The Scourge of Governmental Stagnation: The Price of Holding Up Political Reform

Willy Wo-Lap Lam. Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era: New Leaders, New Challenges. M.E. Sharpe, 2006.

Real Political Reform Put on Hold

China accomplished substantial results in economic reform—particularly economic integration with the international marketplace—during the administration of Premier Zhu Rongji from 1998 to 2003. The highlight of this period was the PRC’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in November 2001, which signaled the country’s willingness to abide by global norms in business and commerce. Given the fact that, particularly for hinterland China, complying with WTO standards is a tall order, the principal mission of the leadership of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao in the economic field will not be so much hacking out new paths. At least in the term of office covered by the Sixteenth Party Congress—2002 to 2007—the Hu-Wen team will have achieved a lot if they can make sure that the entire country lives up to Beijing’s pledges about market liberalization, particularly in the difficult areas of finance and information.

By comparison, the one area where the Hu-Wen leadership can break new ground—and make its mark in history—is political change. It has long been a truism that economic liberalization can only go so far without commensurate restructuring of the political system. Many of the residual problems in the economy, for example corporate governance, separation of business from the party-and-government apparatus, as well as corruption, are inextricably linked with political issues. Moreover, the coexistence of twenty-first-century economic norms and a governmental structure still burdened with Leninist-era strictures has created disharmonies and contradictions that threaten to plunge the nation into crisis.

As this chapter shows, Hu and Wen projected a reform-oriented persona almost immediately after becoming top leaders at the Sixteenth Party Congress of 2002. Hu began a much-publicized campaign to bolster rule by law. There was also a lively discussion of ways to improve dangnei minzhu, or “intraparty democracy.” Wen applied himself assiduously to the task of further streamlining the administrative structure, particularly at regional levels. The media was opened up to some extent, particularly during the period of the outbreak of the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic.

Signs of a reimposition of time-honored party control, however, began to come thick and fast in the second half of 2003. Labor activists instrumental in forming nonofficial trade unions, as well as traditional “pro-West dissidents,” have been locked up or put under surveillance. A group of reformist thinkers and constitutional experts has been intimidated by secret police. And again, the authorities have slapped a straightjacket on the media. Cynics refer to the taboo areas off limits to journalists and intellectuals as the “three unmentionables”: constitutional reform, political liberalization, and a reversal of the official verdict on the Tiananmen Square massacre. Some cadres and intellectuals in the Hu camp have tried to shrug off responsibility by insinuating that the “cold wind of conservatism” had originated from the remnant influence of ex-president Jiang Zemin and his Shanghai Faction. More objective observers, including the victims of state harassment, however, are insistent that the Hu-Wen team not only acquiesced in the new crackdown, but took an active role in it. Indeed, tough tactics against wayward and free-thinking scholars and writers intensified after Jiang left his last post of chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) in September 2004.

Beijing’s repeated procrastination regarding political modernization is a primary reason why the country finds it hard to gain the level of international respect and leverage that is commensurate with its economic, diplomatic, and military clout. New York Times China specialist Nicholas D. Kristof’s assessment of the country—that it is “not Communist but fascist, in the sense of a nationalistic oneparty dictatorship controlling a free-enterprise economy”—is typical of the views of Western observers. Veteran Sinologist Jasper Becker made a similar observation in an article in the New Republic. He drew parallels between today’s China and Mussolini’s Italy, including a dictatorial one-party state forming alliances with big, state-controlled businesses. Becker wrote: “China today is replacing communism with something at least as bad: it is becoming a right-wing fascist state eerily similar to 1920s Italy.”

This chapter will examine the cautious steps that the Hu-Wen leadership has taken in areas including grassroots-level elections, legal reform, eradication of corruption, administrative restructuring, and intra-party democracy. An explanation will be offered as to why Beijing has failed to go whole hog with sorely needed reforms despite the rising costs of such foot-dragging.

The Hu-Wen Team’s Limited Vision about Liberalization

To date, Fourth-Generation leaders such as Hu or Wen have refrained from talking about sensitive issues such as a time frame for political reform. This is despite the fact that in internal discussion with his aides, Hu often referred to the imperative of timely liberalization of the political structure. For example, in an early 2004 meeting, Hu reportedly told his aides that “without political reform, we may well get stuck in a cul-de-sac.” This was an echo of former patriarch Deng Xiaoping’s famous exhortation in 1992. During his so-called imperial tour of the south in the summer of that year, the late patriarch famously said that “without reform, there is only one road—to perdition.”

However, both Hu and Wen are cautious to a fault in their assessment of far-reaching measures such as general elections. In his generally well-received speech at Harvard University in late 2003, Wen claimed that his administration was eager to “perfect the election system.” However, he went on to say that while elections were already being held in 680,000 villages, “we do not have the prerequisites for holding higher-level elections.” He cited the familiar reason that economic development in China was uneven and that “people’s cultural qualities are not sufficient.” Wen asserted that his administration would not stray from the right path if it continued to allow the people to supervise the government.

Moreover, there is a heavy element of noblesse oblige in Hu’s approach to democracy: this means that while the ruling party is open enough to consult the divergent views of different sociopolitical groupings, it is not ready to share power with them. This top-down orientation was evident even when Hu was still vice-president. While attending a Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) meeting in 2001, the Fourth-Generation leader said that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) must “take the initiative to accept the supervision of the democratic parties, and it must be able to listen to sharp criticisms.” (China has eight so-called democratic parties, which were formed in the early 1950s under the behest of the Communist Party. They are still under the tight control of the CCP United Front Department.) Through 2005, the party chief and president continued to define political liberalization in terms of platitudes such as “boosting multiparty cooperation under CCP leadership” and “improving the socialist legal system.”

Partial Glasnost, But Hardly Any Perestroika

There is no mistaking the fact that in the first months after the Sixteenth CCP Congress, the Hu-Wen team made tremendous efforts in the areas of administrative reform and open government, while steering clear of more thoroughgoing political-reform measures such as popular elections and power sharing.

Soon after he became party general secretary in November 2002, Hu began working on what some analysts called Chinese-style glasnost. Hu and Wen started with gestures that are taken for granted in most other countries, for example, announcing the contents of just-ended or forthcoming party and government conferences. From the days of Mao to those of Jiang Zemin, most conclaves of top-level party meetings were shrouded in secrecy—with information made available only a long time afterward. From the Sixteenth CCP Congress onward, Hu and his colleagues made it a point to announce through the New China News Agency (NCNA) meetings of the Politburo as well as the rough agenda of each session.6 NCNA and other state media also made public the dates of major conferences such as the National People’s Congress (NPC) or the plenary session of the Party Central Committee well in advance. For example, it was made known in August 2003 that the Third Plenum of the Sixteenth Central Committee would be held in October, and that the main themes would be economic reform and the revision of the state Constitution.

Hu and Wen have also bent over backward to project the image of being “cadres of the masses.” Thus, on the eve of Chinese New Year in 2003, Wen joined miners in northeast Liaoning Province for a subterranean dinner of simple dumplings. On New Year’s Day 2005, the premier paid an emotional visit to a child whose father had died in the horrendous coal mine disaster in Tongchuan, Shaanxi, a few months earlier. And while visiting Hong Kong in mid-2003, Wen eschewed the presidential suite—usually de rigueur for CCP leaders—and went about town with his aides in a minivan. Starting with his trip to Russia in May 2003, Hu abolished send-off and welcome-back ceremonies for senior officials going abroad and coming home. The president later also did away with red-carpet welcome ceremonies when he inspected the provinces.

Yet the Hu-Wen leadership’s most dramatic gesture in breaking with the past was the decision to abolish the annual series of top-level meetings at the summer resort of Beidaihe. Given that in the Byzantine world of Chinese politics, symbolism is sometimes as important as the real thing, Hu and Wen have won plaudits on this from liberal cadres and academics. Since the early 1950s, top CCP, government, and military officials—as well as party elders—had in the summer of most years repaired to Beidaihe, a choice strip of sand in nearby Hebei Province, to discuss affairs of state. Major decisions on policy as well as personnel were made during “informal discussion sessions”—often a euphemism for behind-the-scenes skulduggery and backstabbing—in luxurious beachside bungalows. And even though party elders were supposed to have retired from their party or state positions, they still exercised undue influence in Beidaihe’s cunning corridors.

The abolition of Beidaihe, which reportedly incurred the ire of ex-president Jiang, was much more than a means to save money. As former Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) sociologist Lu Jianhua indicated, what was more important was a new style of doing things, “a new effort to regularize [government] procedures and institutions.” Other Beijing-based academics noted that the cancellation of the Beidaihe conferences was testimony to Hu’s determination to curtail rule of personality and to run the party and country according to law and institutions.

The Hu-Wen Team’s Checkered Record on Liberalization

According to Bao Tong, a former aide to ousted party chief Zhao Ziyang, the Hu-Wen administration has demonstrated “a new style, but not yet a new policy.” Bao, still under twenty-four-hour surveillance for his alleged role in supporting student demonstrations in May and June 1989, pointed out that the Hu team have been more efficient and effective in their administration than the ancien régime under Jiang. “They have shown a concern for the masses,” said Bao. “However, there have been no substantial changes in terms of policy and institutions.”

Bao’s assessment is by and large correct. Partisans of the Hu-Wen team have argued, with some justification, that the Fourth-Generation leaders and their reformist colleagues have displayed a zeal unseen in the Jiang era for researching and making ready tentative initiatives in liberalizing the political structure. Some steps, albeit ginger ones, have been taken in areas including improving rule by law, promoting an accountability system in the civil service, freeing up the media, and inner-party democracy.

Yet there seems little doubt that the new leaders will not go the distance in liberalization. This is despite early signs that they might be more sympathetic toward “taboo” issues such as revising the official verdict on the suppression of the 1989 democracy movement. In late 2002, quite a few Beijing intellectuals were encouraged by the so-called Li Rui incident. In the run-up to the Sixteenth Congress, Li, a liberal intellectual and former secretary of Mao Zedong, had circulated a petition urging a reversal of Beijing’s view that the democracy crusade was a “counter-revolutionary turmoil.” Because of his status as a party elder, Li took part as an observer in the closing session of the Sixteenth Congress. It was a time-honored custom for the newly elected Politburo members to acknowledge the support of all participants. According to sources close to the conclave, Hu shook Li’s hands warmly. The new party chief even said he had read his letter to the dangzhongyang (party central authorities). This was widely interpreted as a symbolic gesture that Hu, Wen, and their allies were eager to show that they had an open mind.

Then there was the case of military doctor Jiang Yanyong, the now-famous whistle blower whose statements to the Western media in early April 2003 forced the government to admit to lying about SARS figures (see following section). Dr. Jiang’s message was that there were hundreds of SARS cases in the military hospitals alone—not the single digits reported by Beijing officials. This led to the CCP leadership finally coming clean on the statistics—and to the sacking of two ministers for SARS-related cover-ups. However, the untold story about Dr. Jiang was that from late 2002 onward, he had written to party authorities asking for the reversal of the June 4, 1989, verdict. For at least a brief period around June 2003, Dr. Jiang was on the cover of several official magazines and newspapers. His “positive treatment” by the state media gave encouragement to fellow campaigners for overturning the June 4 verdict. Equally significantly, the treatment of Bao Tong seemed to have improved during 2003. The dissident’s friends said the number of intelligence officers shadowing Bao had decreased substantially so that the old intellectual could at least move about the city with less impediment. His “minders” were also less hostile after Bao had published articles in the Hong Kong press.

The tide, however, had turned by early 2004. In the summer of that year, Dr. Jiang was detained for two months for circulating an open letter that gave his eyewitness account of the June 4 atrocities—and urged the CCP to come clean on its 1989 massacre. In addition to stepping up control over Dr. Jiang, state security personnel boosted surveillance over Bao. This was apparently owing to the authorities’ suspicion that it was Bao who had given encouragement to his old friend Dr. Jiang. At a press conference in early June, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson used the relatively neutral term “important historical incident” to refer to the June 4, 1989, events. Yet there was no indication that the Hu-Wen team would be willing to revise the verdict even after the Seventeenth CCP Congress scheduled for 2007.

Things went from bad to worse toward the end of 2004, when Hu apparently shed his pro-intelligentsia mask and cracked the whip on recalcitrant scholars and writers. The supremo gave his imprimatur to an ideological campaign against “proWesternization” academics, writers, and journalists who wanted a faster pace of political liberalization. In a throwback to earlier campaigns against “bourgeois liberalization,” commissars in the CCP Publicity Department blasted the intellectuals for “propagating the wrong ideas of the West.” A document that was circulated in November that year accused advocates of “new liberalism” of trying to undermine the socialist foundations of the party and government.

Notable scholars and social crusaders under attack by Beijing’s censors and commissars included Mao Yushi, Wen Tiejun, Zhang Sizhi, Gao Yaojie, Li Yinhe, Liu Junning, and Yu Jie. Mao and Liu, both respected and much-published scholars, had urged “within-the-system” democratization, while law professor Zhang was widely acclaimed for his contribution to legal reform. Wen and Gao were well known overseas for their tireless campaign for the rights of peasants and AIDS victims. State security also arrested several journalists, authors, and freelance commentators for allegedly endangering state security and leaking state secrets.

No “Western-Style” Liberalization: A Moratorium on Universal-Suffrage Elections

Despite their yiren weiben, or “putting people first” campaign, it is noteworthy that neither Hu nor Wen has expressed sympathy for universal-suffrage elections, the most direct and reliable way through which ordinary citizens’ wishes can become policy. A clear distinction can be drawn between Hu and Wen on the one hand, and predecessors such as Zhao Ziyang and Bao Tong on the other. Together with liberal colleagues such as Hu Qili and Bao, Zhao had in the mid-1980s—well before the fall of the Berlin Wall—laid down fairly concrete plans to expand and upgrade the one-person-one-vote polls being conducted in different villages all over China. Other liberalization measures on Zhao’s agenda had included truncating the powers of the party, as well as promoting checks and balances at the highest levels of the party and state apparatuses. With Hu and Wen, however, “Westernstyle” reforms have hardly emerged on the radar screen.

The Controversy over Expanding Village-level Elections

By 2004, village-level elections, where peasants select members of the ruling village administrative committees (VACs) via universal-suffrage polls, had become a viable institution all over China. Early that year, some 110 million people cast their ballots to choose the leaders of 145,000 VACs. More than 90 percent of the nation’s 680,000 VACs were chosen via popular elections. The official NCNA claimed that “in the great majority of villages, the masses have picked leaders they are happy with.”

As of 2005, conditions of rigging and other forms of unfairness still existed in many villages. For example, the influence of clans and even secret or triad societies remained strong. Nouveau riche businessmen were also in a position to buy votes either directly or through proxies. Above all, village-level CCP committees still wielded tremendous influence in the nomination of candidates for VAC posts. At the same time, more and more unorthodox, fairly independent candidates had beaten “official” candidates favored by the party authorities. Take, for example, the poor, rural Baoyuesi Village outside the city of Zhijiang, Hubei. Veteran peasant organizer Lu Banglie outpolled the official candidate during the election for VAC head in April 2004 despite strong opposition from party and police authorities. Lu credited his unexpected victory to the fact that he had led numerous petitions to Beijing to protest against heavy taxation slapped on the village. He also tried to impeach the corrupt VAC chief in 2003, as a result of which he was badly beaten by paid thugs.

Examples such as the Baoyuesi Village elections have shown that this experiment with limited democratization introduced by late patriarch Deng in 1979 reached a relatively high level of maturity. Apart from village-level polls, there are direct elections of the heads of neighborhood committees in urban areas—as well as the similar polls to pick deputies to county-level people’s congresses (and deputies to district-level PCs in urban areas). Yet because neighborhood committee chiefs and county-level parliamentarians wield relatively little power, it is the possibility of expanding and upgrading village-level polls to higher levels—to enable the masses to directly pick the heads of townships (zhen), rural townships (xiang), and even counties—that has attracted domestic and international attention.

According to CASS scholar Bai Guang, the upgrading of village-level elections to higher administrative levels was nothing far-fetched. Bai, usually not identified as a radical modernizer, said Deng had pointed out in the 1980s that it was possible for nationwide direct elections to take place within fifty years. “Once the affairs of a village are well run, it is feasible for [elections] to be pushed up to the level of townships, counties, cities, and even provinces,” he said in mid-2003. Bai added that quite a number of NPC and CPPCC members had called on the authorities to institute direct elections up to the county level.

Indeed, by the early 2000s, a large number of reformers were urging that the heads of the country’s 20,226 townships and 18,064 rural townships be voted into office via universal suffrage. This would be a big step forward from the usual practice of cadres in the CCP Organization Department at the provincial level recommending candidates for township chiefs, who would then be confirmed by county-level people’s congresses. Liberal officials including Wang Huning, who had advised both Jiang and Hu, had at one point or another argued for the incremental extension of universal-suffrage polls from the village to the township, county, and municipal levels. For example, a rough timetable laid out in 1998 by the Policy Research Office of the party Central Committee envisaged the direct election of the heads of townships by 2003, mayors by 2008, provincial governors by 2013, and certain national-level positions by 2018.

A bold experiment was carried out by reform-minded officials in Buyun township under the city of Suining, Sichuan Province, in December 1998, when about 6,200 voters in the eleven villages that made up the township cast ballots to pick the township chief. A few days after the landmark poll, the official Legal Daily branded the election illegal and unconstitutional in an apparent bid to discourage other areas from following suit. However, Sichuan officials were not penalized by the CCP Organization Department, and the elected township head, Tan Xiaoqiu, was allowed to keep his post. The experiment of township-level elections spread to other areas of Sichuan—and to other provinces including Guangdong, which is adjacent to the Hong Kong special administrative region.

However, the pendulum had swung toward conservatism in mid-2001, when the Organization Department came up with a circular banning the ballot box at levels higher than that of the village. The document said existing regulations about selecting township and county chiefs must be followed, meaning that CCP cadres handling personnel issues must retain their dominant say in appointments. The circular stated that one-person-one-vote elections at the township level were not in line with the Constitution. Instead, township bosses must be endorsed by local people’s congresses.

At the time of the document’s circulation, Beijing was nervous about extending the polls to townships and rural townships out of fear of losing control and causing instability. Both central and provincial leaders underscored the imperative of maintaining stability at grassroots levels ahead of the Sixteenth Party Congress to be held a year later. Yet even after the congress had ushered in the Hu-Wen team, these Fourth-Generation leaders have hardly demonstrated any enthusiasm for pursuing this important reform. This was despite the fact that units and think tanks believed to be close to Hu, such as the CCP Central Committee Editing and Translation Bureau (CCETB), had continued to do research on higher-level elections. For example, CCETB cadre Yu Keping, also a political scientist at Peking University, indicated in late 2003 that experiments in grassroots-level democracy had gone on unabated. His colleague, Lai Hairong, added that in pace-setting provinces such as Jiangsu, Sichuan, and Hubei, the chiefs of many townships and rural townships had been indirectly elected into office by the equivalent of “electoral colleges.” The latter consisted of a few thousand local personalities who were considered more in tune with public opinion than Organization Department cadres, who used to handpick candidates for these regional posts with minimal public consultation.

Polls higher than those at the level of villages have continued to be held haphazardly, and in isolated areas in provinces including Sichuan, Hunan, and Yunnan—particularly those that had been exposed to similar experiments in the late 1990s. For example, Buyun residents in Sichuan held an election in December 2001 despite apparent official disapproval. After two weeks of campaigning, incumbent Tan Xiaoqiu beat rival Tan Zhibin by 527 ballots. After the balloting, Tan was confirmed as township chief by the local people’s congress. Local cadres said victor Tan was reported to the higher authorities as the only candidate that was recommended by the township-level CCP committee.

However, the 1999 one-person-one-vote election of the head of the town of Dapeng, close to the Shenzhen special economic zone, was not repeated. According to a report by a group of Shenzhen University academics, while the economic and education levels of Dapeng residents were higher than those in Buyun, Sichuan, “there was no commensurate enthusiasm for taking part in politics [among Dapeng residents].” The scholars noted that most of the 6,000 eligible voters in Dapeng were more interested in making money than in political reform. By contrast, the experiment in Buyun has continued because the elected leaders, including Tan, have succeeded in bringing concrete benefits to the people, who have tied their well-being to the polls.

These experiments culminated in mid-2003 in the direct election of the head of Pingba Township in the outskirts of Chongqing. Given that Chongqing had been named a directly administered city, Pingba has a ranking higher than that of ordinary provincial townships. The initiative came from reformist local party secretary Wei Shengduo, who had done research on grassroots balloting. The 10,000-odd Pingba residents were about to pick front runner Ma Menglin, a dedicated teacher, to be their first freely elected leader. Yet the polls were nullified on August 29, the day of the election, by the party leadership of Chengkou County, which oversees Pingba. Wei was later fired for violating election laws. However, according to Beijing-based scholar Li Fan, examples such as the Pingba polls would encourage other places to follow suit despite Beijing’s negative attitude toward such experiments. Thus seven towns and townships under Shiping County, Honghezhou District in Yunnan, held direct elections of top administrators in early 2004. Any resident could become a candidate after securing the signatures of thirty villagers; and in one township, eighteen candidates vied for the post of township chief. Party secretary of Honghezhou Luo Chongmin admitted that his colleagues had faced “great pressure” in the course of the elections.

By the early 2000s, it had also become fairly normal for independent and “unofficial” candidates to run for grassroots-level legislative seats, such as deputies to county- or district-level people’s congresses. The first generation of such atypical candidates consisted of private entrepreneurs who had made a name for themselves in local communities as major employers and philanthropists. Most of these “red bosses,” however, had also gained the recognition and blessings of CCP organs—and they were running as party-sanctioned candidates.

Balloting for People’s Congress members in Futian District, Shenzhen, in early 2003 was one of the first local-level legislative polls where an unofficial candidate beat the party-nominated one. The Guangdong media said technical college principal Wang Li’ang, one of six independent candidates, had won because of his “good background” and his service to the community. Wang, who had a master’s degree in public administration from the University of California, was also believed to have the requisite international outlook. In the same year, two independent candidates in Beijing also won seats on the municipal legislature despite not having official blessings. The successful candidate representing Haidian, the famous college district, was law lecturer Xu Zhiyong. Xu had won fame for publicly opposing China’s draconian system of administrative detention. While the authorities certainly did not favor the vocal academic, he had the support of the scholastic and student communities. By late 2005, however, the Hu-Wen team had given no indication of any plans to upgrade the elections on a regular basis or on a large scale.

Hu’s Conservative Views About “Western-style” Elections

Since Western governments and influential nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as the Atlanta-based Carter Center had begun scrutinizing village-level polls in China in the mid-1990s, senior cadres were careful about offering the right spin on why they had dragged their feet on electoral reform. The usual party line was that China could only move on to higher-level polls when those at the grassroots—including the election of village heads as well as county- and district-level parliamentarians—were run to the satisfaction of the authorities.

According to cadres at the Grassroots-Level Government Construction Department (GLGCD) of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, many villages even lacked proper buildings to serve as polling stations. This meant that the latter could not even set up booths to ensure secret balloting. “Secret ballots are important as they can minimize vote-buying,” said Zhan Chengfu, deputy director of the GLGCD’s Rural Villages Section. New regulations were issued banning candidates from privately visiting voters ahead of elections. “Candidates’ interaction with voters should be done in public and at open forums,” Zhan added. “We have told voters that those candidates who give you 50 yuan for a vote will likely embezzle 50,000 yuan in public funds after they are elected.” The department vowed to send more discipline- and propaganda-related officials to supervise village-level polls.

These wary views reflect the conservatism of the Fourth-Generation leadership. Cautious to a fault, President Hu has seldom given the public a clear-cut vision of political reform. However, Hu dropped some hints about his opposition to direct polls while meeting with a group of leading U.S. academics in early 2002. When the American Sinologists asked the then vice-president about prospects for grassroots-level elections, Hu pointed out that experience in many villages had shown that peasants usually voted along “clan” lines. This meant, Hu said, that villagers surnamed Hu would more likely than not cast their ballots for candidates with the same surname. The impression the Fourth-Generation stalwart gave was that one should not put too much hope on elections as a vehicle for improving China’s political system and culture.

As discussed in Chapter 2, Hu and Wen seem convinced that “scientific governance and decision making” can be attained in the absence of trappings such as Western-style elections and multiparty politics. To improve the quality of government decision making, top leaders have increased the frequency of consultation with members of elite groups such as scholars, think tank members, businessmen, and professionals. And as we shall discuss, the Hu-Wen team has limited the frame of reference of reform to administrative streamlining and rationalization as well as “intra-party democracy.”

The conservative views of the Fourth-Generation leadership have been indirectly criticized by liberal intellectuals. Thus Peking University legal scholar Cai Dingzhao blamed the authorities for professing “confusing theories” to deny the people chances for higher-level polls. Professor Cai indicated that since late Qing Dynasty, even reformers such as Liang Qizhao and Dr. Sun Yatsen had cited this so-called backwardness argument for not considering universal-suffrage ballots: “China’s economy and culture are too backward; the people’s quality is too low—and therefore it won’t do to hold extended direct elections. Otherwise China will be plunged into chaos.” Cai argued that improvements in economic and education standards under Deng’s reforms had rendered the country suitable for far-reaching experiments with higher-level polls.

Hu-Style “Political Civilization”: Rule by Law and Checks and Balances

Almost immediately after becoming party chief in November 2002, Hu laid out in a series of internal meetings the outlines of what he called zhengzhi wenming, or “political civilization.” It could be interpreted as ways and means to modernize the political system and improve administrative efficiency without introducing Western democratic institutions. According to sources familiar with Hu’s talks, the party chief wanted to sustain one-party rule through “laws and proper institutions and procedures.” First, officials and citizens alike must respect the Constitution and the law. Party and government operations should be governed by well-defined rules, institutions, and procedures—and not subject to the whims of individuals. Relations among party and government departments should also be determined by sets of clear-cut regulations in order to achieve fair play, efficiency, and some degree of checks and balances.

At the same time, party cadres would be given more say in determining policies and regulations, even in choosing their leaders. This was the idea behind Hu’s promotion of the ideal of dangnei minzhu, or “intra-party democracy.” Hu and Wen also want more openness of governance and media reform—glasnost with Chinese characteristics—so that the decisions and performance of party and government units can be subject to the people’s scrutiny. This section will concentrate on Hu’s introduction of the concept of rule by law—and the promotion of some form of popular supervision of the government.

Rule by Law Under One-Party Dictatorship

Respect for the Constitution and the Law

Perhaps taking inspiration from the Legalists in the ancient Era of the Spring and Autumn, Hu has tried to base his new order on rule by law. This concept is to be distinguished from the familiar Western ideal of rule of law. What the Hu-Wen leadership has in mind is “rule by law with Chinese characteristics” because Chinese law will always reflect the decision and spirit of the party leadership. When Wen was asked by foreign reporters in early 2004 whether the party is above the Constitution and the law, the premier replied, “the party leads the people in the formulation of the Constitution,” and said that party leaders and ordinary members would “set an example in complying with the Constitution.” In other words, unlike Western jurists and journalists, party leaders see no contradiction in Chinese-style rule by law on the one hand, and party leadership in the formulation of the Constitution and the law on the other. At the very least, however, the Hu-Wen administration must ensure that the statutes are honored by cadres and ordinary people alike.

Soon after becoming CCP general secretary, Hu initiated the equivalent of an ideological campaign to safeguard the sanctity of the Constitution and the law. This was the theme of the first “Politburo study session” that was called in December 2002, when all members of the ruling council listened to the lectures of two famous professors of law, Xu Chongde and Zhou Yezhong. “We must uphold the basic strategy of ruling the country according to law,” said Hu on the occasion. “We must further raise the entire society’s consciousness regarding the Constitution as well as the authority of the Constitution.” Significantly, Hu linked the ideal of “administration according to law” to the oft-stated goal of “strengthening and improving party leadership.”

That Hu intended to wield the weapon of legalism was first evident in an address he made soon after the Sixteenth Congress to mark the twentieth anniversary of the promulgation of the 1982 Constitution. The party chief pointed out that “no organization or individual has special privileges to override the Constitution and the law.” “The Constitution has promoted the construction of our country’s socialist democracy,” he added. “We must uphold the basic principle of running the country according to law.” And in his first international press conference after the 2003 NPC, Wen cited “administration according to law” as a major initiative in political reform. “Government departments and civil servants must carry out their duties according to the Constitution and the law,” the premier said. Wen elaborated his legalistic viewpoint in a State Council meeting of July 2004. “We must exercise power according to the limits and procedures imposed by the law,” he said. “Our power must be subject to scrutiny; we must pay compensation if we infringe upon the [legal] rights of citizens. Those [civil servants] who run afoul of the law must be penalized according to law.”

Some political analysts saw a political—and factional—reason behind the Hu-Wen team’s newfound interest in constitutionalism. They pointed out that one message behind Hu’s legalistic offensive was that ex-president Jiang and his cronies had violated the spirit if not the letter of the law through their blatant power grab in the past few years. The former president’s overweening ways were evident when he refused to step down from the chairmanship of the military commission—or when he filled a good proportion of the Politburo with Shanghai Faction affiliates—at the Sixteenth Congress.

Whatever hidden agenda the Hu-Wen leadership might have in promoting rule by law, there is evidence that some results have been achieved. And this is not only demonstrated by the number of new laws being enacted by the NPC. Many of the newly enacted statutes and regional-level regulations reflected the leadership’s commitment to base government behavior on legal precepts. A case in point was the Wen cabinet’s speedy decision to roll out relevant legislation to fight SARS, and more importantly, to promote public health infrastructure and consciousness throughout the country. Wen said the administration must use “legal weapons” to fight SARS. In May 2003, the State Council passed a set of “Emergency Regulations on Public Health Incidents” to provide the legal framework for implementing quarantines and other health measures. And in the area of “Chinese-style glasnost,” different provinces and cities also enacted rules and regulations on ensuring government transparency and safeguarding citizens’ “right to know.”

The Case of Sun Zhigang and Changes in Regulations on Administrative Detention

The Hu leadership’s relatively brisk handling of the Sun Zhigang tragedy gave hope to intellectuals that the leadership was more committed to legal reform than previous administrations. However, the same incident also showed that China had a long way to go before an embryonic form of rule by law could be established. A native of central Hubei Province, Sun had been legally employed in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong, as a graphic designer when he was detained by police one night in March 2003 for being a “vagrant.” The only mistake of the twenty-seven-year-old—who was a gifted art student at a Hunan college—was forgetting to carry his residence permit while going to an Internet cafe. Yet officials at the Guangzhou detention center refused to let him contact his colleagues.

The next day, Sun said he was ill, and he was taken to a nearby police clinic. He died soon afterward, with the postmortem showing injures caused by repeated rounds of severe beating. The Sun case merited special attention because going by past standards, similar instances of abuse of power by police were considered so routine that his maltreatment would not have made it to the local press. The nation had 833 detention centers for “vagrants and beggars.” Apart from routinely roughing up members of the “under classes,” center staff practiced all manners of extortion and blackmail. For example, detainees could be kept for long periods unless their relatives agreed to pay an agreed-upon “ransom” of at least several hundred yuan.

Partly due to the outcry of his father and co-workers, Sun’s plight caught the attention of intellectuals and journalists in Guangdong—and later dozens of prominent academics in Beijing. In a petition to the NPC, three Beijing-based law professors said Sun’s detention was a violation of the Constitution and the law. Sources familiar with the Sun dossier said a couple of Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) members including President Hu and Luo Gan were alerted to the case—and Guangzhou was forced to start investigations. In early June, a Guangdong Province court slapped hefty jail terms on eighteen people accused of causing Sun’s death. It was obvious that such a swift course of justice would not have been possible without intervention from the very top.

It was also clear, however, that not enough was done to bring the culprits to justice. Most of the eighteen who received jail terms of ten years or more were fellow inmates in the police clinic who were ordered by public-security and clinic officials to beat Sun up for alleged insubordination. The police officer who wrongfully detained Sun in the first place was let off lightly with a two-year jail term. And just before the trial, twenty-three Guangzhou officials, including high-level police and public-health cadres who administered the detention system, were merely given reprimands by party and government departments. There were other questionable practices by local law-enforcement agencies. Reporters were barred from the court. And Guangzhou authorities tried to silence the victim’s relatives after giving them a compensation of about 500,000 yuan.

Not long afterward, the Hu leadership won widespread plaudits for at least partially addressing concerns raised by the legal scholars. In late June, Beijing abolished the “Regulations on the Detention and Deportation of Vagrants and Beggars in the Cities,” which was the supposed legal basis for locking up—and mistreating—vagrants and transient workers such as Sun. Introduced by government units in 1982, the regulations had never been passed by the legislature. Professor Xu Zhiyong, one of the petitioners, argued that the rules were “inconsistent with the Constitution and the laws,” which at least in theory uphold citizens’ civil liberties. In response to the academics’ request, the leadership unveiled a new regulation called “Administrative Means to Help Vagrants and Beggars in Cities Who Have No Means of Livelihood.” The Ministry of Civil Affairs converted all the 833 detention centers into Stations for Providing Succor and Help. And it was estimated that they could provide aid to 2 million people a year.

Apart from the mistreatment of vagrants, there are scores of different government regulations or practices that violate globally accepted human and civil rights. Professor Xu and other legal experts wanted the Hu-Wen team to start abolishing or revising all unconstitutional laws and regulations. Examples included the laogai (reeducation through labor), a kind of punishment determined and administered by police authorities without court authorization. Moreover, public security authorities could hold criminal suspects for an indefinite length of time without putting them through the judicial process. It was not until late 2004 that the legal authorities decided to put restrictions on administrative detention. A proposed revision of the criminal code would stipulate that suspects for criminal offenses could not be held by police for more than thirty days. Moreover, the Supreme People’s Court announced at about the same time that it had gone through nearly 900 cases of excessively long detentions, which affected about 2,500 people. It was presumed that some of the illegally detained suspects had either been released or put on trial in the courts.

It is clear, however, that the restrictions on the maximum length of time that police and other law-enforcement agencies can hold suspects do not apply to “political dissidents,” who continue to be incarcerated for days on end. Moreover, the notorious reeducation through labor system, which is also a form of administrative detention, has remained intact. More significantly, there are still clauses galore in the Constitution that are regularly breached. Examples include constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly, speech, and religion. The outspoken Catholic Bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Zen, for instance, has argued that the persecution of underground churches in the mainland has violated constitutional guarantees of freedom of faith.

Constitutional Reform in 2004

In mid-2003, the CCP Politburo set up a six-member high-level committee to look into the modernization of the Constitution. The main task of this Leading Group on Revising the Constitution (LGRC) was to lay the groundwork for a thorough updating of the charter at the NPC plenary session in March 2004. The committee was dominated by stalwarts of the Jiang Zemin or Shanghai Faction who lacked a track record of reform. It was headed by NPC chairman Wu Bangguo, a former Shanghai party secretary and a long-time Jiang crony. Other members included the conservative Director of the CCP Publicity Department Liu Yunshan as well as Jiang’s former speechwriter, Teng Wensheng. It was understood that one of Wu’s main goals was to enshrine Jiang’s “Theory of the Three Represents” in the state charter.

The thirteen amendments to the 1982 Constitution were passed almost unanimously at the 2004 NPC plenary session. While this major move was much anticipated by domestic and foreign observers, the revision fell short of expectations in many ways. As anticipated, the “Theory of the Three Represents” was cited as a guiding principle of the state. The charter confirmed the legal status of private and nonstate capital as well as private-sector economic activities, adding that “the legal private properties of citizens shall not be violated.” It also spelled out the importance of a social security system. And for the first time, the Constitution indicated that “the state respects and protects human rights.”

The constitutional revision reflected heated lobbying by various sectors, particularly the fast-growing private-business sector. However, the new charter fell short of guaranteeing the general principle of the “inviolability” of private capital and properties. For noted constitutional scholar and activist Cao Siyuan, the CCP leadership had failed to take advantage of the revision exercise to modernize many outdated concepts and practices in the body politic. Cao, who became famous for his role in introducing a law on bankruptcy, had drafted detailed proposals for constitutional reform in early 2003. For example, he wanted to abolish the opening clause of the charter, that China is a socialist country where “the people’s democratic dictatorship” is being exercised by workers and farmers. “The idea of ‘dictatorship’ is way behind the times,” Cao said. “It contradicts the spirit of the WTO and the requirements of globalization.”

Four revisions proposed by Cao were aimed at protecting people’s rights. Cao, who had often lectured in U.S. and European universities, wanted a stipulation that “citizens’ rights override everything—and that governance must be open and transparent.” He argued that human rights comparable to those enshrined in international covenants must be included. “The new constitution should specify that no organization or individual can interfere with the judiciary and the due process of the law,” said Cao. He also suggested that the NPC establish a constitutional court or a parliamentary commission to ensure that laws and government practices do not violate the supreme charter.

By mid-2004, the Chinese parliament had established an Office for Adjudicating and Inspecting Laws and Regulations (OAILR), which had authority to check whether government departments and regional administrations had violated the Constitution. However, as University of Politics and Law professor Jiao Hongchang pointed out, this office could only make recommendations for future improvement—and was different in nature from a Western-style constitutional court that liberal academics had suggested. By global standards, a constitutional court has enough authority to challenge the legality of a nation’s highest executive organ, something that the OAILR could not do. It seems clear, however, that the Hu-Wen team has no desire to bring about major constitutional changes.

Imperfections in the Legal and Judicial Systems

Even if Hu is able to pull off most of his initiatives, he will only have achieved Chinese-style rule by law—not rule of law in the Western sense of the phrase. This is because the Communist Party will still be the big boss behind the NPC and the courts. As former NPC chairman Li Peng liked to say, “the legislature is formulating laws according to the will of the party.” This meant that there would always be a higher authority over the Constitution and the law. The clearest manifestation of the principle of “the party being above the law” was the enshrinement of the “Theory of the Three Represents” in the state charter. After all, this “important theory” is a party dogma that has relevance only for the 70 million CCP members; and it cannot be construed as a state philosophy that purports to govern the behavior of 1.3 billion Chinese. As political analyst Meng Lingwei noted in an essay posted on various Beijing-based academic Internet sites, it was “neither fish nor fowl for the Theory of the Three Represents to be considered as a guiding principle in the country’s most important charter.”

Perhaps to ensure party leadership over the legislature, ex-president Jiang began in the early 1990s the practice of so-called cross leadership of both the party and regional party congresses. The controversial experiment had become the norm by the Sixteenth CCP Congress, after which all save seven of the thirty-one regional party secretaries doubled as the chairmen of the provincial or municipal people’s congresses (PCs). In theory, cross leadership means that the status of provincial and municipal legislatures would be raised due to the seniority of the PC chief. In practice, this would result in local parliaments being subservient to the party bosses.

According to an internally circulated party document on this subject, the practice of “cross leadership” had at least two merits. The first was that since local-level PCs served as a “people’s chamber,” the party-secretary-cum-PC-chief would have ample opportunity for feeling the pulse of public opinion. The other advantage was to ensure that China would not slip into the “Western trap” of developing a “tripartite division of power.” After all, leaders including Deng and Jiang had warned that China would not opt for the clear-cut division of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.

Equally problematic is the nature and function of one of the party’s oldest and most powerful institutions, the zhengfawei, or Political and Legal Affairs Commission (PLAC), currently headed by Luo Gan. The PLAC has jurisdiction over law-enforcement and judicial organs such as the police, procuratorates, and in particular, the courts. That the party is riding roughshod over the judicial system is deemed unconstitutional by liberal observers because the CCP charter as revised at the Sixteenth Congress said explicitly that “the activities of the party must be within the boundaries of the Constitution and the law.” That the very existence of the PLAC flies in the face of the most basic demands of political reform was pointed out by a thirty-five-year-old scholar based in Hunan Province, Zhang Yinghong. In an article widely circulated on the Internet in mid-2003, Zhang said the superior status of the PLAC went against internationally recognized norms of legal governance. “Various levels of law courts are faced with the dilemma of obeying the Constitution or obeying the PLAC,” he wrote. “Very often, the courts have become a hostage of the PLAC.”

While Zhang’s views certainly raised eyebrows among orthodox party members, similar opinions had been aired before—and by none other than former party chief Zhao Ziyang. Zhao, who was deposed after the June 4, 1989, crackdown, began fine-tuning the PLAC system in 1987 and 1988 for the simple reason that some semblance of an independent judiciary was essential to even Chinese-style political reform. Zhao began dismantling several provincial and municipal-level Political and Legal Affairs Committees with a view to eventually abolishing the PLAC altogether. Such reforms were mothballed after 1989. Indeed, in an interview with the official China News Service in December 2004, a spokesman of the Research Office of the Supreme People’s Court stressed that “reform of Chinese courts must be based on China’s national conditions”—and that there was no question of copying the Western model of the “tripartite division of power.”

Checks and Balances with Chinese Characteristics

Supervision by the Masses

In his first public address after becoming state president in March 2003, Hu indicated that his administration was committed to “developing democracy and doing things according to the law.” He went on to add that the CCP leadership would “synthesize [the principles of] party leadership, the people being masters of their own country, and ruling the country according to law.” Integral to Hu’s gentler, kinder—more legalistic and mass-oriented—new order is close scrutiny of government performance by the people.

Clearly, rule by law and socialist democracy would not be possible without some form of supervision by the people. While no Western-style universal-suffrage elections were anticipated, Hu’s pledge that “the people will be masters of their own country” meant they would have some degree of oversight regarding the performance and integrity of senior cadres as well as civil servants. This was why Wen emphasized at the 2003 NPC that “the government will self-consciously accept the supervision of the People’s Congress, the masses, and the media.”

Given that the leadership has already ruled out the ballot box, however, there are no established channels for the CCP’s top echelon to talk to the people. One of the few institutions is regular consultation with “friends of the party” such as members of the eight so-called democratic parties and members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Thus Premier Wen pointed out in mid-2003 that the State Council was formulating an internal “work procedure” for consultation with the nonparty elite. “Before making major decisions, the State Council will directly listen to the views and suggestions of the democratic parties, masses’ organizations, experts and academics,” Wen said in a meeting with leading members of the eight democratic parties. “The idea is to fully develop democracy, open up channels for expressing [divergent] views, and broadly adopt good policies.”

Despite the many public relations-oriented pictures that Hu and Wen have taken with workers and farmers, there are no mechanisms for regular exchange of views with proletariats. It is true that party and government departments conduct frequent public opinion surveys on what ordinary Chinese think about domestic and foreign policy. Hu and Wen also have a habit of going online to look at the views expressed in popular Internet chat rooms. And senior officials of ministries and departments—with the exception of those handling state security—have been instructed to attend online discussion sessions to explain policies to the public.59 Yet the Fourth-Generation leadership has basically stuck to a top-down approach in their consultation exercises.

At the regional level, a number of provinces and cities have made it easier for citizens to attend regular—usually monthly—meetings of local-level people’s congresses. For example, the Xian People’s Congress decided in mid-2003 to allow all residents of the city to attend its sessions, and the agenda and relevant information would be publicized in the municipal press at least ten days earlier.60 Ways that the masses exercise some form of supervision over the government include scrutiny by the media and mingaoguan, or ordinary folks taking legal action against the government (see following sections). It is unlikely that the Hu-Wen team will experiment with bolder forms of “popular supervision” in the foreseeable future. For example, there are no plans to encourage NGOs to contribute to policy save in less sensitive areas such as environmental or consumer protection (see Chapter 6).

Mingaoguan: Ordinary Folk Suing the Government/

One of the more colorful instances of supervision by the masses is mingaoguan, or ordinary people taking the government to court over infringement upon their economic and civil rights. Such actions had become possible with the introduction in 1991 of the Law on Administrative Procedure Litigation, which allowed citizens to challenge certain types of decisions and actions by government departments. There were about 500,000 cases of individuals suing the government in the five years ending in 2002. And according to the Supreme People’s Court, the number of such cases had jumped tenfold from 1991 to 2001. Moreover, the “success rate” of ordinary people winning court battles against officials is rated as high. In 2002, plaintiffs won 71.39 percent of the cases while the comparable figure was 64.07 percent a year earlier.

By the mid-2000s, the variety of issues involved in mingaoguan cases had increased dramatically. These range from travelers suing semi-government-owned airline companies in the wake of excessively long delays to candidates in civil service exams taking a government personnel department to court for alleged discrimination. In a much-publicized case in 2003, Zhang Xianzhu of Wuhu, Anhui Province, successfully sued the local personnel department for not hiring him despite his top performance in the civil service exams. Zhang claimed that the official reason for turning him down—that he was a carrier of the hepatitis B virus—amounted to deprivation of his constitutional rights.

Beijing has also allowed, if only grudgingly, citizens to take legal and other actions against people’s representatives who do not make the grade. Thirty-three civil rights-minded Shenzhen residents made history in 2003 when they filed a petition to impeach an elected deputy to the People’s Congress of the city’s Maling District. The disgruntled citizens claimed that newly elected deputy Chen Huibin was not doing his job properly, thus “constituting a threat to the properties and safety of the masses.” According to Du Gangjian, a scholar at the NPC head office, there was ample room for “innovative changes in democratic institutions” in Shenzhen. Du indicated that relevant sections of the Election Law needed to be beefed up to clarify the rights and obligations of both elected officials and deputies—and those of their constituents.

Most analysts see the mingaoguan phenomenon as a step in the direction of democracy and rule by law. Yet as People’s Daily writer Wang Bixue points out, many officials still regard mingaoguan as efforts to challenge their authority and prerogatives. Wang writes that many officials “think litigation against the government will result in the latter losing prestige and credibility—and the end result may be loss of government efficiency and even social instability.” Moreover, there are growing reports on courts refusing to take up the cases, particularly of farmers who harbor grievances against local administrations. People’s University legal scholar Xiao Jianguo noted in 2005 that “the number of people who succeed in filing cases against the government is miniscule.”

So far, the mingaoguan phenomenon has perhaps helped ordinary people most in two related areas. One consists of farmers taking local governments to court for misappropriation of their land. The other is related to litigation undertaken by urban residents who are unhappy over the meager compensation accorded them after they were forced to vacate their homes for urban renewal. That the law courts have failed to a considerable extent to mete out justice—and come to the rescue of the downtrodden—is evident from the large number of demonstrations and riots staged by displaced peasants and urban residents. That mingaoguan has hardly become an established institution is also clear from the many cases of activist lawyers being harassed by the authorities.

Checks and Balances Within the System

Compared to Zhao Ziyang and his fellow reformers, Hu and Wen have not articulated very clear concepts about checks and balances—or division of power—between party, government, military, and other units. Hu was apparently against the enshrinement of the principle of the separation of party and government in either the state or the CCP Charter. Since Hu had assumed both party and state powers, this step might lead to a dilution of his own authority and prerogatives. And personnel movements up to early 2005 confirmed that Hu had largely followed Jiang’s “the party is supreme” principle by letting party apparatchiks—rather than technocrats or professional managers—run the country. By contrast, both Deng and Zhao were hardly reticent about their advocacy of the separation of party and government. Thus Zhao’s now-famous Political Report to the Thirteenth Party Congress in 1987—which was endorsed by the late patriarch Deng—urged a gradual “retreat of the party” so that the CCP would concentrate on broad principles and policies and not involve itself in the nitty-gritty of governance.

Some progress has however been made toward a limited degree of checks and balances for certain party and government functions. Take the labyrinthine and highly secretive zhengfa (political and legal) establishment, which is CCP shorthand for the departments having to do with law enforcement, state and public security, graft busting, and the judiciary. Before the current Politburo was established in late 2002, one or at most two Politburo or PSC members were given near-total control of the zhengfa system. This was the case of former PSC member Wei Jianxing and his predecessor Qiao Shi. At the PSC elected into office at the Sixteenth Congress, however, Wu Guanzheng was appointed secretary of the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI)—the highest anti-graft watchdog—while Luo Gan became PLAC secretary. And newly appointed police chief Zhou Yongkang was the first police chief in twenty-five years to have Politburo status. Moreover, the veteran minister of supervision He Yong, who also has responsibility for promoting clean government, was given a slot in the party Secretariat. Since these four zhengfa heavyweights come from different factions in the party, a modicum of checks and balances will hopefully be accomplished.

At the same time, the new “elitism” espoused by the Hu administration—inducting more qualified intellectuals and professionals from disparate backgrounds into government and even party positions—could make for some form of checks and balances within the system. Traditionally, top cadres are picked from among young men and women with bona fide “red” backgrounds, namely workers, farmers, and soldiers. Even the recruitment of haigui pai, or returnees from abroad, for senior party and government posts would serve the purpose of making the governing system more pluralistic.

The Significance of “Intra-Party Democracy”

While dangnei minzhu (“intra-party democracy”) will in theory only affect the 70 million or so CCP affiliates, it will over the longer term have ample significance for overall political reform. At least in his “first term” of 2002 to 2007, Hu is expected to hack out new paths in this less controversial area of liberalization. To some extent, intra-party democracy is the equivalent of the president and party chief’s quest for constitutional and legal reform: there must be well-established institutions, rules, and procedures within the CCP—and they must be followed. Intra-party democracy is also being promoted to guarantee Hu’s legitimacy, and to prevent his enemies, namely the Shanghai Faction, from using extraconstitutional and extralegal means to lay ambushes. A Hu aide indicated that the president had learned the lesson of the way in which Hu Yaobang was unceremoniously and illegally cashiered in a so-called party life meeting held in January 1987. Sources close to the Hu camp said the party chief liked to tell intimates that in theory, he could be deposed by just five senior cadres, that is, in the event that a majority of the nine PSC members expressed no confidence in the general secretary over a “grave error” in either domestic or foreign affairs.

Hu also wanted to undo the perceived damage that Jiang and his chief lieutenant Zeng Qinghong had done to party institutions and regulations in their bid to fill a large number of central and regional posts with Shanghai Faction affiliates. From the mid-1990s to 2002, when Zeng assumed control over the personnel and related portfolios in the CCP, the Jiang troubleshooter had masterminded frequent reshuffles of major provincial and municipal slots with a view to strengthening the Shanghai Faction’s regional network. Regional personnel “musical chairs” under Zeng were markedly more frequent than those in previous years.

Much of Hu’s philosophy was sounded out by Central Party School professor Gao Xinmin in the official journal Chinanewsweek. Writing on dangnei minzhu, Gao, who specializes in the theory of party construction, noted that it was necessary to boost collective leadership “so as to strengthen restrictions on [how] individual leaders exercise power.” Gao argued that more power, particularly that relating to appointments, should be vested with bodies such as party congresses or entire party committees. “It will not do to let a minority of cadres select [candidates for top posts] from a minority of candidates,” Gao wrote. While it was not sure whether Gao was targeting Jiang and Zeng, these views were fairly typical among reform-oriented cadres.

Democratic Reforms Within the CCP

Certainly dangnei minzhu did not begin with the Sixteenth CCP Congress. General Secretary Hu, who has been in charge of “party construction” pretty much since 1992, has for several years asked his protégés and associates in institutions such as the Central Party School (CPS) to do research on improving democracy within the Communist Party. Quite a number of liberal intellectuals have argued that the CCP should reform itself along the lines of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). For these Chinese cadres and academics, the Japanese model means that while the decades-old party has remained Japan’s predominant party, the LDP has incorporated quasi-democratic institutions that can guarantee its longevity and relevance. For example, there are time-tested check-and-balance mechanisms. Factions—usually named after major leaders—are not only allowed but regarded as a normal phenomenon of politics. Most importantly, the cliques compete openly on relatively clear-cut platforms—and not through the kind of backstabbing and bickering characteristic of CCP factionalism.

Several CPS-sponsored surveys of the views of regional-level officials in 2001 and 2002 showed that most cadres were dissatisfied with the concentration of powers at the top: namely, that the party secretary of a province or city has too much power over matters ranging from policy to personnel. A number of cadres proposed that more authority be vested with the entire provincial or municipal party committee—or at least, the Standing Committee of these party organs. These reform-oriented cadres pointed out that eventually, a provincial or municipal party secretary should be elected into office by all party members of that province or city. Since the party secretary of a city or province is the highest authority in that region, this reform, if properly carried out, would have national significance. In early 2002, a breakthrough was reached in Guangdong Province whereby the entire provincial party committee—around seventy senior cadres—cast their ballots to pick the heads of counties and district commissions (a district commission over-sees several counties). Until this experiment, the party secretary of Guangdong as well as one or two Standing Committee members of the party committee in charge of organization had had well-nigh absolute power over appointments.

Also in 2002, several avant-garde intellectuals proposed the idea of a “tripartite division of powers” among the Congress of Party Deputies (dangdaibiao dahui), the Central Committee as well as the Politburo, and the CCDI. In a tradition going back to Chairman Mao’s days, a Congress of Party Deputies is called once every five years to elect a Central Committee; and the Central Committee in turn elects the Politburo and the CCDI, the party’s highest disciplinary and anti-corruption organ. A similar arrangement takes place in the provinces, cities, and counties.

According to the CCP Charter, the Congress of Party Deputies, Central Committee/Politburo, and CCDI should be parallel units with equal authority—and there should be checks and balances among them. In fact, the Constitution says policymaking powers should rest with the party congress—and the Central Committee/Politburo should merely be an executive organ. In practice, however, all power has gone to the Politburo (and under Jiang Zemin, the Politburo Standing Committee) while the party congress is dissolved once it has fulfilled the function of electing Central Committee members once every five years. Moreover, the CCDI is often under the control of the party general secretary. Restoration of some form of checks and balances among these top organs will help prevent the overconcentration of powers in the hands of a few top cadres.

Some inchoate steps along these lines have been taken in a few provinces such as Zhejiang and Sichuan. In three cities in Sichuan—Ya’an, Meishan, and Zigong—the municipal dangdaibiao dahui, or congress of party deputies, was in 2003 not dissolved after they had completed the basic task of picking members of the local party committee. Instead, it was decided that congress deputies should meet every year—and they could, at least in theory, be convened on an ad hoc basis—to exercise supervision over the municipal party committee. Moreover, if ten or more congress deputies raise a motion about a local problem, the party committee is duty-bound to carry out investigations and to compile a report. The dangdaibiao dahui can also carry out assessment of the work of the local party secretary and his senior colleagues.

According to the Vice-Head of the CCP Party History Research Office Li Zhongjie, the experiment of dangdaibiao dahui setting up permanent organs such as secretariats should be extended. Li pointed out that permanent party-congress secretariats had been established in eleven localities in Sichuan since the late 1990s. The academic indicated that the practice of party congresses meeting at least once a year would enable party members to exercise scrutiny and supervision over leading cadres. “This is good for the systematization and regularization of dangnei minzhu,” he added. By the end of 2004, permanent dangdaibiao dahui offices had been set up in provinces including Shandong, Shanxi, Guangdong, Guangxi, Jiangsu, and Hubei.

Reaction Against the Preponderance of Party Hacks

An important party-reform issue that the Hu-Wen team has to grapple with is rectifying the tradition, begun by ex-president Jiang and former head of the Organization Department Zeng Qinghong, of career party functionaries making career gains at the expense of professional and less ideologically inclined administrators and managers. Two main reasons were behind this development. One was Jiang’s insistence on party supremacy—and on the credo of “putting more emphasis on politics.” The other was that the so-called Jiang Zemin or Shanghai Faction was strongest among apparatchiks and assorted party-affairs specialists. And it was in the interest of the Shanghai Faction to bolster the clout of party affairs and ideology specialists. At least five out of the nine members of the PSC elected at the Sixteenth Party Congress distinguished themselves as CCP functionaries rather than ministers, governors, or mayors. Jiang Faction Caffiliated party hacks who made it to this supreme ruling council included Huang Ju and Jia Qinglin. Huang and Jia’s lack of a track record in economic reform had not stood in the way of their elevation.

The full twenty-five-member Politburo also had a much higher percentage of apparatchiks than the previous one. A record twelve party secretaries of provinces and directly administered cities—including the former and current party bosses of Shanghai and Beijing—were inducted to the elite body at the Sixteenth Congress. By contrast, only three ministers from the State Council, or central government apparatus, made it to the Politburo. They were State Councilors Wu Yi and Luo Gan and the minister at the State Development and Planning Commission, Zeng Peiyan. It was not surprising that Premier Zhu Rongji had privately griped about the advancement of party affairs specialists at the expense of ministers. He reportedly complained that while officials such as the minister of finance or the central bank president were among the highest ranked in most countries, the new Politburo had no place for Finance Minister Xiang Huaicheng or then governor of the People’s Bank of China Dai Xianglong.

Party functionaries also had a field day in the spate of post CSixteenth Congress reshuffles. A notable example was the new party boss of Guangdong, Zhang Dejiang, a former party secretary of Zhejiang Province. As the number one official of China’s most market-oriented province, Zhang’s brief was seen as enhancing the competitiveness of the Pearl River Delta in the face of challenges from the Greater Shanghai region. However, Zhang, a graduate of Pyongyang’s Kim Il-Sung University, had handled ideological matters most of his career. And while Zhejiang had developed reasonably well under his tenure, Zhang’s orthodox views about the private sector had cast doubt on his suitability for the Guangdong post. For example, in early 2001, he wrote an article in the conservative journal Huaxia Forum entitled “We Must Make It Clear That Private Businessmen Cannot Be Enrolled in the Party.”

In lower-level(-)Ninistrations, it has also become easier for party secretaries to land senior government jobs. For example, in the past, professional(-)Ninistrators such as heads of departments of municipalities had a good chance of being made vice-mayors or mayors. Under Jiang and Zeng, however, the party bosses of counties and prefectures had pride of place so far as the race up the career ladder was concerned. Political analysts see this as a ploy by Zeng and his allies to fill slots in both central and regional(-)Ninistrations wit h Shanghai Faction affiliates. “During his tenure as premier, Zhu Rongji was largely successful in vetoing the appointment of party functionaries as Ninisters or vice-ministers in the State Council,” said a Western diplomat. “However, Wen Jiabao, who has a weaker power base in the party and government, may have to acquiesce in the party Organization Department’s bid to install party affairs specialists in a number of important government posts.”

The rise of party hacks has caused widespread concern among reformist cadres, particularly in light of the high likelihood that Hu will repeat the same mistakes by elevating a large proportion of his cronies and former underlings from the Communist Youth League (CYL). Not unlike Jiang’s protégés, most members of the so-called CYL Clique are party functionaries and specialists rather than professional(-)Ninistrators. The trend of favoring CCP apparatchiks in senior appointments goes against the teachings of late patriarch Deng, one of whose biggest contributions to political reform was the theory of the separation of party and government.

Concrete Gestures to Democratize Party Procedures

Excitement about the possibilities of intra-party democracy were raised in the run-up to July 1, 2003, when the leadership celebrated the eighty-second birthday of the CCP. There were expectations that Hu would use the occasion to lay out a road map for dangnei Ninzhu. At least according to the first draft of Hu’s address, the party chief and president would recommend that there be greater competition in the course of the selection and appointment of senior cadres. For example, mid- to senior-ranked posts would be filled through elections in which members of the party committees of particular jurisdictions would be allowed to cast their ballots—instead of having the decision made by a higher-level CCP Organization Department and endorsed by the top party secretary of the relevant level. Such experiments would amount to a drastic improvement over the principle of “democratic centralism” advocated by both Lenin and Mao.

The words “intra-party democracy,” however, did not even show up in the speech delivered by Hu. Instead, the party boss merely dwelled on the need to study the hackneyed “Theory of the Three Represents.” As he had done since November 2002, Hu had given Jiang’s pet theory his own twist by putting the emphasis on the “serve the people” credo. However, Hu’s failure to offer anything concrete on dangnei minzhu was a disappointment for the advocates of reform, and this spelled at least a temporary setback for the Fourth-Generation stalwart.

A major obstacle to fast-paced dangnei minzhu had come from the camp of Jiang Zemin, who thought that excessive talk about reform smacked of “bourgeois liberalization.” This way of thinking seemed to underlie a series of instructions that the director of the CCP Publicity Department, Liu Yunshan, gave to media units in June that year. Citing remarks made privately by the ex-president, Liu told media-related cadres to raise their guard against “people who are taking advantage of the outbreak of SARS to spread bourgeois liberalization.” “Bourgeois liberalization,” a code term for Western political ideals, had rarely been used since the late 1990s. Moreover, Jiang took advantage of the still-powerful position of the Shanghai Faction to launch yet another ideological campaign based on “a more thorough study of the Theory of the Three Represents.” From mid-year, articles and seminars about the Three Represents easily crowded out calls for democracy within the party.

Irrespective of whether Hu was indeed forced to make a tactical retreat, efforts related to achieving the dangnei minzhu goal were still being made at least in the provinces. Take, for example, Sichuan Province, which had also pioneered township-level elections. The official Chinanewsweek magazine reported in July 2003 that the appointment of not just grassroots-level party secretaries but also department heads in the province could only be confirmed after all standing committee members of relevant party committees had cast their ballots. Until changes introduced in the spring of that year, personnel decisions were made by the provincial Organization Department upon the endorsement of a few bigwigs on the Sichuan CCP committee. And in early 2004, little-known Pingchang County, Sichuan, became the first area in China where party members freely elected the party secretary and vice-party secretaries of its nine towns and rural townships. This experiment had the blessings of top county officials, who used to have the power to appoint the party chiefs of the county’s subordinate towns and townships.89 The test for the Hu-Wen team seemed to be to ensure that such reforms would go beyond a few pioneer provinces to the rest of the country.

Hu and his colleagues made an important gesture toward dangnei minzhu as well as checks and balances by regularizing the institution of the Politburo giving a periodic report to the Central Committee. In a departure from history, the Third Plenum of the Sixteenth Central Committee in late 2003 began with a report delivered by the Politburo to the Central Committee. According to the official Outlook magazine, this gesture signified that Politburo members would submit themselves to the “oversight and supervision” of the 198 Central Committee members. Moreover, Hu indicated in the summer of 2003 that the procedure of the Politburo reporting to the Central Committee must be followed in lower-level administrations. This meant that in Guangdong, for example, the Standing Committee of the Guangdong party committee must periodically report to the entire provincial party committee. Central Party School professor Ye Duchu said this was a testimony of Hu’s determination to “further develop dangnei minzhu and to boost the energy of the Communist Party.”

On the surface, Hu’s decision was nothing out of the ordinary. Since the Politburo was elected into office by the Central Committee at the Sixteenth Congress in November 2002, it would seem logical for the top decision-making body to report periodically to the Committee. Yet Hu’s seemingly pedestrian decision amounted to a breakthrough for dangnei minzhu. Jiang, who was party chief from 1989 to 2002, had pulled out the stops to render the Central Committee—and often, even the Politburo—irrelevant. Power was concentrated in the hands of the five-man Politburo Standing Committee, and sometimes in Jiang himself, along with a handful of trusted aides such as then party organization chief Zeng Qinghong. Political sources in Beijing said Hu was keen to establish some degree of checks and balances among party organs such as the Politburo, the Central Committee, the CCP Congress (which elects the Central Committee every five years), and the party’s anti-graft watchdog, the CCDI. For example, by ensuring that the Politburo reports to the Central Committee—and that the CCDI will have some semblance of independence—dictatorial decision making and personality cults could be avoided.

Dangnei Minzhu at the Fourth Central Committee Plenary Session

After establishing the principle of a “Politburo responsibility system,” which means that the Politburo must at least in theory submit itself to the supervision of the Central Committee, Hu was thinking of going one step further at the end of 2004. One reform proposal that was put forward to the party chief in mid-2004 consisted of delineating the functions of the Central Committee (CC), the Politburo, and the Politburo Standing Committee. According to past practice, particularly the thirteen years under Jiang, the PSC is the supreme decision-making body; the Politburo a repository of power and authority; and the CC a council representing minyi, or the will of the “masses.” More liberal academics and party theoreticians, however, wanted the following changes: power and authority should reside with the CC; the Politburo will be the decision-making organ; and the PSC a body for execution and implementation of the decisions made by the Politburo. These liberal cadres and thinkers also wanted the dangdaibiao—the 2,000-odd deputies who cast their ballots to set up a new CC once every five years—to have some consultative and supervisory role to play. Under the proposed schema, the dangdaibiao would be the repository of party members’ minyi. And in a 2004 article, the Chinese-run Hong Kong daily, Wen Wei Po, quoted party theoreticians as saying that the dangdaibiao should meet at least every year so as to exercise supervision over top party organs. These experts suggested that the experiment be popularized at the county level before being tried out at the municipal, provincial, and national levels.

As with other dangnei minzhu initiatives, Hu’s goal was to dilute the powers of strongman-like figures—and to boost collective decision making as well as responsibility. With the PSC turned into a body for implementing the decisions of the Politburo and the Central Committee, it will be much more difficult for the general secretary to build up an empire or to behave in a dictatorial, Mao-like manner. Just as importantly, the Central Committee, whose membership may likely be significantly increased at the Seventeenth CCP Congress in late 2007, could be playing a more proactive role in policymaking and supervision of the Politburo.

Quite a few stalwarts from the Shanghai Faction were reported to have opposed Hu’s proposed changes on the grounds that if sufficient power were not concentrated in the PSC or at least the Politburo, factions would emerge, particularly if there were as many as 400 CC members. Several Hu aides have countered by saying it may not be a bad thing to have factions, provided that arguments between them are rendered transparent. They added that competition among the factions might have the effect of improving, instead of disrupting, decision making.

While Hu’s more ambitious plans such as transforming the dangdaibiao congress into a regular institution—and expanding the powers of the CC—might still face opposition, there seemed little doubt that by mid-2004 a consensus had been reached for injecting more democratic elements into the appointment of senior cadres. CPS professor Liang Yanhui noted in an article in the official Fortnightly Chat magazine that the appointment of cadres should be rendered more transparent. Referring to the mythical equestrian trainer Bai Le, famous for his ability to pick the best horses, Liang argued that the party “must replace the system of having a Bai Le pick horses with a ‘horse-racing model,'” where the best cadres would distinguish themselves through competition. Moreover, she added that the system of “a minority of senior cadres doing the picking” should be replaced by “a majority of cadres taking part in the selection” of officials for new posts.

The political report that was endorsed at the Fourth CCP Plenum, entitled Resolution on Strengthening the Construction of the Party’s Governance Ability (hereafter Resolution)—which fully reflected Hu’s thinking and instructions—has been rightly criticized for putting excessive emphasis on upholding the age-old “the party is supreme” principle. However, the party chief did for the first time salute the overriding importance of dangnei minzhu, and point out specific ways to enhance democratic institutions within the party. It affirmed the generally progressive slogan of “scientific administration, democratic administration, and administration according to law.” “Developing dangnei mingzhu is an important component of the reform of the political structure and the construction of political civilization,” the Resolution said. The document added that the party must “resolutely oppose and prevent dictatorial actions by individuals.” Perhaps with the impending departure of ex-president Jiang from his last post of CMC chairman, the new paramount leader had relatively more leeway to talk about ways to curtail the “rule of personality.”

The subsection entitled “Enhancing Reform of the Personnel System” played up the significance of “democratic recommendation and democratic appraisal” of cadres. Most importantly, Hu backed the still-controversial experiment of having members of the entire party committee of a local-level administration—for example, a province or a county—cast ballots to pick leading cadres within that jurisdiction. The Hu-drafted Resolution also indicated that the so-called margin of elimination in cha’e elections, where candidates outnumber the posts up for grabs, could be expanded to boost the element of competitiveness.

At the same time, the Fourth-Generation leader talked openly about establishing the right kind of checks and balances among top CCP organs including the dangdaibiao congress, the Central Committee, the Politburo, and its standing committee. “We should enthusiastically explore ways and formats through which dangdaibiao can play their roles when the congress is not in session,” the Resolution said. Hu endorsed experiments conducted by certain cities and counties, notably in a number of medium-sized cities in Sichuan, to establish permanent organs for dangdaibiao. No less significant is the fact that Hu has, albeit in a roundabout fashion, made some concessions to the principle of the separation of party and government. While insisting that party committees of all levels should make decisions on “major objectives and policies” and that they should “fulfill their functions as the leadership core,” the Resolution recommended that day-to-day handling, particularly of economic matters, should be left to government departments. Specifically, Hu pointed out that overlapping party and government units should be slashed or merged, and that “the number of vice-party secretaries at the regional level should be decreased.”

The Resolution also recommended, if only in general terms, how disciplinary-inspection units at different levels could better perform their job of cracking down on corruption and other misdemeanors. One suggestion put forward to participants of the Fourth Plenum was that the zhengfa shuji, or member of a regional party committee in charge of legal, disciplinary, and anti-corruption matters, should not report to the party secretary of the same committee; instead, the anti-corruption specialist should report either to the party secretary at a higher level or to the CCDI itself.

There are reasons to believe that positive signals on dangnei minzhu released at the Fourth Central Committee Plenum have had a beneficial impact at least on individual aspects of political reform. Take, for example, Hu’s concern for introducing some form of competition and election for picking regional officials. By the end of 2004, practically all party cadres at the level of mayor, municipal party secretary, and head of district commission (a district commission oversees several counties) in Sichuan and Jiangsu provinces were selected by the entire members of the provincial party committee (PPC). Moreover, the PPC members, numbering up to around eighty, cast secret ballots instead of merely coming up with a “voice vote.” In the past, a few leading members of the PPC’s Standing Committee, namely the party secretary and Standing Committee member in charge of organization, had a dominant say in picking lower-level cadres.

Administrative Reform Under One-Party Rule: Boosting Efficiency and Elitism

Administrative reform—defined roughly as increasing efficiency of governance, bureaucratic streamlining, and expanding the basis of one-party rule by inducting more members of the elite into ruling circles—will be a major focus of the Hu-Wen team’s agenda for limited political reform. Both ex-president Jiang and Hu are keen to promote so-called elitism, meaning absorbing members of the “new classes,” including professionals and returnees from abroad, into the civil service. Moreover, administrative reform tallies with the post-WTO accession imperative of running China largely according to international norms.

While discussing the prospects of political reform in China, Jiang said in an internal meeting in early 2002 that he did not favor the Western model of democracy. According to a politics scholar and member of Jiang’s personal think tank, the former president had a high regard for the “elitist” systems in Singapore and Malaysia. He added that the major thrust of reform should consist of the popular selection—under the criteria and supervision of the CCP—of well-educated, professionally qualified elements to fill senior posts. “We have confidence in picking a whole new corps of young, professionally qualified, reformist, and [politically] trustworthy cadres,” Jiang reportedly said. “Jiang wants a formula that will combine one-party rule and an efficient, elitist cadre system drawn from relatively broad sectors of society including non-CCP members,” the politics scholar pointed out. He added that building a new cadre system could be one of the few major political-reform initiatives in this decade. The ex-president’s preference for an elitist cadre system is shared by Hu and Wen.

Further impetus toward “semi-Western-style” administrative reforms was given by incidents ranging from the SARS epidemic to preparations for the 2008 Olympics. SARS forced China not just to conform to the public health criteria of the World Health Organization; many aspects of government behavior as well as the drafting and promulgation of regulations—particularly those having to do with economic and business matters—will have to be rejiggered to fit global norms. The same is true to some extent for the much-anticipated Beijing Olympics and the 2010 World Fair in Shanghai. For example, tendering and bidding for the bulk of infrastructure projects for these two events has been handled according to international standards.

Open Recruitment of Officials

Key to expanding the base of the ruling elite as well as improving efficiency are experiments with open recruitment of cadres, as distinguished from their appointment by the CCP Organization Department. While no concrete timetables have been finalized, the leadership is leaning toward letting a sizable percentage of mid- to high-ranking government posts—and some party slots—be filled through public examinations. Organization Department chief He Guoqiang pointed out in mid-2004 that more senior positions should be made available to well-educated people, including non-party members and returnees from abroad. “We must enthusiastically explore the possibility of selecting and promoting non-party talent from new social strata as well as returnees from abroad for leading positions,” he said in a national conference on personnel issues.

The official NCNA reported in June 2002 that since 1995, more than 1,000 officials with ranks of vice-head of department or above—and more than 10,000 officials with ranks of vice-head of office—had been recruited through open exams. By 2003, about 700,000 civil servants nationwide had been hired through competitive exams. Jiangsu pioneered the practice of asking short-listed candidates for relatively senior posts to take oral exams in front of TV cameras. Thus, in September 2004, several thousand applicants took exams to contest twenty-two posts with ranks equivalent to the vice-head of provincial departments. Jiangsu party secretary and rising star Li Yuanchao said open recruitment “should be carried out on a regular basis and over a wider range.”

And there were signs that such recruitment exercises were attracting better-qualified applicants. In Guangdong, 13.5 people were competing for one civil service job in 2003; the ratio was 9.75 to 1 six years previously. Moreover, a lot more candidates with master’s or doctorates are applying for relatively junior civil service jobs. According to one proposal for speeding up this process, one-third of all positions at the level of bureau and department head in provinces and cities should by the late 2000s be openly recruited. Experiments so far conducted in several Guangdong cities have yielded interesting results. In applying for the posts, which are advertised in newspapers, CCP members are at least in theory given no preference over non-party members. In addition to a written exam on professional knowledge, candidates must sit for an oral test on political skills. Guangdong authorities have asked a number of “people’s representatives,” mostly deputies to local-level people’s congresses and people’s political consultative conferences, to be oral examiners. A Shenzhen official familiar with civil service reform said if the experiment with mid-ranking officials was successful, a proportion of cadres at the level of vice-minister and vice-governor could toward the end of this decade be selected through public examinations and other open channels.

The authorities have also taken a liberal view toward the hiring of the so-called haigui pai, or returnees from abroad. Often, those with advanced degrees from U.S. and Western universities have been given “fast-track” positions with prospects for unusually speedy elevation. In 2001, Beijing picked veteran Hong Kong lawyer and banking regulator Laura Cha to be a vice-chairman of the China Security Regulatory Commission (CSRC), a position with vice-ministerial status. Moreover, in the wake of the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) between Hong Kong and most mainland provinces and cities, more regions have sent head hunters to recruit Hong Kong professionals. So far, Shanghai and Shenzhen have stood out as the two cities that have hired the largest number of Hong Kong talents. For example, in mid-2004, fifty-one government units sent representatives to Hong Kong to hire sixty advisers and sixty-seven senior managers.

Civil Service with Chinese Characteristics, and a “Cadre Responsibility” System

Adopting Elements of the Western-style Civil Service

Apart from open recruitment, Beijing is keen to incorporate other elements of a Western-style civil service under the premise of one-party rule. First, Beijing is eager to adopt the principle, observed with success in Singapore and Hong Kong, of “using high salaries to ensure clean government.” For three years from 1999 to 2002, Beijing earmarked about 80 billion yuan annually for pay raises for its 45 million cadres and civil servants. Moreover, individual provincial and municipal governments are paying salaries in the hundreds of thousands of yuan a year to attract top talent. For example, the Jilin provincial administration has offered to pay top information technology (IT) personnel 200,000 yuan a year.112 Whether the relatively high pay has effectively curtailed corruption, however, is open to question.

Second, stricter rejuvenation—and retirement—guidelines and regulations are being implemented for posts below those of Politburo members. In early 2002, two senior cadres, head of the State Economic and Trade Commission Sheng Huaren and Minister of Science and Technology Zhu Lilan, stepped down at the age of sixty-five. Under past practice, since their five-year tenure had begun in early 1998, Sheng and Zhu would have been able to serve until 2003. The Hu-Wen administration decided that as far as possible, more cadres in their mid-to-late forties would be considered for vice-ministerial-level positions, while more cadres in their early fifties would be made ministers. Analysts have pointed out that one factor prompting ex-president Jiang to retire from his last remaining post of CMC chairman in September 2004 was the groundswell of opinion among cadres and party elders alike that a seventy-eight-year-old should no longer remain in such an important position as commander-in-chief.

The authorities are also working on an efficient and equitable system for assessing the performance of officials. Traditionally, incompetent officials can only be gotten rid of—or, more often than not, transferred to a less important province or portfolio—by the Organization Department. And while the department carries out frequent assessments of cadres, the appraisals often have to do with the officials’ compliance with ideological, not professional, standards.

According to a party source, the new administration was considering the option of setting up a “scientific” appraisal system in every ministry, province, and city along the lines of a quasi-public tribunal. “Ideally, the tribunal should have a good proportion of nonofficials, including academics, people’s congress deputies, and professionals from different fields,” the source said. At the same time, various cities have started asking cadres to put down performance pledges—or lists of objectives they hope to achieve in a given year. Officials deemed to have repeatedly failed to fulfill such pledges would have to go. Moreover, senior cadres at both the central and regional levels will be held to account if officials they have appointed turn out to be corrupt or to have made major errors in policymaking or implementation. This was part of the “Regulations on the Appointment of Cadres” released in early 2004. However, senior cadres can get off the hook if it can be proven that errant officials whom they had recommended only started to turn bad after their appointment, or that the mistakes they had made were due to “objective” circumstances.

A Cadre Responsibility System

Former premier Zhu Rongji began in the late 1990s to introduce a cadre account-ability system to, in his words, “protect the masses’ property and safety and to maintain social stability.” Particularly targeted were cadres responsible for tofu (literally “bean-curd,” or shoddy) engineering projects and officials whose dereliction of duty had led to accidents with large casualties. Various provinces have come up with measures to get rid of bumbling cadres. For example, officials in Anhui who for three years in a row scored poorly in assessment tests would be subject to disciplinary action. In early 2001, CCP secretary of Jiangxi Province Shu Huiguo was demoted after an explosion in a peasant school that killed about forty students. A month later, Shaanxi governor Cheng Andong was reprimanded for a series of mishaps, including a stampede among tourists visiting the famed Huashan Mountain, in which 103 people were killed.

The SARS outbreak provided a good excuse for the Hu administration to push a tougher and more thoroughgoing responsibility system. A milestone in administrative reform was reached in April 2002, when the Politburo Standing Committee decided to fire two senior cadres in connection with SARS: Health Minister Zhang Wenchang and Beijing mayor Meng Xuenong. Zhang and Meng were cashiered not just for failing to control the epidemic in the capital but for hiding information from the World Health Organization and the public. In the same month, the Ministry of Personnel and the Ministry of Supervision sent out nationwide documents saying that officials who had failed to take adequate measures to prevent SARS would be fired. In all, more than 1,000 cadres nationwide lost their jobs or were severely punished because of SARS-related dereliction of duty. According to People’s University professor Mao Chaohui, SARS had helped promote administrative reforms. “SARS has provided the opportunity for the civil service to develop the practice of [officials] resigning due to incompetence or poor performance,” Mao said.

The Hu-Wen team also went further than former premier Zhu in insisting that cadres take political as well as administrative responsibility for industrial accidents, particularly mishaps in high-risk areas such as mines and factories manufacturing firecrackers. Thus more than eighty officials, including a district-level party secretary, were penalized or cashiered in Shanxi Province on account of four industrial accidents that took place from October 2002 to March 2003. Some 180 people were killed and hundreds injured in these mishaps. Yet it is obvious that the institution or culture of responsibility has not been firmly established. A commentary in the liberal-leaning China Youth Daily called attention to the fact that senior cadres in Shanxi had not been penalized after three mining accidents that occurred within eight days in August 2003. Nearly 100 miners and other workers were killed. The only sign of contrition displayed by senior cadres was that then governor Liu Zhenhua made a self-criticism during a State Council conference on workplace safety.

By early 2004, more senior officials had resigned after taking responsibility over major mishaps. For example, the general manager of the oil conglomerate China National Petroleum Corporation resigned after a gas leak in one of the company’s mines outside Chongqing had killed 243 local residents. The same was true of the head of Miyun County outside Beijing after thirty-seven people perished when a bridge in a popular park collapsed. Most importantly, a system of accountability was set up even as Beijing promulgated a “Temporary Regulation on the Resignation of Leading Party and Government Cadres.” This Regulation delineated conditions under which officials who had made serious mistakes, or who had to take political responsibility for a major blunder or incident in areas under their jurisdiction, had to tender their resignations.

Moreover, regulations governing specific areas of responsibility were being drafted. While giving instructions on fighting floods along the Yangtze River in mid-2004, Premier Wen pointed out that the State Council had set up a “Responsibility System for Implementation of Flood Control.” Apart from combating deluges, officials must ensure the safety and health of residents along rivers, and that relief funds and material are adequately distributed among victims. Moreover, central authorities were putting together a “Responsibility System on Government Investment,” which would hold cadres responsible for decisions on capital outlays that turn out to be wasteful or inefficient. For Du Gang, a professor at the National College of Administration, the cadre accountability system was a concrete manifestation of the Hu-Wen team’s philosophy of “putting people first.” People’s University expert Mao Shoulong indicated that with new regulations and practices coming into place, cadres had to take “moral, political, democratic, and legal responsibility” over their actions—and those of their underlings. By “democratic responsibility,” Mao meant that “officials have to hold themselves accountable to those deputies or people who cast their votes for them.”

Streamlining the Bureaucratic Structure

That the Hu-Wen team is after a small government is evident from several symbolic acts of theirs in the first year of their administration. The entourage of officials and security personnel traveling with Hu or Wen either within China or abroad is noticeably smaller than that for ex-president Jiang or ex-premier Zhu. Moreover, Hu and Wen ordered that the press corps covering the trips of PSC members be restricted to journalists from four or five major news units. And one of the first decisions of Wen upon becoming premier was to pledge that he would go further than predecessor Zhu in streamlining the governmental structure, especially at the regional level. The Beijing-based financial paper Caijing Times quoted economist Xin Xiangyang as saying that administrative expenses in China were substantially higher than those in developed countries. Xin noted that the one million tax collectors in China managed to gather 1.5 trillion yuan in taxes in 2003. While tax revenues for the U.S. government are many times higher, the United States only employs around 100,000 taxation personnel nationwide.

Premier Wen, the major force behind administrative streamlining, is determined to go further than predecessor and mentor Zhu. “Boss Zhu” had cited lopping away bureaucratic deadwood as one of the achievements of his five-year administration. Upon becoming premier in March 1998, Zhu slashed the number of central government ministries from forty to twenty-nine. A few hundred thousand Beijing-based jobs in the central administration were axed. However, Zhu’s fat-trimming operations were confined to central-level units. And quite a sizable pro-portion of laid-off central-level bureaucrats have been reemployed in shiye danwei, or quasi-government institutions, such as educational institutions and publishing houses under State Council commissions and ministries.

And the problem of superfluous or redundant civil servants is arguably more serious in the countryside because of its direct impact on national stability. An estimated one-third of county- and village-level governments are bankrupt: debts incurred by these administrations totaled 400 billion yuan in 2003. The need to pay so many civil servants means local government units have to impose extra—and in most cases illegal—levies and fees on peasants. This, plus rural corruption, was a major reason for riots in the countryside. In his first international press conference, Wen cited a famous dictum from the ancient text Daxue (Profound Knowledge): “Governments can only accumulate wealth when the producers of income are numerous while the consumers are few.” Wen said it was just the opposite in China. He said it was not uncommon for a county with only 120,000 or so people to have to support up to 6,000 government employees.

Wen decided very early on to abolish all layers of administration between the counties and the villages, meaning that the xiang (rural township) and zhen (township) bureaucracies would be cut. The premier called this goal the establishment of “a local-level administrative system with the county as basic unit.” Fully 70 percent of all China’s civil servants and related staff are employed by administrative units at the county level or below. Apart from ordinary officials and civil servants, each county, town, and township government also has to employ staff working for units under the Communist Party, the people’s congress, as well as various police, judicial, and quasi-military bodies. Wen’s reform has met with stiff resistance. While it might not be too difficult for laid-off central-level bureaucrats to find jobs in businesses and other sectors, grassroots civil servants have few other alternatives in terms of seeking a decent livelihood after leaving their governmental iron rice bowl. Moreover, cadres in most of the nation’s 1,642 counties are opposed to abolishing townships and rural townships. Apart from the extra workload, county-level officials have to contend with the fact that there is no more buffer between the county government and the increasingly rebellious peasantry.

There is evidence, however, that the premier has achieved a degree of success in his fat-trimming exercise. By late 2003, the number of towns nationwide had decreased by 375 to 20,226, while that of townships had shrunken by 575 to 18,064. Moreover, 950 towns and townships were merged. The pace of streamlining, however, has become slower from 2004 onward. In the first nine months of that year, merely 864 towns and townships were slashed or merged. It is estimated that the cancellation of a township or rural township means that from seventy to eighty local-level cadres can be taken off the payroll—and that up to 3 million yuan of administrative expenses can be saved.

According to City University of Hong Kong Sinologist Linda Li, the Wen team must beware of the fact that many grassroots-level cadres are going through the motions of administrative streamlining just to please their superiors. “Take the case of the merger of two or more townships into one,” she said. “It is not uncommon that the merged—and enlarged—township has merely taken over all the staff of the previous units.” Professor Li noted that instead of putting the focus on merely curtailing the numbers of grassroots administrative units, a better approach would be for Beijing and provincial governments to clearly delineate the functions of individual departments under the towns and townships, so that only those departments that have no useful role to play need be cut. Another Wen initative is to streamline the bureaucratic structure of cities, beginning with the curtailment of the number of the 840-odd districts directly under the big cities. Metropolises such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou have up to ten districts, and many of the functions of the district governments overlap with those of the municipality. However, the State Council is meeting stiff resistance from powerful metropolises such as Shanghai, which do not want their bureaucracies and payrolls cut.

At the same time, the Wen team is seriously thinking of increasing the numbers of both provinces and directly administered cities (DAC). (The DACs of Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Chongqing have the same ranking as provinces and they report directly to Beijing.) Preliminary studies by the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MAC) indicate that the Hu-Wen leadership is leaning toward adding four more DACs and around ten more provinces. Leading candidates to become DACs include Wuhan, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Qingdao, and Dalian. According to the MAC’s expert on local-level administration, Dai Junliang, a DAC could become a regional hub that could expedite the growth of surrounding areas.

From a political point of view, the expansion of the current numbers of provinces and DACs from thirty-two to up to fifty would mean that Beijing will be better placed to combat regionalism. Central authorities have for the past decade or so fretted over the fact that provinces and cities such as Guangdong and Shanghai have such a huge economic base that they could often refuse to toe the Beijing line. For example, if either Guangzhou or Shenzhen becomes a DAC, Guangdong will have command over many fewer economic resources, meaning it might lack the wherewithal to effectively bargain with the central government.

“Not a Western-style Civil Service”

It is important, however, to bear in mind that there was no intention on the part of the CCP leadership to turn the cadre system into a Western-style civil service. This was made clear by a spokesman from the Ministry of Personnel in an interview with the official China News Service. The spokesman pointed out that in China, officials “uphold the basic principles of the CCP and are not politically neutral.” This meant of course, that civil servants, even those who were not party members, were supposed to be loyal to goals and principles ranging from Marxism-Leninism and to party leadership. Moreover, there is no clear-cut differentiation between political appointees and career civil servants. A draft of the Civil Service Bill to be submitted to the NPC in 2006 suggests that staff of party and government departments as well as mass organizations should be included in the ranks of the civil service. Vice-Head of the CCP Organization Department Zhang Bolin noted that this move would help strengthen the party’s “unified leadership” over officials and administrative staff nationwide.

It is well understood that despite rapid industrialization and modernization in the country, the CCP still calls the shots over most areas of life. And despite the Hu-Wen team’s effort to streamline the party and government apparatuses, there are still overlapping CCP and government bureaucracies at both central and regional levels. In the late 1990s, the new district of Pudong in Shanghai was set up as an example where there was a minimal CCP structure and personnel establishment.135 Yet this experiment has so far not been repeated elsewhere. As of 2005, there was more evidence that administrative reform over areas such as the assessment of personnel could not succeed in the absence of genuine political reform measures that could cut into the party—or its dominant faction’s—monopoly on power. There are signs that after taking over ex-president Jiang’s last remaining post of CMC chairman, Hu has sought to further bolster the political fortune of members of his Communist Youth League Faction as well as other cronies by elevating them to senior party and government posts.

Thus in a late 2004 reshuffle, a number of the Hu protégés were either promoted or given lateral transfers to more strategic posts. These included the appointments of Li Keqiang and Guo Jinlong as party secretaries of, respectively, Liaoning and Anhui, and the promotions of Yang Chuantang and Huang Xiaojing to, respectively, party secretary of Tibet and governor of Fujian. Like Hu, Li is a former first party secretary of the CYL, while both Yang and Huang are former leaders of provincial youth league committees. Li’s transfer from the major agricultural province of Henan to the industrial hub of Liaoning was seen as a preparation for the fifty-year-old’s promotion to the Politburo at the Seventeenth CCP Congress. However, doubts were raised as to whether these appointments were strictly based on merits—or rather whether they served mostly to bolster the authority of the CCP’s dominant faction.

Boosting Administrative Probity and Fighting Corruption

One primary worry of Hu’s advisers soon after the Sixteenth CCP Congress was that they had difficulty licking into shape an acceptable—and laudatory—image of the relatively young president. For example, former premier Zhu was able, during his first international press conference in 1998, to present himself as a daredevil reformer who, in his own words, “fears neither minefields nor precipices.” Zhu’s successor Wen also succeeded in quickly establishing himself as a “people’s premier” in the mold of the revered former premier Zhou Enlai. Could Hu’s image consultants then portray the Fourth-Generation supremo as a “tiger-pounding, anti-graft hero”?

Despite supposedly stepped-up efforts to eradicate graft starting from the early 1990s, the situation has been deteriorating relentlessly. Mainland experts estimated in the early 2000s that economic losses due to corruption accounted for up to 14.9 percent of GDP between 1999 and 2001. One reason was the relatively cavalier attitude of ex-president Jiang and most senior members of the Shanghai Faction. This was illustrated by the heavy political interference that anti-graft personnel faced while investigating a series of major cases.

The Perennial Goal of Combating Graft

Apart from jobs and living standards, ordinary Chinese are most concerned about inequity in income distribution, and corruption, which has enabled well-connected but ruthless cadres and businessmen alike to get rich quick. And the one area where they are most eager to exercise supervision over the government is rooting out “economic crime” and related malfeasance. A measurement of whether Hu has lived up to his populist and legalistic ideals would be his ability to rid the country of corruption and related felonies. Yet it is here that Hu and his allies may clash with vested interests and power blocs including the Jiang or Shanghai Clique.

It is significant that Hu often talks in the same breath about rule by law, serving the masses, and promoting clean government. “Officials must come to a clear understanding that the party is there to promote the public good and that administration must be for the sake of the people,” Hu indicated in a mid-2003 Central Committee speech on clean governance. The president decried “cases of corruption taking place among officials, including senior and medium-ranked officials.” The party’s anti-graft watchdog, the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection, then issued five regulations barring officials from using their power to engage in commerce. For example, cadres as well as their relatives were forbidden to buy stocks in, or to have business dealings with, enterprises directly or indirectly under their control.

A party source familiar with the Hu camp believes the party chief and president, in addition to CCDI chief Wu Guanzheng, a PSC member deemed to be close to Hu, may be wielding the “anti-graft card” to beef up Hu’s national stature and at the same time bludgeon political enemies. In the five years ending with 2002, more than 12,000 officials with the rank of county chief or above—including twenty-five ministerial-ranked officials—were prosecuted for taking bribes and related crimes. And it seems clear that this deplorable situation would not have occurred if the ancien régime under ex-president Jiang had been serious about cracking the whip on venal cadres.

Jiang’s record in graft-busting was extremely poor. Take, for example, the infamous multibillion yuan smuggling and graft scandal that erupted in the port city of Xiamen, Fujian Province, in the late 1990s. There was persistent innuendo that a number of senior cadres and “princelings,” or offspring of party elders, implicated in the Xiamen case were spared prosecution owing to their affiliation with the Jiang or Shanghai Faction. Indeed, the kingpin of the criminal ring, Lai Changxing, reportedly bribed scores of top-level party and military cadres, almost none of whom have been brought to justice. In early 2003, even senior cadres at the level of vice-mayor and vice-party secretary who were implicated in the Lai case were quietly let go after having been relieved of their posts and kicked out of the CCP.142 Political analysts said while Hu seemed eager to demonstrate that he was more serious than Jiang in tackling graft, he was also a past master at using the “anti-graft card” as a potent weapon against rival CCP cliques. “Jiang has used fighting graft as a pretext to elbow aside foes ranging from [former Beijing party boss] Chen Xitong to [former Politburo member] Li Ruihuan,” the party source said. “It’s possible Hu is now taking a leaf from Jiang’s book.”

That political considerations have frequently interfered with the CCP’s efforts to promote clean government has highlighted the fact that the Hu administration can only go so far in pursuing rule by law without real political reform. Without checks and balances within the system, it will be difficult for the CCDI and other anti-graft organs to penalize cadres with sterling political connections. Under the “party is supreme” principle, so-called masses’ bodies or supervisory organs such as the NPC and the CPPCC are toothless when it comes to investigating senior officials. And given the party’s tight control over the media, the latter’s function in exposing corrupt officials is often limited to mid-ranking officials.

The Zhou Zhengyi Case and Its Aftermath

The first major test of the Hu administration’s resolve toward cracking tough nuts was the scandal surrounding “premier Shanghai tycoon” Zhou Zhengyi. Zhou, a flamboyant, forty-two-year-old self-made boss was once named by Forbes magazine as the eleventh richest man in China. The convoluted case of Zhou, who made his fortune in the stock and real-estate markets, had immense political and factional significance.

Zhou was detained by Shanghai police in May 2003 and “formally arrested” three months later, allegedly for monkey business including illegally obtaining more than 1.5 billion yuan of loans from various branches of the Bank of China as well as more than ten Shanghai banks. Zhou and his socialite wife Mao Yuping, who started investing in Hong Kong properties and securities in the late 1990s, were famous for their circle of high-flying businessmen and glamorous movie stars. In Shanghai, they were also known for being on good terms with local officials, including several ranking members of the Shanghai Faction. Zhou is said to be close to PSC member Huang Ju, a former Shanghai mayor and party secretary, as well as former vice-mayor Sha Lin. More significantly, Zhou was deemed a business partner of two princelings: ex-president Jiang’s son Dr. Jiang Mianheng, once known as the “IT prince of Shanghai”; and the son of PSC member Zeng Qinghong, Zeng Wei.

That the Zhou case was emblematic of the power struggle between the Shanghai Faction and the Hu camp was evident from the fact that the crackdown was masterminded by Hu and CCDI chief Wu. An elite team of about 200 CCDI agents was sent to Shanghai in April to investigate Zhou. None of the investigators was from Shanghai, and local officials were not allowed to interfere with CCDI work. Hu was able to get the initial cooperation of new Shanghai party chief Chen Liangyu, a Zeng Qinghong crony. Chen sent out an internal circular urging all party and government units to cooperate with the CCDI team.

Yet it was soon apparent that Wu—as well as Hu—was meeting resistance from Shanghai Faction stalwarts led by ex-president Jiang, who reportedly issued orders that investigations into Zhou’s misdemeanors “should not spill over into other cases” and “should not affect the stability and prosperity of Shanghai.” Jiang also insisted that Vice-Premier Huang, and not the CCDI, be put in charge of the Zhou affair. Investigations had begun to slow down by late June. The national news media was ordered to stay away from detailed reporting about Zhou’s shenanigans.

By late 2003, it was made clear that Zhou would be prosecuted for two relatively minor misconducts: providing false information to the securities regulatory authorities, and manipulation of stock prices. More serious matters such as how he managed to get the bank loans as well as choice pieces of real estate for development—and whether municipal officials were involved—were never delved into. In mid-2004, the Shanghai court slapped a three-year jail term on Zhou, which was considered light by legal experts. None of the big-shot officials or princelings close to Zhou was implicated. The only people who got into trouble because of Zhou were a few bankers who had lent him money, including the former president of the Bank of China Hong Kong Branch Liu Jinbao. From the angle of factional dynamics, the Hu-Wen team was in a position to reap important dividends from the case. Although no Shanghai Faction affiliates were publicly tainted this time around, Hu and Wu had accumulated hefty dossiers that could implicate a number of Zhou’s high-placed cronies. Such material would be invaluable in a possible showdown between Hu and Shanghai Faction stalwarts including Jiang, Zeng, and Huang in the near future. The Zhou case also showed that factionalist, Machiavellian calculations might have displaced respect for the law.

Fighting Graft over the Long Haul

The Zhou Zhengyi case illustrated the constraints affecting the Hu-Wu graft-busting team’s attempts to go after the big fish, or in China’s case, the “big tigers.” However, the Hu administration made it clear in the summer of 2003, albeit in an indirect fashion, that there would be no let-up to the anti-corruption campaign. While touring Jiangsu Province in August, the CCDI’s Wu gave a severe warning to “leading cadres who have a cavalier attitude toward discipline.” “We must put emphasis on more scrutiny and supervision regarding clean government,” the state media quoted Wu as saying. “We must deepen the work on fighting graft and building clean government,” Wu added.

Beijing sources close to the Communist Party said Wu and his CCDI colleagues came under heavy pressure due to their high-profile investigation of Zhou. Wu—and Hu—however, wanted to relay the message that they would continue to hit out left, right, and center. The CCDI had a field day in areas outside Shanghai. In August 2003, Jia Chunwang, the head of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, surprised observers by saying that a number of “major, earth-shattering cases” would come to light later that year. A month earlier, the former party chief of Hebei Province Cheng Weigao was kicked out of the CCP for his involvement in a decades-old graft scandal. Cheng’s political disgrace was remarkable in view of his high-placed patrons, who included Li Peng, the former NPC chairman, and Jiang himself. While investigations into the Cheng case had begun at least in the mid-1990s, Jiang was dragging his feet on the matter.

Despite limitations due to institutional or factional reasons, it cannot be denied that Hu’s track record in fighting big-time corruption has been superior to that under Jiang. It is not a coincidence that Hu himself enjoys a much better reputation as “Mr. Clean” than his predecessor. From the Sixteenth Congress to mid-2004, around ten cadres with the ranking of minister and governor, or equivalent, were detained or penalized. Apart from Hubei’s Cheng, they included former Hubei governor Zhang Guoguang, former president of the Liaoning High Court Tian Fengzhi, former chairman of the Heilongjiang People’s Political Consultative Conference Han Guizhi, former Yunnan governor Li Jiating, former president of the China Construction Bank Wang Xuebing, and former vice-governor of Anhui, Wang Huaizhong. The cases surrounding Cheng, Zhang, Tian, Han, and Anhui’s Wang had festered for many years—and had failed to be effectively dealt with by the Jiang administration.

The Empowerment of Auditing Authorities

The Hu-Wen team has beefed up the functions and powers of the National Audit Office (NAO) in an apparent attempt to make up for the shortfall of the current anti-graft regime, which revolves around the CCDI. In June 2004, the nation was stunned when the auditor-general, Li Jinhua, made public a scathing report on the lack of financial discipline, gross wastage, embezzlement, and corruption in fifty-five ministries and state commissions. For example, forty-one ministries and commissions had appropriated as much as 1.42 billion yuan of funds—which had originally been earmarked for special projects—for the construction of residential and office buildings for their own use. A particularly interesting finding was that a few years earlier, the National Electricity Corporation (NEC) had spent more than 3.04 million yuan on a three-day conference. The NEC was at the time headed by Gao Yan, a protégé of Li Peng’s who was under investigation for embezzlement and corruption.

While the NAO had been in existence for decades, only parts of its reports were made public and the general perception had been that the auditors treated even errant departments and officials with kid gloves. By early 2004, however, the Hu-Wen leadership made the pivotal decision that the powers of the auditor-general’s office would be expanded. For example, up to late 2003, the NAO only had jurisdiction over State Council units. From mid-2004 onward, the auditors would be authorized to look at the books of all CCP and government departments, large state companies, as well as the NPC and CPPCC.

Auditor-General Li Jinhua, who is reportedly close to both former premier Zhu and Premier Wen, indicated in mid-2004 that he wanted to upgrade the NAO into a unit with the same administrative ranking as the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate. Li told the Chinese media that the NAO would follow similar institutions abroad and serve as a watchdog for taxpayers. “We must tell taxpayers whether their money has been spent properly,” Li said. During the first three months of what the Chinese media call the “auditing blitzkrieg,” some 600 cadres lost their jobs and were subject to different kinds of punishment.

The relative efficacy of the NAO, however, has illustrated yet once again that in twenty-first-century China, the success of fighting graft—as well other major party and government initiatives—still depends on the extent to which the fight has received the blessings of the two or three top PSC members. For example, in a high-profile TV appearance, Wen said in mid-2004 that all civil servants must self-consciously summit themselves to the supervision of the NAO, and that errant officials would be “severely handled.” One recalls that in the late 1990s, the CCDI and other departments would not have gone as far as they did regarding Xiamen’s Yuanhua case had it not been for the big push given to the anti-graft effort by former premier Zhu and former state councilor Wu Yi.

Seeking Long-term Solutions

For the long haul, Hu needed to put together more rigorous procedures and institutions in fighting corruption, deemed the number one scourge of the nation. According to an early 2005 report in the People’s Daily, the Hu leadership had taken a new approach to eliminating graft: nurturing viable institutions and conventions. The article cited the Sixteenth Congress as a watershed in the party’s long battle against the phenomenon popularly known as “the exchange of power for money.” Before the conclave, the paper said, the party had relied mainly on inculcating the proper ideology and work style. Stress was now being put on “developing institutions, procedures, and systems” of clean government. It was understood that the president wanted to, in the words of his aides, “institutionalize and regularize” the practice of supervision within the party, whereby ordinary cadres and even party members could blow the whistle on cadres on the take.

Moreover, more efforts have been made to check on the probity of senior cadres. For example, the CCDI, in conjunction with the CCP Organization Department, would periodically dispatch “roving inspectors” to the provinces to check on the “cleanliness” or otherwise of officials and state entrepreneurs. Thus, starting in 2003, a team of forty-five so-called imperial inspectors made the rounds of the provinces and autonomous regions. Other similar “work groups” were sent around the country a year later. The Hu-Wen team expressed confidence that a viable, multipronged set of anti-graft institutions would be licked into shape with the empowerment of the auditor-general’s office. As Wen noted in mid-2004, apart from the CCDI, the Ministry of Supervision, and the NAO, cadres were subject to “democratic supervision by the NPC and the CPPCC, judicial and legal supervision, as well as the scrutiny of the media and the masses.”

In theory, therefore, the Hu-Wen leadership has set up the proverbial tianluo diwang (“dragnet as extensive as heaven and earth”) to ensnare corrupt and errant officials. Yet while Hu has been demonstrably more serious about combating graft than predecessor Jiang, the view of China-based foreign businessmen is that the situation has basically not improved. In its annual tally of honest versus corrupt countries, the Geneva-based Transparent International ranked China seventy-first in 2004, down from sixty-fourth a year ago. Singapore and Hong Kong were ranked fifth and sixteenth respectively.

Within-the-system reforms notwithstanding, Chinese as well as foreign observers have argued that the only long-term solution to corruption is setting up a graft fighting organ that is truly independent of the CCP. This would be similar to the highly regarded Independent Commission Against Corruption in Hong Kong or the Anti-Corruption Bureau in Singapore. Yet from Beijing’s viewpoint, this would amount to setting limits on the party’s powers—and it is doubtful that the Hu-Wen team would seriously consider any thoroughgoing measures even in their “second term” of 2007-2012.

Assessment of the Reforms, and the Possibility of the Emergence of a Chinese-Style Socialist Democratic Party

Most Sinologists have warned against excessive optimism that the Fourth-Generation leadership will launch Western-style liberalization in the near to medium term. As the party mouthpiece Seeking Truth pointed out in late 2003, changes in the political arena must always serve the goal of enhancing party leadership and upholding the socialist road. It stated that reform must neither lead to Westernization nor to “the truncation and negation of Communist Party leadership.” And the State Council’s late-2005 White Paper on the Construction of China’s Democratic Politics further affirmed the fact that because of history and so-called national conditions, “Communist Party leadership and rule in China is an objective requirement of the country’s development and progress.” It added that “socialist political democracy”—meaning political reform under the stern guidance of the CCP, was “the apt choice meeting the requirement of social progress.” It was as though Hu, a believer in “scientific socialism,” were proclaiming that it had been scientifically proven that only the CCP should go on ruling China.

The most obvious signs of a rollback in liberalization have manifested them-selves in the media. In the second half of the SARS saga, foreign observers were impressed by the Hu-Wen leadership’s relative commitment to a kind of “Chinesestyle glasnost,” including their promise that “people have the right to know.” Dozens of central and local units set up a Western-style system of news spokespeople whose job was apparently to answer questions from reporters in a timely fashion. From early 2004 onward, however, the Publicity Department and other units began cracking down on liberal papers and TV stations that dared to expose the “dark side of society” or even to challenge party or socialist orthodoxy. Beijing has also pulled out the stops to police the Internet, deemed a dangerous conduit for dangerous, decadent Western ideals.

Dozens of pro-reform and pro-democracy editors, authors, and “Net-dissidents” have been arrested or placed under twenty-four-hour surveillance. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists indicated in late 2005 that with thirty-two journalists behind bars, China held the world record in terms of locking up news professionals. Peking University journalism professor Jiao Guobiao, who dared openly criticize the Publicity Department, was ordered to stop teaching in 2004. And relatively bold media such as Southern Weekend and Beijing News have been subjected to continual harassment by the censors.

The Ideological and Institutional Limits of Reform

Putting People First or Putting the Party First?

The first three years of the Hu-Wen administration has demonstrated that it is unrealistic to expect bold steps in political reform—or even thoroughgoing changes within parameters supposedly recognized by the authorities. A good example is debate over the ostensibly noncontroversial issue of constitutional reform; it was not only one of Hu’s most important initiatives since the Sixteenth CCP Congress but also one that could be accomplished without unduly upsetting the status quo.

Since the intention to have the revised charter passed by the March 2004 NPC session was made known in early 2003, intellectuals and liberal cadres thought they would have one fruitful year to discuss different proposals. Forward-looking cadres and thinkers, including constitutional scholar Cao Siyuan, prominent law professor Zhang Ping, and retired liberal cadre Zhu Houze held a nonofficial conference at Qingdao University in June 2003 to thrash out various ideals about constitutional revision. These included reforms—for example, the introduction of cha’e (multiple-candidate) elections for picking party and government cadres—that would not threaten the CCP’s cherished one-party rule.

Symptomatic of what some called “a bone-chilling frost in mid-summer,” however, secret police and thought-control apparatchiks began zeroing in on free-thinking intellectuals associated with the revise-the-Constitution movement. Cao was put under twenty-four-hour surveillance and warned not to communicate with the foreign media. According to Cao, what Hu was afraid of was that “Westernized intellectuals would stir up expectations that party authorities could not deliver.” Cao said another reason behind the crackdown was Hu’s fear that Zhu, a former head of the CCP Propaganda Department, might be spearheading a kind of “within-the-system” rebellion by the CCP’s liberal faction. “While Zhu retired in 1989, he still has ample moral authority in the party,” Cao said. “And as a confidante of [former party chief] Hu Yaobang, as well as Hu’s predecessor as Guizhou party secretary, Zhu has a considerable following in the CCP.” During the brief period of intellectual fermentation in mid-2003, Zhu had won admiration for his campaign to put an end to “rule of personality.” After the Sixteenth CCP Congress, Zhu famously told a magazine that “the era of the strongmen is definitely over” and that younger leaders such as Hu and Wen should implement bolder reforms.

From mid-2003 onward, “new ideas” on not only constitutional revision but other topics related to political modernization were largely barred from the official media. Part of the ferocity of the backlash against liberal opinion was that, despite their differences, President Hu and ex-president Jiang had joined forces to rein in the free thinkers. Said a Beijing source close to the legal establishment: “The former president dismissed as ‘bourgeois liberalization’ efforts by scholars to put into the Constitution clauses guaranteeing internationally acknowledged civil rights.” And Jiang’s—and Hu’s—conservative underling, Director of the CCP Publicity Department Liu Yunshan, was enforcing with gusto his bosses’ directive that “bourgeois liberals” be barred from airing their views on constitutional matters.

Given Hu’s heavy involvement in the anti-liberalization movement, there seems little substance to the claim that only the Jiang Faction was responsible for the cold winds of 2003 and 2004. Diplomatic analysts said the prestige of Hu-Wen team—and in particular Hu, who is in charge of ideological and propaganda matters—had fallen among the intelligentsia. Despite the Fourth-Generation leadership’s lip service to political reform, its priority is still sustaining and strengthening the party’s monopoly on power. Many of the relatively liberal measures introduced by the Hu-Wen group, ranging from promoting rule by law and curbing corruption to boosting government transparency and cadre responsibility, are meant to subserve the larger goal of raising the ruling party’s “governance ability”. Yet reform measures will be halted or scaled back as soon as they threaten the CCP’s all-embracing authority.

The Deplorable Level of Human Rights

Because political reform is so inextricably linked with human rights—and because of the Hu-Wen team’s yiren weiben motto—it is instructive to scrutinize what the leadership calls the “humanistic conditions” in the country. In March 2004, the authorities published a White Paper on Human Rights in China, which claimed that such rights were “at their best” in history. The document praised the leadership’s focus on the dictum of “governing the country for the sake of the people.” As evidence of amelioration in human rights, the paper listed a host of figures ranging from Internet availability to growth in per capita GDP, as well as improvements in peasants’ livelihood.

For dissidents incarcerated or under virtual house arrest, however, the civil and human rights situation is still grim. During 2004, much of the attention of Chinese intellectuals and international watchdogs was focused on the deteriorating health of former party chief Zhao Ziyang. As the 1989 democracy movement had faded from the memory of most Chinese under age thirty-five, the potential threat of the eighty-five-year-old man to the CCP leadership was becoming smaller by the day. However, Hu, Wen (once Zhao’s main aide), and other PSC members were extremely wary of relaxing twenty-four-hour police surveillance over the aged leader. This prompted Zhao’s former secretary, Bao Tong, to ask in April 2004: “Where are Mr. Zhao Ziyang’s human rights at this point in time?” Bao, who was also under twenty-four-hour surveillance, added satirically: “Please note that now is the time when our country’s human rights condition is ‘at its best!'”

And when Zhao passed away in January 2007, the Hu leadership decided to prevent his family members, former associates, and admirers from honoring the liberal leader. Security agents barred the bulk of well-wishers from going into Zhao’s house in central Beijing, where his children had set up a temporary facility for mourning. At least several dozen Zhao sympathizers, including peasants from his hometown in Henan Province, were detained briefly. Two octogenarian writers who had published Zhao-related books in Hong Kong were put under tight surveillance. All news media and websites were forbidden to mention anything relating to Zhao’s demise. And when, on the day of the minimalist funeral, the NCNA released a brief dispatch that referred to the former party chief’s “grave errors” in 1989, the news item did not even mention the senior posts that he had occupied.

There has hardly been any let-up in the elaborate methods that police and state-security departments employ to nip dissent in the bud. Beijing’s priority targets are groups suspected of having links to “hostile foreign forces” and separatist groups in Xinjiang and Tibet, as well as wildcat labor unions and underground political parties. However, even outwardly innocuous, academically oriented “research societies” or “study groups” formed by individual college students are subject to close surveillance. After describing how the police had crushed the New Youth Study Group, which was active among a small group of Peking University students in the early 2000s, Washington Post Beijing correspondent Philip Pan wrote: “the CCP is engaged in the largest and perhaps most successful experiment in authoritarianism in the world.”

Most Western governments and watchdog NGOs have given the Hu-Wen team poor marks in the human rights area. London’s Amnesty International said in a late-2003 report that “despite a few positive steps, no attempt was made to introduce the fundamental legal and institutional reforms necessary to bring an end to serious human rights violations.” The U.S. State Department issued similar accusations in its 2003 and 2004 reports. For example, the Assistant Secretary for Human Rights Michael Kozak noted in late 2004 that some 310,000 people were confined in China’s reeducation-through-labor camps, up from about half this figure in the early 1990s. This was despite the Hu-Wen team’s alleged determination to root out administrative detention.

The Fermentation of New Ideas Continues Despite Official Suppression

While intellectuals and academics recognized in 2003 and 2004 that the season for liberalization had not arrived, there were continued calls for reform. Most of these forward-looking scholars have cast doubt on the specious arguments offered by the CCP leadership that time is not yet ripe for change. Retired Peking University social scientist Shang Dewen, for example, insisted that time for meaningful change to the system was “running out.” Shang said in 2003 that while political reform had been officially put on the agenda in the 1980s, what had been accomplished was merely “some tinkering with personnel reform in government departments” while “nothing has changed in the Stalinist [political] structure.” Likewise, the late party chief of Guangdong and reformer Ren Zhongyi disputed the conventional wisdom that political reform would lead to instability. “Political reform won’t lead to chaos,” he told the official Window of Southern Trends magazine in mid-2004. “The great majority of people hate corruption and they want change [in the system.]”

For famed economist Mao Yushi, a democratic model is the only alternative to dictatorship. Recounting how Chairman Mao had ruined the nation, Mao said a dictatorial system was fundamentally flawed “because we can never ensure that the dictator is a good person.” “That’s why we can’t do without democratic politics, because it can [at least] prevent the worst situation from taking place.” Equally significantly, social commentator Wang Yi called on the authorities to show more tolerance toward yiyi, or “divergent and dissident views.” Wang said the party leadership should expand China’s “space for public politics, that is, space for [the airing of] divergent and dissident views in a nonviolent, competitive manner.” The commentator said political authority must be built on the “conciliation, not suppression, of yiyi.” It is significant that Wang’s views were carried in Chinanewsweek, a mainstream weekly magazine. In his interview with Window of Southern Trends, party elder Ren went so far as to say that China should borrow the Western institution of “checks and balances among the executive, legislature, and judiciary.” Ren, who passed away late 2005, said this should not be regarded as a “Western institution” because of its universal appeal.

Then there are activists like Li Fan, who is instrumental in helping local officials experiment with elections. Li has for the past several years run the World and China Institute, a private think tank on grassroots democracy. The scholar was undaunted by the CCP leadership’s decision not to sanction polls at higher administrative levels, because he believed that a new generation of peasants, workers, and professionals would be pushing harder for democratic rights. “Grassroots democracy may be momentarily suppressed,” he said. “But once the seeds have been planted, the roots can only grow deeper and deeper before an inevitable bloom.”

Compared to the first generation of so-called all-out Westernizers in the mid-1980s such as astrophysicist Fang Lizhi or political scientist Yan Jiaqi, most democracy advocates of the 2000s have sought to avoid head-on confrontation with the authorities. These relatively moderate modernizers often play up the fact that political liberalization would actually bolster Beijing’s authority and legitimacy, and serve the CCP’s avowed purpose of maintaining stability and prosperity. It is perhaps a measure of the Hu-Wen leadership’s lack of confidence that it has refused to engage in a dialogue with advocates of radical reform—let alone adopt their ideas right away.

Toward a Chinese Socialist Democratic Party?

Assuming that, as some optimists have argued, the Hu-Wen team will hasten the pace of reform after they have consolidated powers at the Seventeenth CCP Congress in 2007, is it possible that the CCP will transform itself into a Chinese Socialist Democratic Party (CSDP)? This possibility was first raised when ex-president Jiang enshrined his “Theory of the Three Represents” in the CCP Constitution in late 2002. As discussed earlier, this theory has revised key Marxist precepts by doing away with class struggle and legitimizing the concept of a quanmindang, or a party for all the people. The question then arises as to whether the Fourth-Generation leadership will, by the time of say, the Eighteenth CCP Congress of 2012, push the quanmindang ideal to its logical conclusion.

The idea that the CCP will change its nature—if not also its name—to that of a European-style socialist democratic party is less far-fetched than it may seem. The motto of Jiang and Hu—”to progress with the times”—sounds intriguingly similar to the goal of “making progress through peaceful [evolution]” propounded by rebel cadre Xu Jiatun in 1992. A former top CCP representative in Hong Kong, Xu defected to the United States one year after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Xu, a former party boss of Jiangsu Province, argued that to stay alive and relevant, the CCP must copy the good points of capitalist systems through a process akin to “peaceful evolution.”

Indeed, think tanks in both the CCP and the State Council had started doing research on European social democratic parties in 2000. In the summer of 2000, then PSC member Wei Jianxing went to Germany and paid a visit to the headquarters of the German Social Democratic Party (SDP). There he discussed with SDP leaders issues such as party ideology and organization. Top SDP officials reciprocated with a trip to Beijing the same year. In late 2002, Hu, together with then Politburo member in charge of ideology and propaganda, Ding Guan’gen, made trips to several European countries, where they observed socialist democratic parties at firsthand. In mid-2002, Western diplomats in Beijing also reported that while talking with party cadres, the latter asked them numerous questions about the theory, constitution, and operation of European social democratic parties.

Analysts are divided as to whether it is possible that the CCP’s transformation to a CSDP can be accomplished in ten years or so. It is certain that the Hu-Wen team will be under tremendous pressure to put real political reform on the agenda. While the influence of leftists, or remnant Maoists, is expected to decline further, the voice of “rightists,” or Westernized cadres, scholars, professionals, and other members of the middle class, is tipped to grow. The Hu leadership is expected to encounter ferocious lobbying from “bourgeois liberal” or pro-West intellectuals to promote political reform in order to transform party and state institutions into those that are in line with European socialist democratic parties.

Forward-looking intellectuals and officials are already saying that if the CCP has become a quanmindang, it should allow nonparty politicians, businessmen, and professionals to play a role in politics that is commensurate with their socioeconomic clout. This significant broadening of political participation logically leads to the CCP’s lifting the ban on the formation of new political parties—and ultimately to multiparty politics. Other remnants of Leninism and Maoism have also become horrendously outdated. For example, if the CCP has abandoned class warfare, the People’s Liberation Army should cease to remain either a “party’s army” or a tool for exercising “proletarian dictatorship.”

And then there is the fact that obsolete political institutions have proven to be a millstone around the neck of economic reform and growth, which has become the sole raison d’être of the ruling party. The choice facing the CCP is as urgent as it is stark. To cope with new circumstances, it not only has to jettison age-old ideology but give up its stranglehold on power. How to manage this momentous change without undue disruption to China’s already fragile sociopolitical fabric could be the Fourth Generation’s biggest challenge. And it is much better for the ruling party to introduce far-reaching changes—even at the expense of some of its own power—than to have bigger and much more disruptive changes thrust upon it.