China’s veteran voices of reform

Li Datong
15 May 2007

The approach of the Chinese Communist Party's seventeenth national congress is being accompanied by a war of words in print over the right to talk about reform.

In February 2007, the Beijing-based Yanhuang Chungju (Chinese Chronicles) magazine - a journal largely dedicated to researching and revealing historical truths - published a long essay entitled "The Democratic Socialist Model and China's Future". The core argument of the essay was in this passage:

"Political reform cannot be delayed any longer. Seeking to retain the Maoist political system whilst pursuing only economic reform will lead to a bureaucratic capitalism of the kind presided over by Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalists (Guomindang, or Kuomintang), as they headed towards defeat. Only democratic constitutionalism can provide fundamental solutions to the Party's corruption problem. Only democratic socialism can save China."

The author - 86-year-old Xie Tao, a former vice-principal of Renmin University - believes that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels came in their later years to believe in "democratic socialism", rejecting the ideas of violent revolution and communism espoused in the Communist Manifesto. He advocates the model of social democracy practiced in northern Europe, including democratic constitutionalism, a mixed economy, and social welfare systems. At the core of democratic socialism, he says, is democracy.

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and a former 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)

China’s contradictory signals
(24 January 2007)

Hong Kong’s example
(7 February 2007)

Will China follow Vietnam’s lead?
(21 February 2007)

Chinese political reform: official discourse, real meaning
(7 March 2007)

What China’s new property law means
(21 March 2007)

The Chinese ‘nail house’: a Chongqing saga
(4 April 2007)

’Public opinion’ and China’s Japan policy
(18 April 2007)

“An end to exclusivity”
(2 May 2007)

When the Communist Party established its regime in 1949, its main membership could be roughly divided into two groups. One group was impoverished peasants, who joined the communist army largely because they saw no other way of survival, and went along with the revolution in the hope of getting something to eat. This has been a characteristic of all China's peasant uprisings. The other group was very different. Its members came largely from wealthy backgrounds; many were university graduates, and all had received at least a high-school education.

Judging by their socio-economic backgrounds alone, they had no reason to take part in the revolution. But these educated youths were strongly influenced by the May 4 movement of 1919, and aspired to democracy and freedom. They were unhappy with the nationalists' totalitarian dictatorship. With the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war (or the "war of resistance against Japanese aggression") and spurred by communist propaganda which promised to fight the Japanese, large numbers of these young people hurried to the communist base at Yan'an, or joined their local Communist Party branch. They formed a more educated and idealistic group within the party.

More than half a century since the birth of the communist regime, these people have now all retired. When they see how this regime - for which they fought their whole lives - has turned its back on its original ideals, they are deeply saddened, and some have become extremely outspoken. Xie Tao is one of these people. As this group's revolutionary credentials far outweigh those of the current leadership, its members have earned the right to far greater freedom of speech than most people. It is an interesting historical phenomenon that most of China's current calls for democracy and freedom are coming from among this group's numbers.

Xie Tao's essay had been circulating since the end of 2006, but no one thought that such a critical piece could actually be published. The fact that it was published is in itself significant. Like Xie Tao, Du Daozheng, chairman of Yanhuang Chungju, was also once an educated, idealistic young revolutionary. Before he retired, he had served in such prominent roles as editor-in-chief of Guangming Daily, and head of the General Administration of Press and Publication (Gapp). He has close links to the reformist faction at the highest levels within the party.

Yanhuang Chungju has published controversial articles before. In 2002, as the sixteenth party congress opened, it published an open letter to the congress by Li Rui, former secretary to Mao Zedong, and former deputy head of the party's organisation department. In the letter, Li argued strongly for total political reform, the separation of powers, and press freedom. After publishing Xie Tao's article in February 2007, the magazine went on in March to publish Wu Min's "Without Democracy there can be no Communist Party"; and in April it printed a deathbed testament by party elder Lu Dingyi, which advocated the use of public opinion as a tool to keep the party in check. These are all heavyweight articles with wide circulations. It is clear that on the eve of the CCP's seventeenth national congress, the reformist faction within the party is actively stating the case for political reform.

A thread of hope

Needless to say, the communist authorities would not support the publication of such articles, but the fact that they have been tolerated demonstrates the authorities' understanding that these are not the views of a few individuals, or even a minority. The views expressed represent the political hopes of large numbers of people from both inside and outside the party. Attempting to suppress such articles would serve only to make the authorities even less popular. It is interesting that although the conservative faction has condemned Xie's essay, calling it "a dangerous attack on Chinese politics and ideology," none of the hostile statements have been published. A few days ago, the party newspaper People's Daily published a prominent response to Xie's piece in the form of a column which aimed to "answer readers' questions" about the essay. Although the column did not praise Xie's views, it was fairly moderate, and did not label the north European model of social democracy as "bourgeois".

The Chinese intelligentsia has begun to notice an interesting and very clear thread running through premier Wen Jiabao's recent speeches. At a writers' conference, he urged people to "speak the truth"; in front of foreign and domestic journalists he has claimed that "freedom, democracy and human rights are common values shared by all people"; he has urged university students to "learn to think independently"; and he has taken the lead in formulating the "regulations on freedom of information". In comparison, party leader Hu Jintao has kept a low profile. However, those who understand the Chinese leadership know that without approval from the top, Chinese leaders rarely express their own personal opinions. Wen Jiabao's recent speeches mean that reformists among the Chinese intelligentsia are optimistic about the seventeenth national congress.

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