mandate.
The Search for a Perennial Mandate of Heaven
In his capacity as head of the Central Party School and party affairs specialist, then vice-president Hu Jintao was put in charge of the task of “party construction” in 2001 and 2002. His mandate was simple: to find the formula that will enable the CCP to remain a “perennial ruling party.” In internal and public speeches at the time, Hu indicated that cadres must be open-minded in their search for a new formula. “We must make progress with the times and open up new vistas,” he said.
A few years earlier, think tanks such as the Central Party School and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) had begun systematic research into stable and sturdy political parties that were long-standing ruling parties in different countries. These included the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, the People’s Action Party of Singapore, the United Malay National Organization of Malaysia, the Institutional Revolutionary Party of Mexico, the Labor Party of Canada, the National Democratic Party of Egypt, and the Constitutional Democratic Rally Party of Tunisia. The conclusions of these experts were simple: democracy was not a prerequisite for a party’s staying power, particularly for countries with Confucianist traditions such as Japan and Singapore. However, survivability criteria common to most of these parties included the appearance—if not also the sub-stance—of serving the common people, an efficient administration that is relatively uncorrupt and good at quickly defusing sociopolitical crises, and an ability to nurture a relatively broad-based pro-establishment class.
After taking power in late 2002, Hu and his advisers were in a better position to take a first-hand look at viable political parties all over the world. The goal was the same: to learn the relevant lessons for the CCP. As Hu put it in mid-2004, the CCP must “study and learn from the experience of other ruling parties in running the administration. We must open up new vistas so as to take a better grasp of the rules and regulations for boosting the party’s governance ability.” This was the background behind the CCP-sponsored Conference of Asian Political Parties held in Beijing in September 2004. Hu told representatives from eighty-three parties that the CCP would “ceaselessly improve and perfect its leadership style and governance methods.”
Largely with the goal of seeking the bible on “long reign and perennial stability” from other parties, Hu also asked his Politburo colleagues and other senior cadres to visit countries all over the world. In the second half of 2003 alone, three PSC members and six Politburo members called on parties in countries ranging from authoritarian Cuba and Armenia to liberal Finland and New Zealand. According to Wang Jiarui, head of the CCP International Liaison Department, six points could be made about the experience of successful ruling parties in countries including the U.K., Germany, Vietnam, Singapore, and Hungary. Wang cited the following: “ability to innovate in theory [of government]; competence in organization and mobilization; decision-making power; ability to develop the economy and society; ability to handle emergencies; and ability to deal well with foreign relations.”
President Hu had taken into account the extensive research done by his colleagues when he thrashed out the criteria that the CCP must meet so as to consolidate its heavenly mandate. The requisite standards and goals included: “putting the masses first” through improving welfare standards for the working and farming classes; narrowing the gap between haves and have-nots, and promoting some degree of social justice as well as mobility; and expanding the power base and “recruitment pool” of the CCP. Thanks to the fact that the economy had been growing by 8 percent to 9 percent since the early 1990s, a considerable amount of wealth had been accumulated. For example, total bank deposits by Chinese reached an astounding 13 trillion yuan by 2005. Yet at least 45 percent of the nation’s wealth was held by 10 percent of the richest citizens. The Hu-Wen leadership’s concern is to ensure a more even spread of income, thus reversing Deng’s now largely discredited dictum of “letting one part of the population grow rich first.”
China’s Gini coefficient, a measurement of income disparity between rich and poor, has shown that the gulf between haves and have-nots in the country has increased dramatically through the heady years of reform. Thus, the index soared from 0.282 in 1990 to close to 0.5 in early 2004, a level that the China Daily said was “widely considered alarming.” Experts estimated that when factors such as tax evasion and money laundering by the superrich are taken into account, the Gini coefficient could be even higher. Moreover, as the country gets richer, social tension has increased as the nouveau riche have more opportunities to show off glistening status-symbol objects ranging from European sedans to luxurious villas; 10 percent of the urban population owns 45 percent of properties in the cities. Moreover, as the following sections will show, the administration must address regional differences in the country as well as tackle the detrimental aspects of development such as environmental depredation.
That the Hu-Wen team might be on the right track was illustrated, albeit in an oblique manner, by the shock defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Indian general elections in May 2004. While the A.B. Vajpayee administration had won kudos abroad—and within the educated, rich, and information-technology (IT)-oriented elite in India—it sorely neglected the majority of Indians who were barely literate peasants. The unexpected victory of the underdog Congress Party—allegedly because of its closer identification with the interests of the masses—would tend to confirm the validity of the “mass line” taken by the Hu-Wen leadership.
Despite their dislike for Russian-style changes, the CCP elite also realizes that in the absence of Western-style political reform, the party must do more in other areas to satisfy or at least pacify the masses. This includes curbing corruption and promoting “democratic decision making,” implementing some form of rule by law, and enhancing social mobility by enabling the masses to climb the sociopolitical ladder. An allied concept is the propagation of a middle class, seen as a force for stability and a potential pillar of support for the party.
“Scientific Socialism” and Scientific Development Theories
It is one of the ironies of history that Hu Jintao may have made more contribution to the world socialist movement than one of his heroes, Mao Zedong. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Great Helmsman styled himself as a leader of the global communist crusade—but got nowhere except ruining his own country as well as squandering precious resources on foreign aid to a bunch of Third World pariah states. Now Hu and his colleagues are telling the world that their distinctive China model is a smashing success owing to the Fourth-Generation leadership’s having cracked the code of “scientific socialism.” Deng’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” which was implemented rather faithfully by ex-president Jiang and expremier Zhu, proved to be effective in speeding up economic development and raising the masses’ standard of living. Now, the Hu-Wen team is claiming that its unique approach known as “scientific socialism” can not only rectify the mistakes of previous socialist-Chinese administrations—such as gross corruption and social injustice—but also revive the CCP as well as Chinese civilization.
The Myth of “Scientific Socialism”
In an internal talk in 2000 on handling the problems and opportunities of the new millennium, Hu displayed a knack for cool-headed assessment of China’s harsh reality. He ticked off monumental challenges, including “the severe defeat of the international socialist enterprise”; “the complex contradictions and difficulties in economic, political and cultural spheres” caused by economic restructuring; as well as the “crisis of faith” among cadres in the socialist system. Speaking two years before coming to power, Hu made no concrete recommendations on what cadres should do. However, he laid down two principles. One was that officials must follow what he called a “scientific” path. The other, related requirement was that breakthroughs must be made in different fields. And at an ideological education conference held in late 2000 to discuss ex-president Jiang’s dictums, Hu said: “We must ask leading cadres to arm their brains with scientific theory.” “We must come to a scientific knowledge of new situations and new tasks facing the party,” the official New China News Agency (NCNA) quoted the then vice-president as saying.
A key to Hu’s statecraft is that even without the trappings of Western-style political institutions such as multiparty and parliamentary democracy, the CCP leadership can still get it right—scientifically right—regarding economic and social development. In a Politburo meeting in mid-2003, Hu underscored the imperative of “observing the world, China, and the CCP under the guidance of scientific theory.” The president added that the scientific spirit would prod cadres into “making breakthroughs in theory, institutions, science and technology as well as culture.”
As we shall see in following sections, the Hu-Wen leadership has also come up with a “scientific theory of development” as well as quasi-scientific ways for running the administration, including picking the “right” civil servants and fighting corruption. Quite a few scholars, particularly those in the humanities and social sciences, are impressed by the Hu-Wen team’s efforts to redress earlier administrations’ pursuit of economic and technological targets at the expense of humanistic and social values. As Tsinghua University professor Xue Lan noted, “after 1949, a lot of disciplines like history, political science, and economics were subordinated to ideology.” Xue was convinced that the new leadership was interested in “creating the infrastructure for public policy formation.”
There are, however, misgivings about Hu’s penchant for “scientific socialism,” murmurings that it is but a harking back to old-style Marxism. After all, this concept was first raised by early Marxists including Lenin, who wrote the classic Utopian and Scientific Socialism. Orthodox Marxists believed that with the right formula, as well as proper social planning and engineering, a country could hit upon a fail-safe path toward democratic, egalitarian, and “scientific” development. Yet one of the points made by prominent critics of Marxism and socialism such as Friedrich von Hayek and Karl Popper was precisely that “scientific socialism” could result in a closed society if not outright serfdom.
It cannot be denied that the post-1978 CCP leadership is dominated by engineers, and that despite their different philosophies, cadres such as Li Peng, Jiang Zemin, and Hu—all trained engineers—believe in the virtues of social engineering. Despite his reformist persona, Hu often lapses into the familiar rhetoric that it is best for the nation to act as one, that is, under strong party leadership. During the crisis over severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), for example, Hu reiterated that the entire nation should “unite their thoughts and action based on the planning of the party central authorities.” “We must uphold the principles of relying on the masses, relying on science, and working hard with one heart and mind,” he indicated. Above all, despite experiments in “new thinking,” there will be no departure from the time-tested Communist doctrine of “democratic centralism.”
A Scientific View of Economic and Social Development
The Hu-Wen Fourth-Generation leadership is staking its reputation—and the future of the party—on the success of a brand-new “concept of scientific development.” This is the natural culmination of President Hu’s belief in the nature of “scientific socialism.” As Premier Wen put it in a speech to the Central Party School in early 2004, the novel approach means “economic and social development that are comprehensive, well-coordinated, and sustainable”—as well as “development that has [the welfare of] human beings in mind.”
The so-called scientific theory of development is closely linked to the now-famous “five syntheses and coordination” unveiled by Hu and Wen at the Third CCP Central Committee plenary session in late 2003. This principle was a reference to well-balanced development between cities and villages, between different regions, between economic growth and social benefits, between man and nature, and between domestic growth and the open-door policy. Clearly, in the eyes of Hu and Wen, economic and other developments in the Jiang era had engendered imbalances in these five areas, for example, exacerbating regional and urban-rural disparities as well as upsetting the ecological balance. One important aspect of “scientific development” is that economic progress should not merely enrich one sector of the population or one region of the country. As Wen, deemed “the people’s premier,” reiterated, Beijing must see to it that the 800 million peasants—as well as disadvantaged sectors such as the urban jobless—do not feel left behind in the modernization drive. And economic growth must afford the rural central and western provinces opportunities to close the gap with the coastal cities. Latest figures showed that the gulf in the rate of economic growth between west and east China had widened from 1:1.92 in 1980 to 1:2.59 in 2003.
In an address at the Central Party School in early 2004, Vice-President Zeng Qinghong criticized certain cadres’ obsession with mere gross domestic product (GDP) growth. Zeng argued that “we must use a scientific spirit and a scientific methodology” to look at economic growth and national progress. In other words, while measuring China’s wealth, “software elements” such as educational standards, public health, and respect for the law must be given as much weight as increase in manufacturing and exports. Or as Hu himself put it while touring Jiangsu Province in mid-2004, the right balance between man and nature, and between industrialization and ecological standards, must be sought to ensure sustainability. The party chief noted that scientific development must take into consideration “the welfare of the entire country as well as the fundamental and long-term interests of the people.” “We must be concerned about the long-term development of the Chinese race as well as the welfare of our children and later generations,” Hu said.
An important aspect of scientific and balanced development is harmony among the three sheng: shengchan (production), shengtai (the environment), and shenghuo (quality of life). According to Peking University ecological expert Ye Wenhu, the mere emphasis on GDP growth has meant that China has entered into a vicious cycle of “more production, more pollution.” Ye said economic growth must not be at the expense of the people’s livelihood and ecological balance. He noted that production “must be attained in an environment of low waste of energy and low pollution.” While China accounts for the 4 percent of the aggregate global GDP, it is using 17 percent of the world’s energy supplies and raw materials. CASS environmental sciences professor Niu Wenyuan agreed. He indicated that development for the past decade had been attained at the expense of the environment as well as the livelihood of later generations. “We have spoiled the environment and sacrificed the opportunities of our offspring,” he said.
The Hu-Wen leadership’s newfound interest in “developmental software” such as education, public health, and the environment was reinforced by the nation’s near-disastrous brush with the SARS and avian flu epidemics in 2003 and 2004. The trail-blazing aspects of the Hu-Wen team’s new policy could also be interpreted as a rectification of the perceived aberrations of late patriarch Deng, expresident Jiang, and ex-premier Zhu. It was Deng who first came up with the slogan about the yingdaoli (unimpeachable law) of fast-paced development: that the nation must achieve a relatively high growth rate to maintain stability and prosperity. Moreover, both Jiang and Zhu, who have close ties to Shanghai, earmarked too much in the way of resources for the eastern “Gold Coast.” And since there were hardly any spokesmen for rural China within the old leadership, the agricultural sector, as well as western provinces, were given short shrift. A year before his retirement, the usually arrogant Zhu indirectly admitted that his biggest mistake was neglecting peasants’ welfare. “When you are talking about one single issue that causes me the worst headaches, that topic is how to increase the income of Chinese farmers,” he said at the annual National People’s Congress (NPC) conference in 2002.
Assessing Regions and Cadres According to Criteria of Scientific Development
Many of the “unscientific” aspects of Chinese-style development are due to the fact that provincial, municipal, and county-level officials are anxious to please superiors by notching up high-GDP growth rates, even though these apparently laudable attainments were based on horrendous wastage of energy and despoliation of the environment. The Hu-Wen team has borrowed the Western concept of “green GDP,” meaning that economic growth must be accompanied by not only environmental protection but also “humanistic” consideration for the overall welfare of the populace under an official’s jurisdiction.
Cadres at different levels were given explicit instructions in 2004 that they must never repeat the Great Leap Forward-era mentality of trying to outdo each other with superficial signs of prosperity. As Central Party School professor Liang Yanhui pointed out, some cadres had the wrong concept of development. “They have simplified the issue of development into the mere pursuit of high GDP figures,” she said. The official journal Fortnightly Chat quoted senior cadres as saying that in assessing cadres in a particular region, the development of the economy and society as well as the welfare and spiritual well-being of local residents had to be taken into account.
By mid-2004, it was clear that cadres would be assessed by standards way beyond simply boosting the local GDP or attracting foreign investment. New criteria included generating employment and lowering the rich-poor gap, maintaining environmental cleanliness, ensuring stability, and boosting democracy and rule by law. According to President Hu, economic development should not be the sole touchstone for evaluating regional officials. “We must also consider achievements in the areas of renwen [humanistic values], resources, and the environment,” Hu said in early 2004. What the president meant was that local cadres should make sure that their charges were generally content and well educated—and that resources in areas under their jurisdiction must be efficiently exploited and used in an ecologically friendly manner.
According to noted reformer Pan Yue, the assessment of cadres should be based on different sets of criteria. Pan was a senior cadre at the now-defunct State Commission for the Reform of the Economic Structure before assuming his current post as vice-director of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA). “Under the scientific view of development, officials should be appraised in accordance with standards including keeping a good ecological balance, maintaining a low Gini coefficient in their localities, and providing social welfare for the destitute,” he said. SEPA and the State Statistical Bureau have compiled a set of criteria for green GDP, which takes into account factors in the areas of the environment and resource distribution when governments of all levels go about planning economic development. Jiangxi party secretary Meng Jianzhu summarized his goal for building up the province: “I want mountains of gold and silver; but I also want green waters and hills.”
Living up to the “scientific spirit” of President Hu, various regional leaders have concocted “scientific” and quantitative criteria for assessing cadres. In late 2004, Sichuan came up with the nation’s first set of standards for the annual appraisal of the performance of party and government officials. Apart from GDP growth and foreign investment, the twenty-five criteria included development in education, health, industrial safety, culture and sports, environmental protection, and social stability.
An Efficient, “Scientific,” and Law-Abiding Administration with Limited Democracy
As the activists of the May Fourth “enlightenment” movement of 1919 indicated, China cannot go very far down the path of economic and scientific development in the absence of democracy. On the touchy issue of reforms leading eventually to universal-suffrage elections and even multiparty politics, Hu and Wen are basically as conservative as forebears such as Deng or Jiang. And the Fourth-Generation leadership has stuck to the hackneyed view that Chinese are not prosperous or well educated enough to try out one-person-one-vote experiments. Thus, Wen said in mid-2004 that “because China is too big and populous and because its development is uneven, we can only have direct elections at the village level.” What is “new” about the Hu-Wen team’s worldview and statecraft is their conviction that despite the slow progress in democracy, the CCP administration can still be superefficient and scientific in not just economic development but attending to the needs of the people.
An Administration of “Scientific” Decision Makers and Crisis Managers
One of the Hu-Wen team’s key mottoes for efficient and “people-oriented” administration is “develop democracy, encourage the free airing of views, gather collective wisdom, and implement scientific decision making.” However, it is clear that with no substantial program for democratization, the emphasis is very much on scientific decision making.
The banner of “scientific and democratic decision making” was first raised in the mid-1980s by liberal leaders such as then premier Zhao Ziyang and vice-premier Wan Li. Zhao brought quite a large number of young men and women into his think tanks, notably the one on political reform. However, the tradition was lost in the wake of Zhao’s ouster in 1989. While Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji also had their brain trusts, neither practiced wide consultation or “scientific decision making.” Most of Jiang’s advisers tended to come from Shanghai. And Zhu’s strongman-like leadership style often meant his subordinates and advisers were afraid to contradict the “boss.”
One way that the Hu-Wen team is promoting scientific decision making is by picking the brains of think tanks and senior academics and professionals. For example, in the first year after Hu came to power, the Politburo and the State Council organized twelve seminars in which professors and experts from different fields expatiated on areas ranging from law and history to agriculture and technology. And suggestions from academics ranging from augmenting rural income to whittling down “administrative detention and punishment” have been adopted. According to an academic who has advised Hu, the party chief and president’s desk is always piled high with papers submitted to him by officials and scholars nationwide.
Nowhere is this “scientific” spirit more evident than in crisis management—forestalling disasters or putting out fires as early as possible. Hu and Wen have set up a good number of permanent or ad hoc bodies and mechanisms in Zhongnanhai—sometimes called leading groups or coordinating committees—to handle domestic and foreign crises. Subject matter and issues have ranged from the worsening shortage of energy and raw materials to the problem of declining grain yield in China’s restive rural regions. And these groups are usually headed by senior ministers, including Premier Wen himself. For example, even going by official, publicized material, Wen is head of the National Defense Mobilization Committee, the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee, the State Leading Group for Science, Technology and Education, the State Leading Group for Information Technology, the State Council Leading Group for Western Region Development, the State Council Construction Committee for the South-to-North Water Diversion Project, and the State Leading Group on Energy.
The underlying philosophy of ju’an siwei (beware of dangers while in the midst of plenitude) was spelled out by Hu in a meeting with Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) members in March 2003. “The leadership collective must have a cool-headed awareness of China’s conditions,” Hu said. “We must boost our awareness of [possible] troubles and disasters…. We must positively address various risks and challenges.” Hu also underscored the imperative of assessing and forestalling risks. “We must overcome difficulties and minimize risks,” he said in a Politburo meeting not long after taking over the party leadership. “We must lower the adverse impact of unfavorable circumstances to ensure stable development and [national] security,” the supremo added. “We’ll succeed if we can forestall problems, otherwise we may fail.”
Plans were afoot in 2003 to put together crisis management and rapid-response “command centers” in every large and medium-sized city in the coming five years. The computer networks of these outfits would be linked with the Ministry of Public Security as well as with each other to facilitate quick deployment of resources to resolve a crisis. The Beijing municipal party and government leadership, for example, formed a Crisis Management Command Center in the wake of the SARS epidemic in early 2003. The center is charged with handling incidents ranging from epidemics and earthquakes to terrorist attacks. Other cities that have similar facilities include Shanghai, Chengdu, Nanning, and Nanjing.
Experts have also suggested establishing custom-made mechanisms or centers to handle problems and mishaps ranging from crime to road accidents. For example, Beijing-based scholar Duan Liren, a transportation specialist, proposed establishing traffic accident rapid-response centers in urban areas to deal with traffic snarls or accidents. Duan cited the fact that the death rate among those involved in road mishaps in China was 27 percent compared with 1.3 percent in the United States and only 0.9 percent in Japan. In mid-2004, the State Council rolled out a Leading Group on Rectifying the Overloading of Vehicles. Within one month, this group had deployed more than 200,000 police and other staff to “black spots” or disaster zones along the nation’s highways to crack down on dangerous driving practices, particularly overloading in buses and other vehicles. Other crisis-response units that have been, or are soon to be, set up include national and regional command centers to handle accidents related to the misapplication of chemicals. And coastal Fujian Province in 2004 finalized a multibillion yuan high-tech “anti-calamities system” to contend with natural disasters such as typhoons, earthquakes, fires, locusts, and other epidemics affecting crops and forests.
Particularly in the wake of the recent dramatic increase of so-called “major incidents”—industrial and traffic accidents as well as other mishaps that engender deaths of over twenty people at a time—cadres are much more responsive to the need to resolve crises quickly. Even more so than past administrations, Hu and company are all-guns-blazing fighters committed to nipping the first signs of instability in the bud. On the largest scale, there are the crack PLA rapid-response units under each of the seven military regions. Even before the September 11 attacks in the United States, the People’s Armed Police had set up anti-terrorist rapid-response units to deal with “urban terrorism” or other tufa (emergency) events such as the detonation of bombs and other explosive devices in residences, trains and buses, restaurants, and supermarkets.
Symptomatic of cadres’ “high degree of crisis awareness” is that from mid-2003 onward, officials of all levels have to carry mobile phones—and they are not allowed to turn them off even after midnight. There are strict stipulations from Beijing that after a major accident such as a mining disaster or big fire, responsible cadres must be on the scene in two to three hours, depending on the state of the traffic and the accessibility of the spot in question. In the four years since 2000, some 1,250 officials, including nine cadres with the rank of minister or governor, were penalized for failing to prevent or properly handle major mishaps due to lapse of safety regulations.
Ensuring Administrative Probity: Propagating Clean, Law-Abiding, and Sage-like Cadres
Short of being democratic, the new-look government under the Fourth-Generation leadership should at least be clean, accountable, and law-abiding. As Wu Jinglian, a noted liberal scholar and one-time adviser to Zhu Rongji, pointed out in early 2003, Beijing should aim for “an open, transparent, and service-oriented government that should be answerable [to the public].” Or as cadres in the Central Party School noted, officials will have fulfilled their mission if they had paid close attention to four points: “be close to the people; seek after concrete goals; take the scientific approach; and abide by the law.”
Hu and Wen seem convinced that they can nurture thousands upon thousands of efficient, honest, people-loving, and law-abiding cadres and civil servants even in the absence of democratic institutions. One key factor is the inculcation of the ideal of “administration according to law.” If officials work within the parameters of the law—and citizens are allowed to sue officials who have run afoul of relevant legislations—many of the negative aspects of authoritarian one-party rule can be avoided.
Certainly, no previous CCP leaders have given such emphasis to rule by law, nor spelled out their requirements in such detail. At an early 2003 Politburo meeting on “running the country according to law,” Hu pointed out that “all levels of cadres must assiduously boost their ability to run the administration and to make policies according to law.” And then Hu ticked off a series of goals in this direction: “reforming the judicial and legal system, strengthening judicial supervision, upholding justice, raising the level of implementation of the law, and ensuring the strict application of the law.” And in a State Council seminar round about the same time, Premier Wen noted that rule by law would be given the same importance as economic development. Specifically, Wen pointed out that the government and legislature should pass timely laws on not only economic reform but also “social management and public service.” He laid emphasis on “judicial supervision” of the government. This meant that the masses could help rectify government policies or behavior—and seek redress or compensation—through challenging government decisions or even suing officials in the law courts.
In terms of promoting the quality of cadres, the Hu-Wen team is continuing with efforts begun by previous administrations to gradually introduce elements of a Western-style civil service. From an ideological perspective, however, Hu’s requirements for a good cadre are not that different from those of Chairman Mao, former president Liu Shaoqi, and ex-president Jiang. Mao ruled that cadres must satisfy the twofold requirement of “redness and expertise.” Liu talked about the “virtues” that good cadres must possess in his famous 1939 tome, How to Be a Good Communist. Analysts have pointed out Confucianist strains in Liu’s advocacy of “self-cultivation” as a means of achieving Communist rectitude. And for Jiang, it was the “Three Emphases,” meaning cadres must be strong in ideology, willing to study the Marxist canon, and mindful of “righteousness.”
Hu indicated in 2004 that good cadres must be “strong in politics, be highly professional about their jobs—and that [they] must have a clean working style.” Indeed, Hu and Wen have hardly departed from the traditional ideal—which predated communism—of nurturing the image of a Confucius-like sage-mandarin, the proverbial fumuguan or “mom-and-dad-like official.” And Wen himself, with his penchant for “worrying [about the country’s problems] before the rest of the world,” is the near-perfect model of a caring, devoted, Lei Feng-like cadre. By contrast, former party chief Zhao Ziyang and his colleagues put much less stress on the “redness,” or political correctness, of cadres. For Zhao, what mattered most was zhengji, or performance on the job, particularly the ability to hack out new paths in reform.
Hu, together with ally Wu Guanzheng, head of the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI), has taken more severe and thoroughgoing measures in fighting corruption than administrations under Deng and Jiang. But a good component of the CCDI’s approach to fighting graft is no different from that of the ancien régime, that is, stressing “Marxist rectitude” and allied virtues, rather than systemic checks and balances such as vesting the power of fighting corruption in an agency that is independent of the CCP. Indeed, Hu likes to admonish officials to engage in Confucian-style “self-reflection.” While talking to NPC officials from Hubei in 2003, the president said: “We must cultivate our political morality; constantly think about the damage of greed; and heed the importance of self-discipline.”
Seeking Regional Equality of Development
Seeking a relatively fair distribution of resources among China’s disparate regions and provinces is one of the key tasks of the Hu-Wen administration. This is tied not just to economic development but also to the ideal of “scientific development,” namely, a fairer distribution of resources nationwide and a more judicious balance between rich and poor provinces. However, an in-depth look at China’s regional economics will reveal that political considerations are a key determinant of economic decisions, including government investment activities in different localities.
In the thirteen years of leadership under Jiang, the bulk of the attention and resources of Beijing was showered on the eastern coast, in particularly the Greater Shanghai Region of Shanghai, Pudong, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang. While both Hu and Wen were born along the eastern coast, they spent a large part of their early careers in the hinterland—and these Fourth-Generation leaders have vowed to speak up for provinces in hinterland China (the central and western provinces) as well as the “newly impoverished” northeast.
Much has been written about the “go west” program first initiated by former premier Zhu around 1998 and 1999. And the Hu-Wen team has basically taken over the Zhu initiative in resuscitating the economies of the eleven western provinces and major cities mainly through funneling more investment into the neglected heartland. For example, the majority of the China-destined funds from international financial bodies such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank are being used in the west. Senior central-level cadres have also played the role of salesmen and lobbyists in arranging investment tours for Western, Asian, Taiwanese, and Hong Kong businessmen. From 1999 to 2004, Beijing invested 460 billion yuan in the western provinces. This was in addition to budgetary transfer payments of more than 500 billion yuan. The GDP of western provinces went up by 8.5 percent, 8.8 percent, 10.1 percent, and 11.3 percent in the years 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2003 respectively.
However, as of 2005, the east-west gap had not significantly narrowed when compared to the late 1990s. The growth rate of the coastal areas was still higher than that of the hinterland. Moreover, cities ranging from Dalian to Guangzhou are still much more successful in attracting both funds—especially foreign direct investment (FDI)—and talent. A major problem, reformist economist Chi Fulin pointed out, was that the go west policy was “government-led.” “We must ensure that the future development of the west be market-oriented,” Chi said in late 2004. Indeed, while the government had since the late 1990s bankrolled thirty-six multi-billion yuan infrastructure projects, only one-third of these funds had been utilized by the end of 2002. This suggests that the pace of development was much slower than Beijing had anticipated. Moreover, investment by both foreign firms and private enterprises has remained weak. For example, Chongqing, the largest western city, could in 2003 only attract less than 10 percent of the FDI that was bound for Shanghai. And half of this FDI of $331 million came from Hong Kong.
Resuscitating the Three Northeastern Provinces
The Hu-Wen team’s determination to attain regional balance is best illustrated by their decision in early 2003 to give a facelift to the depressed economies of the northeastern provinces of Liaoning, Heilongjiang, and Jilin. While the dongbei, or northeast, whose industrial foundation was laid by the Japanese and then the Soviets, was the pride of Chinese industry until the 1970s, it has fallen on hard times. Weighed down by obsolete, unwieldy state-owned enterprises (SOEs), the three provinces have lagged behind the eastern coastal rim in exploiting the opportunities of the marketplace. Liaoning, once a pacesetter in industry and technology, has slipped to eleventh place in terms of provincial GDP. And the entire dongbei economy is no bigger than that of super-rich Guangdong. Premier Wen, who spelled out instructions on revitalizing the northeast during a trip to Shenyang in August 2003, made it clear that only market forces could save the depressed region. Beijing’s dongbei game plan could be summed up in one phrase: “policy only, no money.” As government economist Gao Huiqing noted, “the central authorities will liberalize policies and introduce more market mechanisms to reactivate the dongbei.” Gao added that Beijing wanted to avoid the experience of its go west program, which required massive government expenditure on infrastructure.
According to an economic source in Beijing, one of the Wen cabinet’s recommendations was thoroughgoing privatization, meaning that more aggressive measures would be adopted to sell off SOEs to foreign companies—or to private firms from other parts of China. Customary practice dictated that fairly strict criteria must be met before an SOE could be offloaded. “A detailed assessment of the SOE’s assets has to be made—and the purchase price must at least reflect a good part of the enterprise’s ‘worth,'” said the source. “The purchaser must also vouch to re-hire a sizable proportion of existing staff.” “The new line proposed in 2003 was that as long as a ‘white knight’ could turn around an aging factory through an injection of modern technology and management, he could have it practically for free—nor would he be required to keep the workforce.”
Wen’s advisers were convinced that dongbei‘s SOEs would be of particular interest to businessmen in South Korea, Japan, and Russia. As Vice-Head of the National Development and Reform Commission Ou Xinqian put it, the infusion of private capital could foster “a highly competitive, fully energetic business environment” in the sleepy northeast. For the so-called New Dongbei Era to arrive, however, the 100 million or so residents in the northeast must, in Deng’s words, “undergo a total change of mind-set.” As the liberal Guangdong paper Southern Weekend pointed out in a 2003 commentary, the northeast was home to a “special culture characterized by satisfaction with the status quo and lack of sensitivity toward the market.” Or as Jilin University economist Song Donglin indicated, denizens of the northeast had an “anti-commercial mentality” owing to the residual influence of Soviet-style economic planning. And particularly for Jilin, which adjoins North Korea, potential foreign investors might be deterred by the ongoing nuclear crisis in the Stalinist country.
By late 2004, it was clear that more attention—and favorable policies—from Beijing alone would still prove insufficient to lift the dongbei out of its doldrums. For example, Japanese and South Korean investors still preferred to go to Shanghai and Shandong respectively. Hong Kong’s famously aggressive real-estate developers were nonplussed by the fact that because of the climate and other conditions, dongbei construction workers and sometimes even salespeople had a tradition of not working from November to April. It is not surprising that the National Development and Reform Commission, headed by key Wen aide Ma Kai, had to get into the act by identifying about 100 “priority projects” for the northeast, which ranged from automobile manufacturing and shipbuilding to petrochemicals. However, owing to insufficient interest from domestic as well as foreign investors, the bulk of the $7.3 billion bill for these projects had to be footed by central coffers. Should the dongbei continue to have to rely on government handouts, which are reminiscent of the days of the planned economy, however, the Hu-Wen team will hardly be able to call their initiative a success.
Difficulty in Striking a Balance Among the Regions
While it will take some time before the “go northeast” program can bear fruit, the Hu-Wen initiative has already upset the delicate balance among China’s various regional economic blocs. While cadres and entrepreneurs in the nation’s two main locomotives of growth—the Yangtze and Pearl River deltas—have pronounced themselves unperturbed by competition posed by the northeast, officials in the poor western provinces have expressed anxiety about losing their special place on Beijing’s priority list.
Partly because both Hu and Wen had worked long years in the western provinces, there were expectations that the much-neglected region would finally get high-level attention, and patronage. Wen sought to reassure the western hinterland by saying that Beijing’s pursuit of a “fourth nexus of growth” in the northeast was based on considerations of a more balanced regional strategy. When asked by a Shaanxi legislator in early 2004 whether Beijing would change its “go west” policy, the premier said: “You can be reassured; we have not slackened a bit in developing the west.” Wen added that the dongbei strategy would provide added impetus to “interaction and synergy between the eastern and western regions.” Vice-Premier Zeng Peiyan, a former head of the now-defunct State Planning Commission, also gave a pep talk to leaders in the western provinces during a trip there in November 2004. “The party central authorities’ strategy of opening up the western regions will not change, and the support given by the government to this goal will not weaken,” he told cadres in the Guangxi provincial capital of Nanning.
However, there were doubts in the minds of hinterland area cadres, and speculation that the Hu-Wen team was shifting the focus to the northeast because it saw no prospect of the western sector taking off any time soon, despite huge capital injections from government departments and SOEs. Diplomatic analysts said the leadership was taking a gamble because if they could not make a go of the dongbei quickly, Hu and Wen might come under heavy fire from both the rich coast and the impoverished west. Consider also the leaders of the six central provinces of Henan, Hunan, Hubei, Anhui, Shanxi, and Jiangxi, who felt they had been neglected due to the fact that they had received even less attention from Beijing than the western provinces. Per capita GDP in this region slipped from 88 percent of the national average in 1980 to just 75 percent in 2003. At the plenary NPC session of 2004, Li Xiansheng, the mayor of Wuhan, capital of Hubei, complained that his city had become the victim of “policy marginalization.” “We don’t want to see central China collapse,” Li warned. Indeed, Wuhan’s position as the so-called “Chicago of China” had been lost to Chongqing, the fast-rising mega-city that was tapped to be the star metropolis of the go west program. Even then Henan CCP secretary Li Keqiang, a protégé of President Hu’s, groused that his province was being “forgotten.” He and his colleagues lamented that Henan was being sidelined because it was “neither east nor west.”
It was not until early 2005 that the leaders from the six central provinces came together for a more coordinated approach to growth. Officials and deputies attending the 2005 NPC noted that since central China boasted 20 percent of the nation’s science and technology personnel, there was a bright future for high-tech development. However, more needs to be done in industrial policy. For example, cities including Wuhan, Zhengzhou, Changsha, and Hefei are competing with each other in the already oversaturated area of automobile manufacturing. Moreover, central China lags behind the coast in fostering the growth of the private sector—and in ways and means to attract foreign investment.
Factional Politics vs. Regional Balance
Apart from factors such as geography and availability of resources, the most important reason behind the uneven development of disparate regions has been factional politics. Given the domination of the Shanghai Clique in Chinese politics from 1989 to at least early 2003, it was hardly a secret that the Shanghai Clique affiliates—incorporating officials and entrepreneurs in the Greater Shanghai Region that include Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces—were unhappy with the fact that Greater Shanghai was no longer the apple of the Hu-Wen leadership’s eye. This feeling of loss was exacerbated by the unexpected retirement of ex-president Jiang from the Central Military Commission in September 2004.
The growing rivalry between Beijing and Shanghai came to a head during the hongguan tiaokong (macro-level adjustment and control) campaign of 2004, when the State Council was trying to cool down the economy. In a meeting of his cabinet in late May, Wen urged administrations of all levels to “comprehensively implement the decisions and steps of the central authorities.” And as the official Outlook weekly magazine put it in a hard-hitting commentary: “individual regional administrations and enterprises have failed to effectively abide by the central government’s instructions.” “Many local units are merely stressing their ‘special characteristics’ while others are asking for ‘special treatment’ [by Beijing],” Outlook said.
Shanghai was a good example of not-so-subtle resistance to the contraction-inducing edicts from Beijing. Lu Deming, head of the Economics School at elite Fudan University, openly disputed the wisdom of “macroeconomic control and adjustments.” Lu said it would be best to let the forces of demand and supply—instead of government fiats—determine the level of economic activity. The economist pointed out that all over China, there were more than 40,000 projects involving government investment. “If the government takes action and readjusts [the levels of investment], a large number of projects will be left hanging in the air, and the tremendous losses incurred could outweigh possible gains [from state interference],” Lu asserted.
For the past several years, the metropolis had been banking on earnings from sectors such as the irrationally exuberant real-estate market to finance its expansion. While the sky-high prices of apartments were sustained partly due to speculation-related activities by Hong Kong, Taiwan, and overseas-Chinese businessmen, the Shanghai municipal government was adamant that this was not a “bubble phenomenon.” Shanghai was also known to have reservations about Beijing’s decision to cut down on the number of economic and technological zones in order to save valuable farmland. Its rationale was that business was booming in the city—and that more industrial and high-tech zones were needed to establish its claim as the “dragonhead of the world factory.”
For political reasons, particularly the fact that Shanghai was the bastion of the so-called Shanghai Clique led by ex-president Jiang, the Hu-Wen leadership had had difficulty imposing its will—and policies—on the East China metropolis. According to the Ministry of Construction, “prestige projects”—giant monuments and engineering marvels conceived to demonstrate the “vision” and prowess of local leaders—could be found in at least 20 percent of the nation’s 660 large and medium-sized cities. Despite Beijing’s repeated warnings about “monumental projects,” Shanghai was set to spend 60.7 billion yuan in 2004 year on fifty-six mega-schemes of all varieties. Municipal authorities were insisting that many of their new initiatives had to do with the 2010 World Expo to be held in the city.
But how about the 2.6 billion yuan stadium for Formula One car racing that was slated to be Asia’s largest? Even more controversial was a 600,000-square-meter “underground city” due for completion in 2006. At thirty meters below ground, the shopping and recreation complex in downtown Shanghai would ideally provide a “second dimension” to the metropolis. Yet critics have noted that because of the city’s relatively soft geological foundation, digging so deep would incur the kind of spending that would not make sense, particularly in a hongguan tiaokong climate.
The Pearl River Delta vs. the Yangtze River Delta
Much of the rivalry between the Shanghai Faction on the one hand, and a number of other cliques in the party and government on the other, can be understood in light of the formation in mid-2004 of what could be China’s largest economic development sphere: the Pan-Pearl River Delta Zone (PPRDZ). Dubbed “nine plus two,” it comprised nine provinces (Guangdong, Guangxi, Hainan, Hunan, Fujian, Jiangxi, Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan) and the two special administrative regions (SARs) of Hong Kong and Macau. In terms of population, the nine provinces alone encompass one-third of China’s total. And if the two SARs were included, the PPRDZ would account for 40 percent of the country’s GDP.
The PRRDZ was initially born out of the synergy between Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta (PRD)—the result of a process of economic integration that first started in the 1980s, when Hong Kong factories moved into Shenzhen and other cities in the Pearl River estuary. However, there was a divergence of views at the very top, meaning the Politburo Standing Committee, concerning the dramatic expansion of the PRD-Hong Kong nexus into the “nine plus two” concept. A key reason was there was no precedent for such a humongous economic zone.
Beijing sources said the PPRDZ was favored by Hu and Wen—but not by Shanghai Faction affiliates such as Vice-President Zeng or Executive Vice-Premier Huang Ju. That the zone did not have uniform Politburo backing was evident during the inaugural “nine plus two” series of meetings—the Pan-PRD Regional Cooperation and Development Forum—which took place in Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangzhou (capital of Guangdong) in early June 2004. It was intriguing that no top-level cadre from the central party and government authorities was on hand to officiate at the forum. The most senior official present was the party secretary of Guangdong, Zhang Dejiang. While Zhang had Politburo status, he took part in the forum mostly by virtue of his being the number one official of Guangdong, which first proposed the “nine plus two” idea. According to usual protocol, either Premier Wen or Executive-Premier Huang should have attended the first major function of the PPRDZ.
There was also the question of geographical classification. Strictly speaking, provinces such as Jiangxi, Hunan, and in particular Sichuan had more to do with the middle and upper reaches of the Yangtze River rather than the much shorter Pearl River. Indeed, many officials in the Greater Shanghai Region would consider Sichuan a proper member of the Yangtze River Delta (YRD) economic zone. It was perhaps for similar reasons that Chongqing, China’s fourth directly administered city (after Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin) did not make it into the “nine plus two” configuration.
The Shanghai Faction was opposed to the “nine plus two” game plan for the simple reason that the PPRDZ would dwarf the Greater Shanghai Region (Shanghai plus cities in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces) at a time when the latter was showing signs of overtaking the PRD (basically just Guangdong in addition to Hong Kong) in importance. The PPRDZ concept would also provide the justification for central authorities to provide more investment funds to southern China rather than the YRD zone. Already, the Shanghai Clique had in private accused the Hu-Wen group of trying to use the hongguan tiaokong campaign to delimit Shanghai’s growth.
Chinese sources in Beijing have said that for the Hu-Wen leadership, the formation of the PPRDZ was, from one perspective, almost a “test of loyalty” for regional cadres. Owing to the fact that Shanghai-affiliated members of the Politburo were apparently opposed to the “nine plus two” scheme, officials of the nine provinces—in particular the Guangdong leadership—ran a considerable risk of alienating Shanghai Faction politicians by taking part in the grandiose plan. It was perhaps for this reason that then party secretary and mayor of Chongqing, Huang Zhendong and Wang Hongju respectively, had expressed reservations about joining. While not card-carrying members of the Shanghai Faction, neither Huang nor Wang yet wanted to link their political fate with the Hu-Wen leadership.
The sheer size of the PPRDZ means it could take at least a few years before the fruits of synergy would become obvious. The provincial and SAR leaders talked about a “unified and well-coordinated” railway system, as well as cooperation in other aspects of transportation and logistics. Both Guangzhou and, more so, Hong Kong would play a bigger role in finance, including launching the initial public offerings of corporations based in the nine provinces. What seemed probable was that the Hu-Wen team had served notice on the Shanghai Faction that the Greater Shanghai Region’s domination of the Chinese economy might be frontally challenged.
Indeed, there were signs in late 2004 that Shanghai was facing increasing difficulties in maintaining its heady pace of growth. In the first three-quarters of that year, the metropolis managed to attract only US$9.2 billion in FDI, or just 3 percent more than the same period a year previous. By contrast, long-time competitor Guangdong snatched up FDI worth $13.04 billion during the first nine months of 2004, or a mammoth 36.5 percent above the same period in 2003. And in 2003, Shanghai was overtaken by nearby Suzhou in the red-hot competitive game of luring multinationals. As the Beijing-based magazine International Herald Leader noted, one has to ask this question: “Is Shanghai sick?” The weekly suggested that Shanghai might have succumbed to “Hong Kong disease”—fast-rising land and wage costs, which have prompted many foreign firms to set up shop in nearby Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces.
Efforts Toward Building a China-Dominated Twenty-First Century
While outwardly bogged down by the perennial problems of unemployed workers and restive peasants, the Hu-Wen team is mapping out plans to ensure China’s quasi-superpower status by the end of the 2020s. The ambition of the Fourth-Generation leadership was evident in a Politburo study session in late 2003, in which several noted historians were asked to discuss “the law of the rise and fall of past empires.”
Hu pointed out during the Politburo seminar that CCP cadres must study not only Marxist theories and Chinese conditions but also world history so as to “better seize the initiative in expediting our country’s development.” The party chief said world history had shown that a country’s advancement depended on “whether it could seize the opportunity to speed up development.” Hu talked about the possibility of a kuayue, or leap forward-style advancement, for developing countries such as China. “A backward country or people can ride the crest of the waves of the times if it can make full use of the opportunities at critical historical junctures,” Hu said.
Earlier in the same year, the newly installed state president repeated the same message of opportunity and urgency to a group of NPC delegates. “A key determinant of whether a party, country, or people can achieve great development is whether it can seize the opportunity and develop quickly,” he said. And it was the CCP leadership’s firm belief that China was experiencing just such an opportune moment for fast-paced growth, even though the window of opportunity might not last beyond two decades.
Beijing, however, is worried about “peripheral geopolitics,” a reference to the current and historical relationship between major countries and their neighbors. Well-known historians and economic geographers told the Hu-Wen team that given the same availability of the usual prerequisites for power and strength such as natural and human resources coupled with sizable domestic and foreign markets, countries might be able to maintain their predominance for longer periods if they were surrounded by weak neighbors. This has certainly been true for the United States since the First World War. Neighboring countries such as Mexico and Canada have not been able to challenge U.S. supremacy. The same could not be said, for example, of France. French power, even “Gallic imperialism,” could have endured if the country had not been subject to formidable threats from neighboring behemoths such as Germany and England. For a time, England was able to preserve its vast empire owing to the natural barrier provided by the English Channel. Yet the “empire on which the sun never sets” petered out during World War II when enemies on the continent such as Germany were able to develop fighter airplanes and other new weapons.
The emergence of China was only possible after twenty-five years of economic reform—and the development of the “world factory” along the eastern coast. China’s vast internal market has also rendered it better able to weather global economic cycles. However, the Hu leadership is only too aware that while, on the one hand, its huge land mass would make it difficult for potential enemy forces to occupy the country for long, China is surrounded by powers such as Russia, Japan, and India, all of which have been in wars with the Middle Kingdom. And the United States, which maintains vast military bases in Japan and surrounding areas, remains a constant threat. A major foreign-policy task of the Hu-Wen team is to counter the “anti-China containment policy” supposedly spearheaded by Washington.
Renowned People’s Daily commentator Ren Zhongping pointed out in mid-2004 that China was facing a period of unparalleled opportunity from the turn of the century until around 2020. Ren noted that the country could take off on the basis of the fruits of reform programs undertaken by Deng. He wrote: “Experts on international issues are of the opinion that when a country’s per capita GDP has hit the mark of US$1,000, there may appear two prospects and two results: Some rise up and emerge [as strong states], others linger around and make no progress.” Of course, the twenty-year Golden Period could be cut short prematurely if one of China’s neighbors were to suddenly turn into an aggressive competitor. For example, if ongoing sentiments in Japan to “remilitarize” prevail, Tokyo might have developed a sizable military force, even nuclear weapons, in less than two decades. Also, the Indian economy could take a leap forward in the coming decade in much the same way that China did in the 1990s and early 2000s. And then there is Russia, on which China relies for energy and sophisticated weapons. Russia will remain quite dependent on trade with China up through the 2010s. However, it could also become a competitor after its economy has taken off thanks to commerce with the United States and windfall from rising oil prices.
For cynics, Hu’s statements about fast-paced growth and seizing the moment recall the Great Leap Forward of Chairman Mao Zedong, who vowed in the mid-1950s to “overtake Britain and catch up with the U.S.” in ten to twenty years through means such as smelting steel in backyard furnaces. There are also questions as to whether the leadership’s repeated calls on the nation to concentrate on maintaining stability and developing the economy might not be excuses to push back already much-delayed political reform.
Above all, there is the question of whether the Fourth-Generation leadership is really committed to no-holds-barred reform. In the closed-door Politburo “study session” on history and geography, quite a few experts pointed out that the reformist spirit—or its lack—could spell the difference between prosperity and mediocrity for a country. The case of England versus Spain was cited. Both countries rose fast in the eighteenth century owing to their relatively large size and markets, and in particular, their strong navies. But, said the historians who advised the Politburo, England became a world power in the nineteenth century because it was at the forefront of innovation in technology and political systems. And Spain, being much less of a trailblazer, lagged behind. At that Politburo conclave, Hu reportedly expressed agreement. “Innovation and reform, particularly in institutions and systems, are the key to a country’s progress,” he said. Indeed, when he was touring Guizhou in 2000, the then vice-president already underscored the imperative of new ideas. “We shall lose the opportunity if we were to just follow old rules,” he told local cadres. “We’ll make no advancement if we retreat upon facing difficulties.” Throughout his career as an expert in “party construction,” Hu had played up the importance of constantly “seeking new breakthroughs.” The conclusion of this chapter will make a preliminary assessment of whether the Hu-Wen team can pass muster in this crucial arena of innovation and reform.
A Preliminiary Assessment of the Hu-Wen Team’s New Ideas
Hu Jintao’s efforts to craft a kind of “scientific socialism” has yet to pass the classic test embodied in the credo of “practice is the sole criterion of truth.” As veteran Hong Kong-based China commentator Lu Rulue pointed out, “scientific socialism may be just a myth.” And while Hu may deserve praise for valiant efforts to surpass the theories of Mao, Deng, and Jiang, these attempts could turn out to be a quixotic venture if he is unwilling to make a clean break with the Leninist—and Maoist—view of the party monopoly of power.
The Limits of “Scientific Decision Making”
The Hu-Wen team’s vaunted knack for “scientific” governance and crisis management has often been vitiated by undemocratic and bureaucratic decision making, which has been worsened by media censorship and cadres’ tendency to hoodwink even their superiors by reporting only the good news. The Hu-Wen leadership certainly deserves credit for playing up the yiren weiben (putting-people-first) credo. That the lot of ordinary Chinese has not improved by much, however, is attested to by rising death figures from dangerous factories and mines, near-static wage levels for migrant workers, and the ever-increasing throngs of petitioners in Beijing. And many of these ills have to do with the problematic nature of governance and its decision-making processes.
Hu and Wen’s rationale for spurning “Western-style democracy” is that even without potentially destabilizing practices such as general elections, the leadership can still hit upon the right policies based on “scientific” decision making as well as broad consultations. Yet it is well known that in the absence of real democracy and accountability, much of what senior leaders hear or read about may be an embellished version of the truth. Despite their extensive and costly intelligence-gathering network, it cannot be said that the Politburo has a good grasp of the national situation, the basis for scientific policymaking. As both Premier Wen and his predecessor Zhu have admitted, local-level cadres routinely file sexed-up reports to Beijing in order to earn promotions. In their 2004 bestseller An Investigative Report on Chinese Peasants, rural experts Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao describe the many occasions on which grassroots officials pull the wool over the eyes of myriad inspectors and investigators from Beijing. For example, Wen sometimes had to shake off his entourage to make unannounced tours of the countryside in order to get at the real picture.
While intellectuals and government consultants are appreciative of the attention that the Hu Politburo has accorded them, many do not think “top-down consultation” can be a substitute for democratic institutions. As Shanghai University historian Zhu Xueqin pointed out in 2004: “The issue is not how many experts you invite to Zhongnanhai each month, but when [the leadership] is going to decide to give people access to information and to allow free conversation.” And owing to tight censorship of the press and the websites, bold souls who dare tell Beijing the truth, such as famed Internet essayist Du Daobin, are often locked behind bars. Even relatively mild critics of the regime such as the authors of the influential Investigative Report on Chinese Peasants are forbidden to talk to foreign reporters.
And there is ample evidence that heavy political and ideological baggage is weighing on the “scientific” spirit that Hu is trying so hard to propagate. Out of conviction, as well as the need to pacify important factions in the CCP, Hu has paid homage to the teachings of both Mao and Jiang. This is despite the fact that the economic and political theories of Mao have been thoroughly discredited. The president and party chief has also revived old-style sixiang yundong, or ideological movements, such as the early-2005 campaign to promote the “advanced nature” of party members. And the media has since 2004 revived the Maoist convention of lionizing “model cadres” and “model workers.”
Then there is the knowledge on the minds of intellectuals and ordinary folk that despite the Hu-Wen team’s commitment to scientific and democratic decision making, powerful blocs in the country are guaranteed a lobsidedly big say in all aspects of governance. One example is the People’s Liberation Army, which has a disproportionately large share of seats on powerful bodies such as the CCP Central Committee. An even more influential group is what “leftist” social scientists call the fast-emerging guanshang, or “clique of cadre-entrepreneurs,” a reference to the collusion between businessmen and senior cadres, many of whose relatives and cronies are big bosses in the mushrooming “nonstate sector” of the economy. Scholars such as Yang Fan of CASS and Li Shuguang of the University of Politics and the Law have decried the fact that government policy is at the service of the guanshang class. Without real democracy, there is only so far that “scientific decision making” can go in righting social wrongs.
The Problem with “Putting Out Fires”
It is a credit to the Hu-Wen team that it has proven much more responsive than the previous administration to the demands of the populace. But due to a general lack of functioning institutions able to respond to citizens’ needs, it has become more frequent for Politburo members, if not Hu or Wen themselves, to personally take charge of the ways and means of alleviating “social contradictions.” Wen earned immense popularity by spearheading the drive to ensure that migrant workers are properly paid by their employers. Both the president and the premier have also spent time and effort addressing the plight of urban or rural residents who have been forced to vacate their homes for urban renewal or redevelopment.
One of Wen’s best-known exploits was helping nongmingong, or migrant worker, Zeng Xiangwan, who lived in the outskirts of Chongqing, recover owed wages of more than 2,000 yuan. This took place in October 2003, when Wen and local officials happened to be talking to Zeng’s wife, Xiong Deming, during an inspection trip of the county of Yunyang. Following Wen’s instructions, the county chief was able to deliver the unpaid salary to Xiong within a few hours. Wen’s encounter with Xiong was nominated one of the year’s top domestic news by NCNA. Xiong became a celebrity, and throughout 2004 she was visited almost daily by nongmingong from all over the country who had trouble collecting back pay.
Liu Taiheng, a retired PLA general and the son of former military legend General Liu Bocheng, was bold enough to point out that it was less than appropriate for the prime minister of a big country to personally chase after the unpaid salaries of workers. Concerning the Xiong Deming episode, Liu said it was “a problem of the system that this type of work could not be handled by functional departments.” Then there was the instance of the leaders of the city of Jixi, Heilongjiang, who provided Beijing with false figures to cover up the fact that factories in the locality had not paid workers properly. It took Wen’s personal intervention—three times—before Jixi cadres finally corrected their mistakes. Wrote commentator Zhu Shugu of the China Economic Times: “The prime minister had to personally intervene in tackling the problem of owed wages, and the problem wasn’t solved until after repeated efforts.” Zhu continued, “The costs for this kind of supervision and checks and balances are undoubtedly high.”
China went through a scare in the spring of 2004 that was almost comparable to SARS or bird flu: the inundation of the market with nutritionless infant formula, which was responsible for the deaths of at least twenty babies and the worsening health of hundreds more infants nationwide. However, since fake liquor, foodstuffs, cosmetics, and other consumer products were already so prevalent in Chinese markets, officials in different provinces did not take this seriously until Wen issued an order to catch the culprits and stop the malpractice immediately. While the regional cadres finally swung into action, the question of “whether there be no investigation without a directive from the premier” was hotly debated on a number of website chat-rooms.
Then there is the Hu-Wen team’s penchant for “throwing a committee at a problem.” This is a reference to the leadership’s tendency to set up coordinating, crisis-management, or rapid-response commissions—or units such as “leading groups” and “working groups”—to tackle a social, economic, or political malady. The same strategy was used by previous administrations. It was interesting that the Gansu provincial party committee and government decided in early 2004 to abolish 43 out of the 70 leading groups and special coordinating committees they had set up since 2001. According to Workers’ Daily commentator Zhou Sijun, leading groups have the harmful side effect of encouraging bureaucratism, formalism, and even dictatorial decision making. “Usually only leading cadres can sit on such committees; how can they have enough time and energy to handle so many things?” asked Zhou.
Is the Hu-Wen Administration Reformist Enough?
Since becoming party chief in late 2002, Hu has aroused great expectations in and out of China through his emphasis on “putting people first” and, in particular, seeking theoretical breakthroughs and opening up vistas in reform. While discussing with historians in 2003 the factors behind the rise and fall of empires, Hu concluded that one crucial formula for nurturing powerful countries was “making breakthroughs in systems and institutions.” Yet it is noteworthy that many of Hu’s more conservative forebears, particularly predecessor Jiang, had also set great store by ringing in the new. For example, while pushing his “Theory of the Three Represents,” ex-president Jiang urged cadres to be on the lookout for “new ways of thinking, new ways of doing things, and new mechanisms and institutions.” Jiang told cadres in mid-2002 that “we must liberate our thoughts, seek truth from facts, and progress with the times.” Yet the former president failed in many ways to live up to his own touchstones for being an open-minded and forward-looking cadre.
While Hu and Wen have in general proven themselves more popular than Third-Generation cadres in and out of China, it is significant that both Fourth-Generation titans are best known as political survivors, not innovators. Until he became party boss, Hu was noted for being hard-working and loyal to the top leadership, but he had hardly distinguished himself as an initiator of new ideas. Take, for example, his tenure as CCP secretary of Guizhou Province from 1985 to 1988. Hu won generally high praise for having inspected all the counties in the poor province. Yet in terms of ability and reformist zeal, most local cadres would put him at least one notch below his predecessor, well-known reformer Zhu Houze. In fact, one of Hu’s secrets for success was his ability to avoid making mistakes, meaning not doing or saying things deemed politically incorrect.
Premier Wen has a comparable track record to that of his comrade-in-arms Hu. Wen is respected as a man of the people and, among cadres in the party and central government, as a compromiser capable of listening to different viewpoints and mediating among disparate factions. Thus, the Tianjin-born head of government is much more popular than predecessor “Boss Zhu,” and many State Council old hands even call him a “latter-day Zhou Enlai” in recognition of his administrative ability. Wen’s exceptional ability to ride out political storms is attested to by his having served five top cadres: Deng, Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao. However, while Wen has proven generally proficient in solving problems and putting out fires, he has yet to demonstrate an ability to blaze new trails in reform. The rest of this book will explore in greater depth and detail the areas where the Hu-Wen team has broken new ground—and more significantly, where much, much more needs to be done.