No turning back in China's great leap forward

John Garnaut in Beijing
December 19, 2008

PRESIDENT HU JINTAO marked China's 30 years of reform yesterday by proclaiming "there's no way for us to turn back" in a speech that also rejected calls for political reform.

President Hu lauded the former strong man Deng Xiaoping for backing the reforms that lifted gross domestic product 68-fold since 1978 and transformed China from an impoverished autarky to rising global power.

"The future development of China must depend on reform and opening up," he said in a speech in the Great Hall of the People. But Mr Hu's speech seemed to have something for all his crucial political constituencies and was laced with conservative responses to China's rising economic and political challenges.

The Chinese economy is facing its greatest crisis since the early 1990s as millions of migrant workers lose their jobs and the urban middle class watch their wealth evaporate.

Political tensions have risen in tandem, as workers and peasants protest and riot against perceived oppression, and intellectuals give voice to frustration and anxiety at the party's inability or unwillingness to raise government accountability by loosening its grip on power.

President Hu reached back into the Communist Party's conservative tradition to reaffirm its absolute control.

"Our party will remain the backbone of all national ethnic groups in dealing with various foreign and domestic risks and tests, and remain the core in the historic process of developing socialism with Chinese characteristics," he said. "Without stability, we can do nothing and [we will] lose what has been achieved."

He reinforced the state's dominance over the economy while acknowledging the need for a vibrant private sector. "We must unwaveringly consolidate [and enhance] the vitality, controlling power, influence of the state-owned economy, while unwaveringly encouraging the non-publicly owned economy," he said.

Dr Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing political analyst, said the speech provided no optimism for progressives calling for political reform. "Hu's speech represents a robust defence of policies thus far and indicates that there is consensus within the leadership to maintain and strengthen, not loosen, controls of all sorts," he said.

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