Wen Jiabao Pushing the Envelope Again?

Russell Leigh Moses is a Beijing-based analyst and professor who writes on Chinese politics. He is writing a book on the changing role of power in the Chinese political system. Read more by Mr. Moses

Count on Premier Wen Jiabao to shake Chinese politics again.

Late last week, Wen again went out on the political limb, delivering a speech(zh) at the Central Research Institute of Culture and History — not normally known for being an innovative and envelope-pushing event. In a talk suffused with classical allusions, Wen urged officials in his audience to “speak the truth” — implying that many did nothing of the sort. He contended that the Communist Party needed to create the conditions for both cadres and the wider public to be able to do just that, lest political failure result.

“Government policy should be clear, realistic, in accordance with what people wish”, Wen continued, hitting out at recent statements in Party media that questioned just how helpful citizen participation was in policy-making. Advice from the people is a good thing, the Premier insisted, and helps avoid the sorts of setbacks–such as the numerous toxic food scandals–that have undermined what moral authority the Party has preserved for itself.

Wen acknowledged that corruption is “a social cancer” currently, and he went further, speaking of “degeneration” in Chinese society that would grow if the Party’s efforts at “cultural construction” did not incorporate legal reform and more than a dollop of democracy.

This is strong stuff, especially when the upper echelons seem happiest with a heavy hand on society, and wish for less verve and more order. (The fact that the full text of the speech got greater play on Chinese blogs than it did in the mainstream Party media indicates just how appealing — and sensitive — it is.)

And there is a precedent for Wen’s outspokenness. A year ago this every month, Wen praised his political mentor, Hu Yaobang, in a widely-read though not universally reprinted essay(zh). Wen’s on-again, off-again statements about political reform in the following weeks mirrored the debate in the Chinese leadership about just what sort of change the Party was comfortable with. That was the opening salvo in a series of political skirmishes. Wen and his allies kept wanting to kick-start a wider conversation on political development, but the conservatives in the Party would have none of that. As last summer faded, so did the hopes of those cadres and intellectuals who wanted a wider discussion of where China might move politically in the coming years.

So, what’s Wen doing now? A number of possibilities suggest themselves.

One, Wen and his associates cannot help but be concerned about what could turn out to be a lasting turn to the truncheon-wielders in Chinese politics. They may sense that the coming summer is the last, best chance for getting in front of this train and preventing hardliners from picking up any more speed before the change in Party leadership next year. The Wen wing of the Party may be in accord with others about major economic policies, tax cuts for the indigent, and efforts to use price controls to combat inflation. But there is growing distance between the view of Wen and his allies who think that society here is better managed softly, and the assessments of their political adversaries, who advocate a bit more manhandling, more directives and less dialogue. Wen may be gambling that the time for confrontation is now or never.

Wen also has to confront the fact that the political Left in China is rising, most notably in the person of Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai. Whether it is cracking down on triads in the city or encouraging people to sing revolutionary melodies that extoll national greatness, Bo has become the leading advocate for ideological purity. He and his coterie represent the most direct threat to any hope of political reform; efforts by Party liberals to realize new standards of accountability and transparency in cadre ranks run up against the march of Bo’s morality machine. Wen’s people are trying to fight their corner by showing how the Premier’s speech contains the remedies (zh) for building a healthier Party, but with all eyes on Bo Xilai and his exhortations to the masses, it’s an uphill battle.

Where are Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping and their confederates in all of this? Right in the middle, trying to hold together an increasingly shaky center, preaching “socialist morality” (zh) some days and emphasizing “scientific development” (zh) the next. But the fact that Party regulars have to be reminded of the importance of the latter doctrine—the central slogan of the Hu tenure—shows just how rickety the balance of political forces is starting to get.

Finally, the talk about a smooth transition to a new leadership next year assumes that retiring politicians will go quietly; that they will be satisfied with economic progress and social stability. But Wen’s speech has the hallmarks of a call for something more. An economic slowdown for China may be in the offing, but a political showdown might well get here quicker.

No comments:

Post a Comment