Step by step to democracy in China
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - While China's crackdown on Tibet and heavy-handed approach to dissidents in general have reinforced its international image as a ruthless, totalitarian state ahead of next month's Summer Olympic Games, the reality on the ground is that the Middle Kingdom has never been more democratic and is, step by small step, becoming even more so.

That reality was bolstered with the recent announcement by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as reported by the official Xinhua News Agency, that it has adopted a "tenure system" that will give real power to traditionally rubber-stamp delegates to party congresses. In the past, party elites made all the decisions. The future could be quite different - but that all depends on implementation of the new system.

Today's China is rife with inspiring policies and initiatives - on beating back inflation, fighting corruption, cleaning up the environment, enacting political reform and more - but results so far have been decidedly underwhelming. If, however, China is indeed undertaking a long, cautious march to democracy, that should be encouraged by Western powers, even if Beijing's democratic vision does not live up to Western models.

That said, it is important to remember that the ultimate goal of China's leaders has not changed since Mao Zedong routed the Nationalist (Kuomintang) army, winning the Chinese civil war and declared to the world in the autumn of 1949: "The Chinese people have stood up." Social stability and the unchallenged rule of the CCP have been the double obsession of Chinese leaders ever since. The great difference between the dictator Mao and those currently wielding power, however, is that today's leadership understands that, without democratic reform, the country risks widespread social unrest that could ultimately bring down the party.

But don't be fooled by the rhetoric. The limited brand of democracy being trotted out by Beijing will not give a political voice to the common man or woman or brook any opposition to communist rule. It will, however, give party delegates more say in their country's affairs and, hopefully, create a system of checks and balances that will lead to greater efficiency and better decision-making. Moreover, the leadership is desperate to come to grips with the massive corruption that has become a way of life for officials, especially at the local level, and sees so-called "intra-party democracy" as a way to do that.

China's move toward greater democracy is set to happen at such a carefully slow pace that it is likely to go largely unnoticed in the West. But it is nonetheless a potentially significant development not just for China but also for the rest of the world, which will have to deal with China as a major power in the 21st century. A less corrupt, more efficient, more humane China is in everyone's interest - whether or not the democracy it practices passes the Western litmus test.

That's why the recent CCP announcement about the tenure system should be welcome news. True, it is a small step. But that is how every long journey begins.

In the past, delegates to national congresses of the CCP held mostly nominal power, gathering every five years at party congresses to put their stamp of approval on policies and candidates already vetted by the central committees. Technically, the central committee - which currently consists of 204 members and 167 alternates - is "elected" by the delegates, but members are largely pre-selected by party elites. The newly formed central committee then chooses the ruling Politburo, which now numbers 25, and the nine-member Politburo standing committee, the country's inner sanctum of power presided over by President Hu Jintao. In the end, delegates help to provide atmosphere and pageantry at party congresses, but their impact on decision-making is minimal. The decisions have already been made.

While party congresses are likely to remain heavily scripted affairs for the foreseeable future, the tenure system is aimed at granting national delegates greater and more meaningful participation in party affairs before a congress takes place. The new initiatives allow delegates to attend party meetings throughout the year, offering suggestions and feedback. The open invitation apparently includes the plenary session of the central committee, usually held once a year. In addition, in a sign of how concerned Hu and his leadership team are about corruption, delegates may take part in meetings of the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI), the party's top anti-graft body, where they can monitor committee reports and even challenge them if they see fit.

Taken at face value, all this means that the central committee and the CCDI will now be accountable to delegates whose previous role was mostly ceremonial. And changes at the national level are being mirrored by changes in the way party committees will be run at the provincial and local levels. Local delegates have been promised a role in party appointments and in the evaluation of those who receive those appointments. They will also be encouraged to meet when party committees are not in session for discussion of important issues and to research and investigate party decisions.

Again, establishing checks and balances for a one-party system that is reeling out of control is the goal - but there may be a hitch: the party committees that delegates would be investigating are at the same time responsible for paying the costs involved. How many of the legion of corrupt local and provincial officials are going to be willing to fund a probe that would reveal their venality? Of course, Xinhua's report promised that such obstructionists would be found out and punished, but, at this point in China's development, that needs to be seen to be believed.

Unfortunately, this whole effort in democracy could turn out to be yet another exercise in official hypocrisy. But let's hope not. For China truly to emerge as a world power, its political structure - not just its economy - must command respect. Right now, that is simply not the case - and corruption and sometimes brutal authoritarianism are a big reason why. At the top, it is clear that the leadership desires reform. At the local level, however, those reforms are not just resisted; to the embarrassment of the nation, they are openly mocked, and ordinary citizens are fed up. That's why mass demonstrations, which often turn into riots, are a regular occurrence. Most of these protests go unnoticed beyond the village or county in which they take place, but increasingly the official media have been given license to report them.

For example, state media have followed the disturbing story of 17-year-old Li Shufen, who was found dead last month in a river in Guizhou province's Weng'an county, a place notorious for police collusion with gangsters. The official story of Li's death is that she committed suicide by jumping off a bridge into the Ximen River. But her parents and others insist that she was raped and murdered before being tossed into the river. Since Li's suspicious death, 30,000 people have rioted in Weng'an. Officials claimed the riots were led by gangsters taking advantage of an explosive situation. In reality, the rioters were more likely residents whose tolerance for corruption has worn out. (See Tilting at China's red windmills, July 16, 2008).

And the Weng'an riots are hardly an isolated incident. As Beijing struggles to present an image of social stability ahead of the Games, police opened fire this month on rioting residents of a rubber-farming community in Yunnan province, which borders Guizhou, killing two people. Violent incidents have also occurred in Guangdong and Zhejiang provinces - and those are just the ones reported.

The threat of wider social unrest, spurred by corruption and income inequalities created by China's rapid economic boom, is what lies behind Beijing's push for democratic reform. While the perception of China from the outside is one of authoritarian control, the reality is that the social and political balance in the country is more fragile. Chinese leaders clearly recognize that, and so should at least a few of the 30,000 foreign reporters descending on Beijing to cover the Olympics.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer at Hong Kong International School. He can be reached at kewing@hkis.edu.hk.

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