Nothing to Lose but Their Power: The Workers' Party Has Become the Party of a Graduate Elite, and Its Cells Are Required to Ensure "Healthy" Company Development. Wang Chaohua Asks If Communism Can Survive Such Singular Contradictions

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How long can the Communist Party of China retain its monopoly over a burgeoning market economy, without conceding to political reforms or initiating some kind of democratisation? The question is even more acute now than it was when China embarked on economic changes 25 years ago.

During the first round of economic reforms in the mid-1980s, the need for matching political change was publicly discussed. A 1987 provisional law allowed for village elections throughout the country; there was talk of separating party from government. Even after the bloody suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators in June 1989, the notion of political reform lingered.

After 1992, however, once the economy had really taken off, the party shifted its stance. Except for a couple of isolated experiments, village elections were not extended to township level. The 1987 provisional law was upgraded to the level of formal law, but little improvement was made to it. In particular, no mechanisms were included for redressing the innumerable cases of official fraud or coercion. Worse, after the central government handed over fiscal responsibilities in rural areas to local authorities, and then used the state monopoly of trade in food grains to finance urban development, rural administrations ran deep into debt. Consequently, the main function of village committees and their heads has been to extract money from poor peasants and migrant workers to finance township and county governments.

Deng Xiaoping's death in 1997, followed by Hong Kong's return to China, marked a new phase in the party's search for legitimacy. "Democracy" as an official political aspiration could not quite yet be discarded, but the party now insisted that the Chinese were too ill-educated to be able to exercise it properly. When the east Asian financial crisis struck, China fended off Hong Kong demands for broader political participation by hoisting a new banner of "government accountability", in the British colonial tradition. Then, as social unrest increased on the mainland during 2000, the party brought the "accountability" catchword there, too. The city of Shenzhen was the first to announce a new round of "political reform"--yet failed to grant its citizens any right to vote directly for the authorities governing them.

A "Potemkin city" or two was clearly not enough to restore party authority at large. Jiang Zemin, hand-picked by Deng to be his successor, formulated the theory of the "three representatives" that has since become the party's official definition of itself. According to this doctrine, the party "represents the most advanced forces of production, the most progressive culture, and the interests of the whole nation". Thus the authority of the party was legitimised over that of the government.

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Nowadays, the whole idea of democracy is mocked. Western democracy is criticised for its hypocrisy, and non-western democracy for risking destructive populism, a disorder supposedly rampant in Taiwan and threatening stability in Hong Kong. In so far as it still mentions democracy at all, the Communist Party restricts it to "the work of selecting and appointing cadres" within its own ranks, with a few experiments in strictly controlled elections to party offices in selected cities.

The party is no longer defensive about the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, which left it isolated in the early 1990s. Instead, it makes a virtue of it, claiming that by giving priority to social stability and material development, China has avoided the chaotic politics and economic dislocations of de-communisation.

Thus, in the 15 years since 1989, the Communist Party has gone full circle, from making compromises under the pressure of a worldwide wave of democratisation, back to rising proudly above that discourse, and reclaiming its absolute rule over both the national government and all levels of local government. …