China's contradictory signals

Li Datong
24 January 2007

For the last month, the foreign press has been hyping up an article first published in autumn 2006 in the Beijing Daily, entitled "Democracy is a Good Thing". Official websites, the People's Daily Online and Xinhua Online have also reproduced this article; as a result, it has gradually attracted widespread interest and debate.

Public discussion of the piece, which has mainly taken place on foreign-based Chinese-language websites, has involved a number of famous overseas Chinese intellectuals whose articles have transmitted very divided signals.

The fact that this piece has created such an interest is understandable, for two reasons.

First, the topic of democracy has always been a "sensitive" issue in the official media of mainland China, and public argument in favour of democracy's benefits are even rarer to find. This is to say nothing of Beijing Daily which published the article; historically seen as a "conservative" newspaper, the very fact that it published this kind of article constitutes news. In these circumstances, people can't help but wonder whether it has a blessing from "up top".

Second, the profile of the article's author, Yu Keping, appears significant. He has a western educational background, is a high-ranking official (as head of the Center for Chinese Government Innovations, and deputy head of the Central Bureau for Editing and Translating), and has been singled out by Hu Jintao as one of his "best brains".

Many overseas analysts and media detect in the background and meaning of this article's publication a signal of the beginning of political reform by the upper echelon of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in particular Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. But this is a grave misreading of party politics.

In contrast, mainland intellectuals' response has been one of broad indifference and the almost complete absence of debate. This is partly because the background of the article is so easy for them to verify. Yu Keping flatly denied to reporters (in private) that there had been any intervention from "up top". Since then, everyone has laughed off the article as a public distraction, a subject for idle gossip.

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and formerly editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point) , a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper

Also by Li Datong in openDemocracy:

"The story of Freezing Point"
(12 September 2006)

"China: a 'great nation'?" (10 January 2007)

There is, moreover, wider evidence to counter this kind of optimistic speculation. On 11 January 2007, the day China's national book fair opened, an assistant bureau chief of China's official news agency called an "internal divulgence meeting". He reported on all "out-of-line" behaviour by China's publishing houses and announced a list of eight books by famous authors that it was now "forbidden to publish". The publishing houses discovered that making these works available to the public would henceforth incur tough sanctions.

One of the books on the list was Zhang Yihe's Past Stories of Beijing Opera Stars. The official commented on Zhang Yihe herself: "This person has exposed her views repeatedly, her books cannot be released, yet you still dare to publish them ... this person has laid her book to waste". What does this mean? It means that there is no problem with the content of the book, but that it or any other of her books must be prevented from being published.

It is relevant here that Zhang Yihe is the daughter of the persecuted "rightist" Zhang Bojun, who has still not been rehabilitated. The vivid descriptions of the achievements of many "rightists", including her father, in Zhang Yihe's earlier book Past Stories Do Not Disappear Like Smoke meant that it sold quickly and widely throughout the Chinese world.

Meanwhile, The True Record of the Lushan Conference, written by Mao Tse-tung's former secretary, Li Rui was also branded a "forbidden book" in the list of eight (even though it had been reprinted repeatedly during the 1980s and 1990s). Its author too had "laid his book to waste" - for no reason other than that he had called so vigorously for political reform for many years.

Now, of these two media events, which one reflects the true situation in China today? As far as this writer is concerned, it is clearly the second. The strategy of China's ruling bloc is to suppress any opinion or writer not praising the current system.

As for political reform in China, historically there are two paths. The first is that initiated and promoted by the leaders of the ruling party themselves, like that of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union; the other is that forced on the party in power by the concerted efforts of people from every level of society. One could say that the only leader China has had who was capable of carrying out the first kind of political reform was Deng Xiaoping, but he didn't do it. The late CCP secretary-general Zhao Ziyang acknowledged that, because of political infighting, he didn't have the ability to necessitate this kind of reform. If Zhao Ziyang wasn't able to, how on earth could Hu Jintao or Wen Jiabao?

The lesson is that hopes for Chinese democratic reforms in the long term must be placed along the second path: namely, for the people to widen and strengthen the safeguarding of their own constitutional rights and thus force the ruling party to move with the times.

On 19 January 2007, Zhang Yihe made a public statement on the internet pointing out that the actions of high officials in the news agency had been unconstitutional. "I shall protect my writing (for) my whole life!". Her protest is sure to receive a warm welcome from the Chinese intellectual community.

Such is the true path to Chinese democratic reform.

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