June 06, 2020
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Jiang's Halfway House

The 15th communist congress tries to reconcile economic reforms with tightfisted party control

Jiang's Halfway House

IT'S the ever-puzzling conundrum for the Chinese leadership. How does one straddle the contradictions of bolstering the economy while shunting aside corresponding democratic reforms? In Beijing's Great Hall of the People, as the policymaking 15th Communist Party Congress met last week, the world was reminded that the future of the once ubiquitous communist state is far from secure.

China is one of the four remaining communist governments in the world, and has only one communist ally left on its expansive border. Leaders at the 15th congress were plagued by the pragmatic need for reform. It was clear to the ageing leadership that if they wish to meet in five or 10 years hence at the 16th or 17th congress, change had to top the agenda.

Every five years Chinawatchers get a dose of their favourite candy, enough policy and rhetoric to decode for the following five. The 15th party congress offered grist for the speculator's mill in the four expected areas crying for reform: the leadership legacy of Deng Xiaoping; the trundling economy; the 'state within a state' status of the People's Liberation Army (PLA); and democratic questions which often focus on the June 4 massacre at Tiananmen.

President Jiang Zemin holds the posts of party general secretary, president and chairman of the Central Military Commission. It is rumoured that he even seeks the position abolished by Deng after Mao, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, which would make him something of an emperor. As the congress began, Jiang's current trinity of power was shaky in the wake of splits in the ruling party—from leftover ageing Maoist hardliners, to reformers calling for 'western' ideas of ownership and democracy.

Whether he can displace his opponents, and instal his 'Shanghai mafia', will be the natural indicator of Jiang's power. For the first time Politburo seats are being appointed by 'democratic' ballot elections. Apparently jockeying and lobbying for placement has been fierce, lest the tides of democracy turn Jiang's plans. Jiang would like to see Wu Bangguou reach the Politburo standing committee, remain as vice-premier and hold a high-profile policy portfolio. Huang Ju and Zeng Quinghong are hoping to obtain seats as full standing Politburo members, with the able and modern Zeng taking the reins as propaganda chief.

Jiang faces attack from both sides of the isle. PLA generals Liu Hauqing, 81, and Zeng Zhen, 83, no friends to Jiang, have resisted retirement while they groomed successors. If defence minister Chi Hoatian makes the standing committee of the Politburo, Jiang will have upped his PLA support. But Deng's ally and Jiang's supporter, General Wang Ruilin, also seeks reappointment to the now-elected body of the Politburo, which is an important placement for Jiang.

Perhaps one of Jiang's boldest opponents is Qiao Shi, chairman of the National People's Congress. Qiao takes credit for Beijing's newborn legal system and he once suggested hardliners get a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) of their own. Premier Li Peng is at the end of his 10-year term and cannot be constitutionally reappointed; should he take Qiao's seat, it would clearly indicate that Jiang has limited plans for political and legal reform.

Jiang uses Deng's legacy to shield his own position as well as necessary economic reforms. The word 'privatisation' has been studiously avoided, but Chinese state enterprises are moving in that direction. In his opening speech, Jiang said small and medium-sized state enterprises should be overhauled through "reorganisation, association, merger, leasing, contract operation, joint stock-partnership or sell-off", but that the state would retain "a dominant position in major industries and areas that concern the lifeblood of the national economy".

IN practical terms, this translates to downsizing 130,000 state enterprises to 512 large and strategic ones. Jiang conceded this might bring temporary hardship on workers, but stated that economic progress must continue—a dramatic break from the usual Maoist philosophy. Using Deng's theories, Jiang said that since shareholders were the people themselves, stocks were a form of social ownership, not a tenet of capitalism. Claiming the spirit of socialism, albeit not the letter, it is rumoured that many districts have thrown wide open the doors to privatisation and foreign investment, which might lead to job loss and inflation.

Also downsizing is the all-powerful PLA. Jiang called for a cut in the 3.1 million-strong armed forces by 500,000 in three years in order to develop a more modern military machine. This is enough to strike fear into the hearts of many other nations, as China is one of only five declared nuclear weapon states, with an arsenal of 8,000 tanks, 5,700 fighters and bombers, 50 submarines, 55 destroyers and frigates, 14 intercontinental ballistic missiles and 60 intermediate range missiles. Analysts note that the money freed for military investment is less likely to be used for an arms build-up than it is for retooling this out-of-date and poorly maintained weaponry, however grand. Analysts add that the 500,000 troops are slated to become the Peoples Armed Police, a paramilitary organisation, and are not entirely out of the picture.

As for democracy, Jiang has never fancied democratic reforms and inches toward them only when he has no other option. It is, then, telling that purged former Chinese Communist party chief, Zhao Ziyang, who in Tiananmen tearfully asked students to leave before blood was shed, has been given so much airtime during the current congress. Under house arrest since 1989, Zhao was a figurehead for the air of liberalisation that surrounded China between the 1987 congress and the June 1989 massacre. In the opening days of the congress, an unsigned letter calling for "Ping Fan", or reassessment of the Tiananmen events, was allowed to circulate freely.

The letter, said to be authenticated by Zhao, said the crackdown damaged relations between Beijing and the people, as well as between China and other governments. "No small price was paid by everyone for that kind of action and solution," the letter said. "Even if time has dragged on, it is not easily forgotten by the people. Solving it sooner is better than later, on one's own accord better than at someone else's prodding, when the situation is stable better than when the situation is not." Significantly, in the muddled smoke and mirrors of Chinese government, most of the decisions pressing on the party were being made at the end, not the beginning, of the congress. If Jiang's leadership were without question, if his support were solid and factions in line, he would have released a working paper at the beginning of the congress.

 And when protectors have cleared away and the 2,000 delegates have all gone home, this congress, however much it is not the last, will be remembered for the relative elasticism in the once fiercely dogmatic leadership of modern China. Indeed, Chinawatchers around the world wait with bated breath for the outcome of Politburo elections. Elections. Shareholding. Debate. What will communism look like next? Only the bottomline will tell.

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