faces a fresh legitimacy test
By Verna Yu
HONG KONG -
When the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China is
celebrated early next month, it will be an apt occasion for reflection on its
six decades of rule.
Ahead of the October 1 National Day, the
party-controlled state media have gone into overdrive to promote the "great
achievements" made by China under communist rule, proudly highlighting the
economic progress in the past three decades that propelled China towards
becoming the third-largest economy in the world.
But will the "economic
miracle" necessarily grant legitimacy for the continuation of the Communist
Party in power? It seems even
the party itself is not quite sure.
At the end
of the annual plenary session of the powerful Communist Party Central Committee
last week, it candidly admitted that many problems threatened its political
standing, including rampant corruption, ethnic tension and social inequality.
These problems have "harmed the flesh-and-blood ties between the party and
people, hampering efforts to consolidate the party's ruling status", and its
"mission to strictly manage the party has never been so arduous and urgent", the
plenum communique stated.
With an estimated 100,000 street riots and
disturbances across the country taking place last year, a yawning rich-poor gap
and continued ethnic turbulence in Tibet and Xinjiang, Chinese leaders are
clearly thinking about how best to continue their rule.
social discontent, many people were now questioning the legitimacy of the
Communist Party's rule, said former Chinese Academy of Social Sciences historian
"The promises it made 60 years ago have not materialized,
for instance, a directly-elected National People's Congress [China's
legislature]," he said. "The [uneven wealth] distribution issue has not been
resolved - all these affect the legality of their rule."
were so disillusioned with the communist government that they no longer believed
in the promises leaders their made, he said. "They haven't produced any good
solutions to make people believe in them. So whether the government has done
good or not, people think by default that 'the government must be deceiving
To win back its people's hearts, the Communist Party should strive
to become more like a genuine modern political party, said Bao Tong, who was the
director of the Political Reform Bureau before the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy
movement was crushed.
"It isn't difficult, what it should do is abide by
the law, what it shouldn't do is lead everything," said Bao, who spent seven
years in prison after the crackdown and still lives under tight surveillance.
"According to the constitution, the People's Republic's power belongs to
the people, not the Communist Party," he said. "When the party can achieve this
... then it will achieve legitimacy."
Bao said China, which calls itself
a "republic", should work on a step-by-step roadmap which tells people when it
will start moving towards democracy.
However, there are few signs that
China is about to do that.
Instead, the government has this year adopted
more heavy handed tactics to target people it considers a threat, such as
cracking down on non-government organizations and disbarring many-human rights
lawyers as well as arresting several high-profile rights activists.
the recent social unrest in Tibet and the far western region of Xinjiang, the
government also vowed at the party plenary session to "effectively prevent and
resolutely crack down on ethnicity-related separatist activities".
despite these tough measures, the government appears convinced that it can still
use economic growth and nationalism as a uniting force to secure the loyalty of
The Beijing Summer Olympics Games last year, the space
program and the military parade on the October 1 anniversary all help boost the
feeling of national pride, said Willy Lam, adjunct professor of history at the
Chinese University of Hong Kong.
"The basic thing is to persuade most
Chinese that their standard of living has increased, along with a heady dose of
nationalism - stirring up pride in China's 'greatness'," he said.
Veteran China watcher and journalist Ching Cheong said China had
accumulated so much political capital during the past decades it still had a
very special place in the hearts of ordinary Chinese people.
China was invaded and occupied by various foreign countries in the late 19th and
early 20th centuries, the Communist Party's courage in fighting against the
United States in the Korean war in the early 1950s and the former Soviet Union
over border issues had earned respect from ordinary Chinese, he said.
And in the latter 30 years of its rule, China's efforts in eliminating
poverty, and its stellar economic performance were also a source of pride for
Chinese people. "These have helped to strengthen its rule and uniting people
behind it ... and are a rich source of legitimacy," Cheong said.
question is, how much longer can this keep going?" he asked.
warn against complacency - they say if China's leaders do not push for political
reform and introduce genuine democracy, this political capital will soon be used
"This thinking: 'I have military and economic control' produces a
powerful illusion and it's not good for someone to feel so euphoric," said
Bao urged the authorities to push for democracy sooner rather
than later, warning that their current method of ensuring stability was a
precarious, short-term solution.
"When the situation is relatively
stable, I hope they will take the initiative to announce a roadmap for universal
suffrage," he said. "Don't wait until things are so unstable that you have to be
pushed into it."
Yu is a Hong Kong-based journalist.