Change with continuity

Published : Apr 09, 2004 00:00 IST

The National People's Congress endorses landmark amendments to the Chinese Constitution and renews its commitment to the construction of `socialism with Chinese characteristics'.

in Singapore

IS China poised for a "great leap forward" in the direction of conventional capitalism, as some Western observers would like the world to believe? Or, is Beijing still very much on "the road to socialism with Chinese characteristics" - a political goal that the governing Communist Party of China (CPC) has reaffirmed a number of times? These questions acquire practical importance as China prepares to implement the constitutional amendments that the second session of the 10th National People's Congress adopted in Beijing on March 14. The highest organ of state power in the country, the National People's Congress is empowered with the right to formulate laws and policies, delegate authority and supervise other governing organs.

Given the complexities of China's huge political arena and economic domain and its strategic presence on the international stage as a veto-empowered permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, a quick and decisive answer to these questions, which are infused with long-term implications, is difficult at this point. However, it is clear that the CPC is trying to re-invent China without causing an upheaval. China has not yet fully resolved the issues, particularly the Taiwan question, the genesis of which is traced back to the civil war of the 1940s.

For many in the political West, which has systematically sought to undermine the Chinese communist system since its early days, the latest constitutional amendment on the protection of private property rights is an open political invitation to the emerging class of Chinese `private entrepreneurs' to join the CPC.

Two assumptions are evident in this context. First, the protagonists of this hypothesis tend to equate the `private entrepreneurs' of China with the advanced productive forces whom, among others, the CPC has now begun to "represent". In this context, the emergence of "private businessmen" on the contemporary Chinese scene is traced to the constitutional adoption of the principle of "socialist market economy" in 1993. In 1999, the private sector was enshrined in the Chinese Constitution as an essential part of the "socialist market economy".

A check-list of the implications of the latest statute changes covers, among several issues, the state-ordained protection of legally obtained private property and a guarantee of human rights. An external perspective on China's progressive adoption of political `liberalism' of some form or the other is that the CPC-led state itself is perhaps heading towards drafting a "capitalist manifesto" with or without "Chinese characteristics". Although "capitalist manifesto" is a term that Guy Kawasaki had used in an altogether different context, the loaded political connotation of this term, when applied to the current Chinese situation, is that of a perceived shift away from the Communist Manifesto.

The second general assumption of Western observers of China is that the CPC's basic political complexion can and will be altered by the `private entrepreneurs' over time. It requires no clairvoyance to recognise that the outcome that many Western observers are hoping for is the eventual disappearance of the `party state' in China and the rise of `multi-party democracy' of the conventional kind. Now, while the dynamics of Chinese society and the CPC cannot be over-simplified in this fashion, a relevant factor at work is that the party and, therefore, China as a polity, are trying to `rejuvenate' themselves by seeking new political avenues with social and economic dimensions.

HENCE the story of China's new constitutional experiment is best seen from the perspective of CPC leaders themselves. While the fine print of the exact terminology of the latest revisions was not authoritatively publicised at the time of going to press, the language of the draft text, in the case of 14 amendments in all, was indicative of a strategic shift in internal politics. The shift does not, however, amount to any epochal change that could match the massive sweep of Mao Zedong's revolutionary establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 or Deng Xiaoping's reforms in the 1980s and thereafter. If the present strategic shift is indeed reflective of a quiet revolution or a slow transformation towards a `more open society' or more conventional statehood, the contours are still to emerge in bold relief.

Overarching the new amendments, which range from private property and human rights to the idea of a state of emergency as distinct from a state of siege, is the ideological framework of the "Thought of Three Represents". This, which is an "important Thought" according to the CPC, was enunciated by Jiang Zemin, formerly China's President and currently Chairman of the Central Military Commission at the levels of party and state. The new ideological framework was first woven into the CPC's constitution through a resolution that was adopted on November 14, 2002, during the party's 16th National Congress in Beijing (Frontline, December 6, 2002).

On March 14, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao articulated the super-imposition of this framework on the country's basic statute: "In particular, the amended Constitution established the important `Thought of Three Represents', together with Marxism-Leninism [as also] Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory, as the guiding ideology for the whole party and country. This is of far-reaching significance for our country."

The continued identification of the CPC and the Chinese state as two sides of the same coin acquires a fresh meaning in the context of their new representational character as defined by Jiang Zemin, without his name being formally associated with it. However, in deference to his status as the elder statesman in today's Chinese milieu, he was given the pride of place in the roll-call for voting on the amendments at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Chinese President and CPC General Secretary Hu Jintao stood behind Jiang to cast his ballot. Although Jiang has not been mentioned by name as an ideological `guru' of the CPC, his theory is seen to redefine, if not yet fully re-invent, China's present-day polity.

The shorter official versions of the "Thought of Three Represents" portray the CPC and the Chinese state as being the representative of the country's advanced productive forces, cultural traditions and the overwhelming majority of the people. From a Western standpoint, the productive forces are generally taken to mean China's burgeoning class of `private entrepreneurs' or `private capitalists'. The studied reference to cultural forces is interpreted as the means to reaffirm China's independent status on the global stage as a unique society. Yet another external view is that the CPC and the Chinese state have begun to project themselves as the true representative of the entire society and not just the proletariat or the peasantry or both (as the case might have been in the past).

THIS interpretation of the "Thought of Three Represents" is reinforced by the claims and despair, mainly in the West, that the latest statute changes are no Magna Carta of free expression and political pluralism.

The Chinese leaders, on their part, practise the fine art of letting their deeds speak louder than their political discourse on all these aspects of re-inventing their country without the turmoil of the earlier periods of civil war and the Cultural Revolution. These deeds pertain to economic reform and some form of "political restructuring". According to Xiaobo Hu, who has studied the prospects of Chinese political economy with particular reference to private property rights, the new leaders in Beijing may not move fast on the track of political reform. Having assumed office just over a year ago, they may first seek to consolidate their power base, it is argued. In any case, as Wen Jiabao indicated at the media conference in Beijing on March 14, Chinese leaders are still wary of political reforms of the kind that the `pro-democracy' student activists at the Tiananmen Square in 1989 and their supporters and sympathisers in the West really wanted. Answering a question whether the student activists could not be deemed patriots, at least at this distance in time, Wen Jiabao said that "China faced a very serious political disturbance" by the end of the 1980s and at the beginning of the 1990s. At that "critical moment", with the Soviet Union having "disintegrated", China's dilemma was acute.

Linking the memories of that situation to the realities of today, Wen Jiabao said: "What [then] hung in the balance was the future of our party and the future of our country. We [thereafter] successfully stabilised the general situation of reform and opening-up in China and safeguarded the cause of building socialism with Chinese characteristics." Noting that "tremendous achievements" and a stabilisation of "socialist modernisation" followed as a result, he said: "A very important contributing factor is the fact that we have always upheld unity of the party and safeguarded social and political stability in this country." He added that with the next 20 years having now been identified as a "period of strategic opportunity for China's [economic] development, ... unity and stability are of overriding importance." It was also indicated that a time-span of 20 to 50 years might perhaps be required for China to attain the status of a genuine economic superpower.

If Wen Jiabao appeared to shoot down the notion of Western-style political reforms in China in the foreseeable future, he also maintained that the country's "Constitution [as now amended] will not be affected by changes in the leadership or changes in the attention of the leadership".

The CPC would continue to play a leadership role in shaping China's political evolution through the constitutional process, he said. The strategic bottom line that the CPC would seek to sustain is its own unity and China's stability. The new amendments, including those relating to measures required for safeguarding such stability, should be seen in this perspective.

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