Analysis: China’s absent political reforms worry many

By Chris Buckley

BEIJING (BestGrowthStock) – China’s Communist Party has vowed ambitious changes on all fronts except the one — its vast power — that worried scholars, officials and even Premier Wen Jiabao call the biggest threat to long-term growth and stability.

It is a choice that shows the ruling party’s confidence that it holds the country’s future surely in its grip; it is also an absence some warn could come back to rattle that grip.

Party leaders emerged from a four-day meeting on Monday to present their plan for transforming the world’s second biggest economy over the next half-decade, focusing on boosting income and spending power for millions. Even for a policy wish list, the few words on reforming government were hazy.

“Political reform was never on the table,” said Wu Jiaxiang, a former aide to Chinese central leaders.

“Wen Jiabao may favor political reform, but he’s just the premier in charge of the economy. Political reform is something the Standing Committee would have to all agree on, and they’re really not interested.”

The Standing Committee is the Party’s nine-member ruling inner circle, which includes Wen and President Hu Jintao.

Yet quite a few of China’s own officials and intellectuals fear something may go awry without firmer steps to rein in Party power. Such warnings do not just come from foreigners.

They see a dangerous complacency that could sap growth through unchecked power, and magnify public ire about official corruption and privilege and home evictions that sometimes erupt in protests, petitions and self-immolations.

“Without political reform the fruits of economic reform will be lost,” Yu Jianrong, a social researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said in a recent talk in Beijing.

He urged changes starting at grassroots government and giving courts a measure of independence from local party bosses.

“China’s rapid economic growth is like Latin America’s in the past, when there was a failure there to establish government based on fairness and justice, democracy and rule of law, and the rapid growth ended in social turmoil and unrest,” Yu said.

Premier Wen, who survived the ousting of his reformist boss Zhao Ziyang after the pro-democracy movement was crushed in 1989, sticks out as the one senior official who has echoed the warnings, even if he has not spelled out what changes he favors.

In a succession of comments, Wen has said the government must rein in abuses or risk sacrificing the gains of growth to “regression and stagnation.”

Wen is in the final stretch of his time in office, and he lacks a factional following in the elite that could give his calls a wider currency.

The emerging successors to Wen and President Hu have kept their policy cards close to their chests. Hu’s likely successor, Xi Jinping, appears to favor more forthright leadership.

But it will take a crisis to jolt the ruling elite into thinking more seriously about deeper political reform, Xiao Han, a law professor in Beijing, told a weekend seminar.

“They dominate so many of the resources in society, so there’s just no motive for them to reform,” Xiao said.

“Even if Mr. Wen is calling for reform, that won’t move the bureaucratic apparatus,” he said.

“It would be unthinkable for them to contemplate suicide.”

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM, COMRADE?

The lack of urgency about political reform is no surprise.

Especially since the 1989 crackdown, the government has reviled any notion that it should embrace Western-style democracy. Officials point to the turmoil that has afflicted some post-Soviet states.

The government’s vehement condemnation of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, a jailed veteran dissident who won fame in 1989, has reinforced that point.

In addition, China’s record of rapid growth, powering past the financial crisis that has weighed down the United States and Europe, has pressed Beijing to relax political controls.

Some Chinese economic advisers say Beijing needs to remove the government’s grip on land, resources and lucrative sectors now to avoid troubles piling up that could sap growth.

“The crux and focus of transforming the mode of economic development is transforming the government,” Chi Fulin, the head of a reformist think tank, told a Chinese magazine this week.

There is also an undercurrent of public opinion urging party leaders to relax their grip, even if outright democratic reforms remain out of reach.

Retired Chinese reformist officials, including a former secretary to Mao Zedong, last week urged the government to respect freedom of speech and lift censorship.

Wen’s status as a figurehead of political reform has irked more conservative leaders and censors, worried above all else about snuffing out any potential challenges to party power.

A Beijing editor told Reuters that the party’s propaganda department has ordered newspapers not to republish some of Wen’s bolder comments on political reform, including a talk with students that appeared last year in the Legal Daily.

The editor spoke on condition that he not be identified.

Wen’s final years in office up to early 2013 could bring more jousting.

“Defending Wen Jiabao is not defending just one man; it’s defending demands for political reform, defending the forces of political reform,” Du Daozheng, a retired former senior censor who advocates democratic reforms, told a Beijing magazine, China Through the Ages (Yanhuang chunqiu) this month.

(Editing by Ron Popeski)

Analysis: China’s absent political reforms worry many