Tuesday, July 2, 2013

China and Political rebalancing-Tilting backwards

OVER the past couple of months, officials around the country have been summoned to briefings about a Communist Party circular known as “Document Number Nine”.  Its full contents have not been made public, but by all accounts it paints a grim picture of what the party sees as the threat posed by liberal ways of thinking. The message conveyed at these meetings has been a chilling one: stick to the party line and denounce any dissent.

The strident tone of this document, which is also called “A briefing on the current situation in the ideological realm”, has caused anxiety among liberal intellectuals, and confusion about the agenda of China’s new leader, Xi Jinping. On the economic front, signs remain strong that he wants to speed up the pace of reform. Caixin, a Beijing-based news portal, said on June 24th that a blueprint for this was “finally taking shape” and hinted that it would be unveiled at a meeting of the Party’s central committee in the autumn. It said history would “remember well those who lead China forward on its path to reform”. On the political front, however, the signs are pointing in the opposite direction.

Chinese leaders are past masters at juggling reformist tendencies in economics with hardline political ones (Deng Xiaoping, the founder of China’s “reform and opening” policy, was an exemplar). But the speed with which Mr Xi has moved to establish his conservative ideological credentials, having at first struck a somewhat more liberal tone, has still been a surprise to some observers. The party faces no unusual threats from dissident groups or disaffected citizens. Mr Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, took over at a far more troubled time a decade ago, following millions of layoffs in the state sector. But he waited longer than Mr Xi before showing a tougher side (see this report by the Washington Post in 2003).

The message of Document Number Nine can be divined from official accounts of the secret briefings given to officials. Many of these use similar language, which it is safe to assume reflects the wording of the circular. In Yueyang city in the central province of Hunan, for example, officials at such a meeting reached a consensus that because the situation at home and abroad was “complicated and changeable”, struggles in the ideological realm had therefore become “complicated, fierce and acute” (see here, in Chinese). The officials identified several threats, including calls for “Western constitutional democracy” and universal values (as Analects reported here); promotion of “civil society”; support for “neo-liberalism” (an attempt, the officials said, to change China’s “basic economic system”); and endorsement of “Western news values” (an attempt, they said, to loosen the party’s control over the news media and publishing). Such calls, the officials agreed, were “extremely malicious”.

At another such meeting, officials were reminded to uphold the “three forbiddens” (here, in Chinese): no public expression of disagreement with the party line, no spreading of “political rumours” and no making of remarks that taint the image of the party or state. At yet another, officials were given warning of what was described as an attempt by “Western forces” to undermine China’s “political stability” by sowing confusion in the ideological realm. They were told to “resolutely resist any erroneous way of thinking”.

The document’s nervous tone is also conveyed by a campaign that has been gathering momentum in recent weeks to persuade citizens to display “three self-confidences”:  confidence in the political system, in the party line and in party theory. The frequent repetition of these “self-confidences” in officials’ speeches (Hu Jintao first raised them in his final big address to the party, before stepping down in November) suggests that leaders worry about a widespread lack of conviction both among the public and within the party itself. At the end of May the People’s Daily, the party’s main mouthpiece, reminded readers that pursuit of the “Chinese dream”, a catchphrase of Mr Xi’s, had to be guided by Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong thought (here, in Chinese).

In March the People’s Daily published a three-volume study of the self-confidences. It is suffused with the rhetoric of hardliners, who entirely blame the West for the world’s economic troubles and who see China’s continued strong growth in recent years as a vindication of the “China model”. It says economic malaise in the West is the result of a “Washington consensus” involving “economic liberalisation and political democratisation”.

If this is Mr Xi’s thinking, it does not bode well for reform on any front. But optimists note that party newspapers such as the People’s Daily are heavily influenced by the thinking of the party’s propaganda apparatus, which is a notorious bastion of conservatism—so much so that Deng felt it necessary to travel about 2,000 km (1,200 miles) to southern China to relaunch his economic reform programme in 1992. Hope for political reform is fainter. Mr Xi’s fingerprints are more clearly visible on the recent ideological tightening. If he really intends to do battle in the economy, he might be shy of opening another front. But there is no sign he intends ever to become another Gorbachev. The Economist

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