A shock to 'hand-raising robots'
By Wu Zhong, China Editor

HONG KONG - Over the past 30 years, the Chinese city of Shenzhen was erected from slumbering paddy fields into a bustling, modern metropolis bordering Hong Kong. Today, Shenzhen is poised to become the crucible for experimental political reforms that could be a significant step toward democracy in China.

Within three years, the mayor of Shenzhen will be elected by the municipal people's congress, or local parliament. A policy will also be introduced to assure that elections will field more local candidates than available seats. This mandate will apply to the selection of the heads of Shenzhen's districts by the respective people's congresses.

Li Junru, deputy president of the Central Party School, the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP's) training center for high-ranking cadres and a major think-tank for the party's power center, said that if the experiment in Shenzhen succeeds, the reforms will be instituted nationwide. Li's statements were made last week at a state function in Shenzhen marking the 30th anniversary of former premier Deng Xiaoping launching China's kai fang reform period.

At present, the mayor of Shenzhen - and likewise in all other cities - is already elected by the municipal people's congress. But, as it stands, such democracy is only a word: congressional deputies have no choice but to vote for the only candidate recommended by the Shenzhen municipal committee of the CCP. The practice has become so commonplace that many deputies sarcastically call themselves "hand-raising robots". After all, in the one candidate, one seat elections the only option is to endorse whomever is presented.

The introduction of additional candidates means the next Shenzhen mayor, although still likely to be nominated by the local party committee, must compete with other candidates. Clearly, this will force all mayoral hopefuls to elucidate and differentiate their respective platforms in order to win votes.

This is an important first step toward political democratization, but there is a long journey ahead. Candidates will likely still be nominated by the party and there is no sign that entry into the contest election will be free. Also, many of the deputies in Shenzhen municipal people's congress were not freely elected to their positions and may owe debts of patronage.

Still, this small step may gradually inspire other progressive measures. This process could be compared to the slow process of Deng's kai fang reforms: once the initial step is taken, the course is hard to reverse. As in the past three decades, a gradualist approach will be key to success and one can assume that Beijing will proceed carefully toward political change.

The "Shenzhen reforms" were initiated by Shenzhen's party committee and local government in May in a proposal for deepening reforms, though no timetable was given. Li's remarks, however, indicate that the proposal has been approved by Beijing. So, when the current mayor's term ends in about three years, the next Shenzhen mayor will be elected from a competitive field.

When Deng launched the reform and open-door policy 30 years ago, he also approved the establishment of a special economic zone (SEZ) in Shenzhen, then a tiny village. With its "special" status, Shenzhen was able to sidestep existing laws and regulations meant to safeguard the socialist command economy and explore ways to develop a capitalist-style market economy. The city's success would later be promoted nationwide, and Shenzhen is seen today as an economic miracle that played a large role in China's development.

But in recent years, Shenzhen has been concerned that it is increasingly less "special" now that the rest of China has become as open and market-oriented as the SEZ. With the launch of the political reforms, however, Shenzhen can once again play a pivotal role in political and social change.

For example, Shenzhen plans to reform its anti-corruption mechanisms in the model of Hong Kong's Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). Li praised the move as enhancing the rule of law and said it should be adopted in other places.

Analysts in China and overseas have argued that many problems facing today's China accumulated in past 30 years, including official corruption, officials' abuse of power, social injustice and growing public discontent. Such observers have called for sweeping political reforms with democratization as the ultimate aim.

For the CCP, the fundamental rationale behind political reforms could be that democratization is the only way to justify the legitimacy of its continuous rule of the country.

Until the 1911 Revolution led by Sun Yat-sen, Chinese history had consisted of 24 dynasties. Broadly speaking, the founding emperor of a dynasty seized power by force and eventually passed the reign to his son. The dynasty would continue until faced with serious problems such as famine, war or revolution. Ultimately, the old dynasty would be overthrown by a new regime, which in many cases was headed by the leader of usurping revolutionaries.

Two points can be taken from this. First, Chinese have historically accepted that "whoever has fought on horseback to seize all under Heaven" is entitled to rule, but such acceptance is not automatically extended to the offspring or relatives of the ruler.

Second, because the legitimacy of successive rulers is questioned, Chinese are inclined to replace leaders who fail to run the nation well. As another saying puts it: "People take turns becoming the emperor, and this year it may be my turn."

It was through violence that Sun Yat-sen founded the Republic of China, and the same is true for Mao Zedong and the People's Republic of China. Neither man, however, passed their power to their sons. Mao and Deng had fought "on horseback" to seize power and thereby gained the legitimacy to rule. But leaders after them have had to justify their right to rule through performance.

President Hu Jintao and his predecessor Jiang Zemin were handpicked by Deng. But the practice of handpicking a successor may end after the so-called "strongmen" are gone. After Hu, even within the CCP, people may question how and why certain party leaders were able to reach the top. Democracy may be the only way to silence such disputes: whomever can win the most votes in the party will become the leader.

The CCP's 17th National Congress last October set democratization within the party as a major task for the next five years. Some concrete measures toward this goal have been adopted, including the "tenure system" that will give real power to traditionally rubber-stamp party congresses (See Step by step to democracy Asia Times Online, July 24, 2008).

To continue its rule of the country, the CCP must open democratic elections for major government offices. This is inevitable if the CCP hopes to remain in power. As the sole ruling party, the CCP can hardly govern by the belief that "power comes out of the barrel of a gun", especially now that those who "fought to seize all under Heaven" are gone. Future generations of Chinese leaders must justify their legitimacy by merits that are recognized and accepted by the people.

Political democratization is a must for the survival of the party and its continuous rule of China. This is supported by a study by the Central Party School which concludes that China must strive for democracy in the next two decades.

Compared with economic development, China's political reforms are moving at a glacial pace. Still, better late than never. Hopefully, successful democratization - as long a time as it may take to complete - will put an end to China's historical precedent of one dynasty being replaced by the next through violent revolutions.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)