The 18th Party Congress and China’s Political Reforms

IITM CSC Article #41
5 November 2012


The 18th Party Congress and China’s Political Reforms

With weeks to go before the 18th Party Congress convenes in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, calls for political reforms  are pouring in from Party members, the official media and recently from academics across China. Anywhere else a call for political reforms would mean radical constitutional changes enabling democratic institutions, or demands for regime change. Not so in China, where calls for political reforms in terms of intra-party reforms, are made to ensure regime stability by responding to critical issues at the heart of popular dissent. This, despite alternative demands for liberal democracy as in the Charter ‘08 now securely under lock and key in  China with the incarceration of its prime mover,  nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo.

Calls for political reform from within the establishment in China are a clear indication that the Party is in crisis over its decision making processes, transparency in its functioning and a permanent tenure system for its congress delegates which would lead to accountability and a distribution of responsibility. The much vaunted grass roots democracy, where local leaders have been elected directly by residents, has been challenged by events in Wukan and thousands of mass protests in different areas where residents targeted the actions of local officials. Deluged by charges of corruption, bad governance and nepotism against high profile members of the political elite like Bo Xilai, as well as local cadres in places like Wukan, the Party is finally  being forced to address an issue that was at the centre of Party debates at the 17th Party Congress. The fact that political reform, even as defined by the Party, was rarely implemented during the past five years is a measure of the moribund state of the Party’s elite and lower level echelons. That state is now seen as a clear and present danger to the regime’s future.

Since the 17th Party Congress, calls for political reform have peaked and plateaued off in different years. The focus since the Fourth Plenary Session of the 17th Party Congress in 2009 has been on “open nomination and direct election” for leaders at the urban and rural grassroots levels. The expectation that this method of choosing leaders would be applied to the upper and middle levels of the Party’s administrative structure has been belied since then as indicated by the falling usage of the term in 2011. In fact, as the Party saw itself under siege with the Tibetan dissent, the Nobel award to Liu Xiaobo, the embarrassment over Chen Guancheng’s bolt to freedom, domestic  social dissent and political embarrassment with the Jasmine protests rising inflation and the dislocations from the global economic crisis, and factional confrontations over upcoming leadership changes, it went into fortress mode. It used greater coercion to block debate and the right to association, often using nationalist positions to gain popular support for its policies. At best, however, this is evidence of an increasingly insecure Party using means that are as fragile and fraught with danger as its own position.

 At the last session of the National People’s Congress in March this year the dire need to address the issue prompted Chinese premier Wen Jiabao to warn that the absence of intra-Party political reforms would lead to a “historical tragedy” akin to the Cultural revolution. Wen, in fact, has become the town crier for political reforms with at least forty public references to the issue at last count. Significantly, even as  President Hu Jintao distanced himself from Wen’s call for more intra-Party democracy he was also forced to acknowledge in July this year that they were a priority after the Bo Xilai affair had exposed to the world what the average Chinese already knew about the  rot within the Party’s elite.

Despite caution on the part of Hu there is a general consensus that the political system must give, if it is not to fall. The Party’s view has been that political reforms need to be carefully calibrated to meet two ends: the need to address the imbalance between economic reforms, growth and political reforms, and the need to prevent instability by either rushing into political reforms at all levels or pulling back from needed reforms in specific areas. Hence the focus on reforms has been to extend multiple candidate elections at the local level Party committees thereby enhancing, theoretically at least, a sense of democratic and meritocratic choice in the elections of candidates. In addition the Party has indicated that local fiscal policy be subjected to greater transparency to meet the charges of corruption by cadres and local leaders. Chinese scholars have  supported these efforts as an aspect of “deliberative democracy” which, it is often argued, works better to bring about citizen participation in state functioning.  But the contradiction of  reforms at the lower levels and the stasis at the upper  and middle levels of the Party has limited even the currently limited meaning of democracy reforms within China. At the higher levels of Party functioning decision making is still non-transparent, there is opposition to multiple candidates for inner Party elections and Party bosses resist the idea of being answerable to the public or the media. The high handed Chongqing model has, in the past, been extolled  as one to be emulated elsewhere in China. “Deliberative democracy”, its proponents often forget, functions well in conjunction with open access to information to enable well informed decision making and with other democratic processes throughout the political system.

However, the shock to the Party system from the Bo Xilai affair and  the internal debate on the China Model have already prompted the Party to move beyond its periodic bursts of damage control to take a longer and systemic view of the need for intra-Party political reforms. The New York Times revelations of Wen Jiaobao’s assets, as they get through to the Chinese people, will provide further boost to the reformers within the system as they confront hardline elements within the Party, the PLA and the powerful State Owned Corporations who have argued against the destabilizing potential of political reforms. A March 2012 poll by the Global Times, known to take a pro-Party/state nationalist position, indicates that the Party may be forced to ride the wave of pressure from the people 44.1 % of who think that current social conditions warrant reforms and that vested interests stand against reforms. Interestingly 47.9 %  are also not opposed to Western style democracy although they think that in the present circumstances in China it is a “naïve idea”. A large portion, 34.3 %, also think that China may be  close to a revolution. In fairness, a slightly lower number, 32.3%, also think that is not so while about half of those in the maybe  and no category (15.1%) think that China is close to a revolution. The question on the possibility of a  revolution relates to the issue of the instability of the regime in the context of political reform and is intended to test the waters on how far the Party needs to go in the direction of reform. However, the poll also indicates that fears of instability lie largely  within the Party with 50 % of respondents indicating that they did not fear social unrest as a result of reforms.

As the Party’s convention draws near the demands for political reform-in leadership, top-down transparency and greater participation in decision making—will no longer be in debate. What is more likely to be debated is how much and how soon the Party will reform itself from an elite group of vested interests and respond to the groundswell of demands for a more transparent and, in the Chinese context, democratic style of functioning.


Madhu Bhalla,
Professor, East Asian Studies, Delhi University and Board Member, CSC IITM
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