Friday, December 25, 2009

A growing dilemma for Hu Jintao: how should he deal with democracy inside the Communist Party?

Democracy in China

Control freaks

YOU might have thought China’s leaders would be brimming over with confidence just now. Even as the West is struggling, their economy is growing strongly. China’s eclectic mix of free-market principles, spoon-fed state enterprises and intolerance of dissent may be contradictory, but it seems to have paid dividends. Around the world those disillusioned with American capitalism have half an eye on China as an alternative.

Yet the ruling Communist Party is acutely conscious of its own frailties. Although students are still desperate to join the party, that is not because they believe in Marxism, but because they are worried about their job prospects and party membership can pull strings. Once in, they find an organisation that cloaks itself in the mind-numbing dogma of yesteryear, pays little heed to the will of its 76m members and revels in costly, time-wasting meetings to rubber-stamp the leaders’ decisions. It is a formula that buys the party short-term comfort at the expense of long-term instability.

Seven years ago the party abandoned its scruples about recruiting private entrepreneurs. It has worked hard to restock its grassroots after the havoc caused when thousands of state-owned enterprises closed. As a result, party cells have been sprouting in private businesses, including in many which are partly foreign-owned. But within the party’s ranks, power still flows much as it did in the dictatorial days of Mao Zedong.

Party leaders admit that this is a weakness. The party’s immunity to scrutiny, even by its own members, fosters corruption and leaves decisions prone to error. Giving supposedly elected posts in the party to hand-picked favourites generates resentment and cynicism. Members from the private sector are often still marginalised. So too, at the top, are women.

Let a hundred flowers wilt

China usually scorns lessons from the developing world, but party scholars have travelled to study Vietnam. Many have come back inspired. The Vietnamese Communist Party brooks no opposition, but in recent years it has introduced a semblance of competition for top positions. Hu Jintao has often spoken of the need for “inner-party democracy” in China too. The media have heaped dutiful praise on his words. But China’s experiments have been timid and puny. This is bad news for those in China who had believed that Mr Hu’s inner-party democracy would foster the countrywide sort. In fact it is becoming clear that Mr Hu is as fearful of giving a voice to the party as he is of giving one to the country. It is also bad for China’s stability. Mr Hu himself has often warned that corruption could destroy the party. Its isolation from public opinion makes it vulnerable to nasty surprises such as the explosions of unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang.

China’s leaders have begun manoeuvring their favourites into senior positions in readiness for them to take power in 2012 when Mr Hu, it is assumed, steps down as party chief. Success or failure in the struggle for power will be decided not by the ballot box but by backroom deals between factions. Mr Hu’s rise to power in 2002 went smoothly, but previous post-Mao transitions had resulted in a coup and a popular uprising.

Mr Hu appears to worry that his remaining years in office could be marred by turmoil. Intense security remains in force in Xinjiang and Tibet. Controls on the internet have been tightened in the past few months. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have been blocked: their role in Iran’s recent upheaval clearly spooked China’s leaders. The lawyer of Liu Xiaobo, a prominent dissident, has learnt that his client will face trial for subversion. Mr Liu’s offence, apparently, was to organise a petition calling for more democracy.

Optimists in China have suggested that internal democracy could help the party evolve into something like Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, which ruled for 54 years with only a brief interruption until its defeat this year. But that would happen only if party factions could compete openly before facing the electorate. Mr Hu, for all his talk of democracy, stresses the need to uphold the party’s tradition of “centralism”—following the leader, with no open dissent.
Party bosses can either choose their successors themselves or give the members a say. They cannot do both. The Economist

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