A cycle up for renewal

By Wu Zhong, China Editor

HONG KONG - The People's Republic of China, founded and ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), will greet its 60th birthday in October with nationwide celebrations, including a grand military parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Traditional Chinese chronology uses the lunar calendar in which the years are designated by combinations of the 12 Heavenly Stems (read as letters A-L) and 10 Earthly Branches (read as numbers 1-10). Hence, 60 years would complete a cycle (like a century in the solar calendar), as one of such combinations (such as A1) repeats itself every 60 years. Because of this, the number 60 has special significance. The age 60 marks a person reaching the peak of his wisdom and life, as Confucius said, “At 60 years, my ear was attuned [to listening to different opinions].”

While China now officially adopts the solar calendar, the influence of the traditional prevails. This is why it attaches such great importance to celebrating the 60th anniversary - the October 1 National Day also marks the completion of a cycle of 60 years of communist rule to start a new one.

Under the circumstances, however, the CCP also has to justify its legitimacy for its continual rule for possibly another cycle of 60 years - or even forever, as it wishes.

Late Chairman Mao Zedong led the party to found the republic through "fighting on horse back". And in Chinese tradition, whoever seizes "all under heaven" by "fighting on horse back" somehow automatically gains his legitimacy to rule. Deng Xiaoping's legitimacy to rule came partially from being a veteran revolutionary under Mao to help seize "all under heaven", but mainly from his launch of the reform and open-door policy to boost economic growth and improve people's livelihood.

Now that all revolutionaries are gone, no longer can the party simply cite Mao's revolution as the justification for its legitimacy to rule. Fully aware of this change, Vice President Xi Jinping, who is widely believed to be the man to replace President Hu Jintao as supreme leader in 2012, declared in late 2008 that the party had already turned itself from a "revolutionary party" into a "ruling party" (Red capitalists' unravel the party line, Asia Times Online, October 17, 2008). In that case, justification is certainly needed as to why the party should remain as the sole "ruling party".

In this regard, former party chief and president Jiang Zemin put forward his so-called "three represents" theory, saying the party represented the fundamental interests of the vast majority of Chinese people. President Hu declared that the party ruled the country "for the people".

While the party's highest echelons are beating their brains to justify their legitimacy, given growing public discontent over rampant official corruption and abuses of power, some lesser officials are proving counter-productive in word and deed.

This month, China National Radio was tipped off that a land lot in a township in the Zhengzhou municipality designated for low-cost housing for low-income people was instead used to build 12 luxury villas. The radio station sent reporters to investigate the report. They sought comments from the Zhengzhou Urban Planning Bureau, which oversees land requisition and housing construction in the provincial city of Henan.

"Why does China National Radio want to cover such small business of others?" the reporters were asked when greeted by Lu Jun, vice director of the bureau. After making sure reporters' recorders were switched off and the microphone unplugged, he said, "Who will you speak for, the party or the common people?"

He then asked the journalists to put a lid on the scandal in the name of defending the "authority" of the party (local authorities) against the interests of those falling victim to land abuse.

The reporters detailed the encounter on the official website of China National Radio, on June 17.

"The purpose of the party and government is to serve the people. The fundamental interests of the party and the people are the same. How come in the eyes of vice director Lu Jun, the party and people become two opposite sides?" they asked.

In the first two days, the story received more than 2 million readers and it has been widely circulated in print and other online media.

Almost overnight, Lu became nationally notorious. On websites he is known as the country's "coolest vice director" with the "coolest quotation" of the year. Many bloggers sarcastically said his words should be considered "the most honest words" ever uttered by a Chinese official. As one put it, "These party and government officials really think they are the rulers and we are the ruled. And surely the interests of the rulers cannot be the same as those of the ruled."

Bloggers launched a "human flesh search" (renrou shousuo, a cyber relay to dig up information about a specific person) on Lu. Soon, his picture and resume were posted on the Internet.

Lu, 51, looks quite handsome and his resume is also impressive. He became a People's Liberation Army soldier when he was 16 and joined the party when he was 20. In 1980, he retired from the army and became a police officer with the Zhengzhou Public Security Bureau. Afterwards, he took various posts in the party's Zhengzhou municipal committee and government. He even completed distance graduate study in economics with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) from 1996-98.

Given his rank (an upper middle-ranking official), educational background and rich work experience, it is unlikely that Lu made a slip of the tongue when he spoke, said a commentary on the website of the party's flagship newspaper, the People's Daily. More likely, he spoke his mind when saying he "represents the party", it said, adding that his words severely damaged the party's public image.

Lu is by no means the only official with such thinking. A commentary dispatched by the state-run China News Service asked, "How many officials like Lu are there nowadays?"

A sociology researcher with CASS told Asia Times Online: "When making public speeches, officials like Lu always say they do this and that on behalf of the people. But in reality they work more for their own interests. To curb skyrocketing housing prices, the central government banned the building of luxury villas two years ago. And the launch of low-cost buildings is to meet the need of low-income people. How dare officials in Zhengzhou give the green light for building villas on land for low-cost housing, which violates at least two regulations? Nine times out of 10, there is collusion between officials and the developers. The central government should launch an investigation."

Echoing the growing public outcry, the commentary on the website of the People's Daily demanded that Lu be sacked. "As a vice director and member of the party committee of the [Zhengzhou urban planning] bureau, Lu has no correct views on power, [official] position and interests. One doubts whether he still remembers what he vowed when he joined the party? With such an attitude, how could he be allowed to stay on his post?"

Some journalists then checked with the organization department of the party's Zhengzhou municipal committee, which oversees the appointment of officials in the city. They were told that Lu Jun spoke "on behalf of himself", hence the organization department could do nothing about it. The Zhengzhou Urban Planning Bureau said they were trying to find out what really happened and had "no comment" at this stage.

According to media reports on Tuesday, the Zhengzhou municipal government has suspended Lu as vice director pending an investigation into the incident.

Some commentators say the incident is an example of the rampant malpractice of "officials covering up the wrongdoings of their colleagues" because they share common interests. And in unison, commentaries in the media say officials do not have "freedom of speech" and they must be responsible for every word they say in public.

A sharply-worded commentary on the website of the Xinhua News Agency points out how Lu's words have shaken up the legitimacy of the party's rule:

A leading cadre should be unable to say those words if he is not accustomed to abusing the power in his hand. If power could be abused to the extent of violating the constitution and party charter to split the relationship between the party and common people, then such power would not only lead to corruption but also likely shake the foundation of the party's rule.

This further reminds us that ... if administrative power is not supervised and restricted, if ideological education on party member cadres is not strengthened so that they will better behave themselves, the relationship between the party and the masses will inevitably be jeopardized ... and eventually the very foundation for the party to rule the country.

Given the continued condemnation from the public and media, the scandal centering on Lu is likely to escalate. The question he raised touches on the very sensitive issue of the legitimacy of the party's continued rule at a very sensitive time.

One of Mao's best-known quotations is: "Who are our enemies? Who are our friends? This is a question of first and foremost importance for our revolution."

The question could now be rephrased: "Who gives us the legitimacy to rule? Whose interests should we work for? This is a question of first importance for our continual rule."