At the opening ceremony of Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) 18th Congress, outgoing Party leader Hu Jintao declared, “We will not follow the closed and rigid path of the past, nor can we take the wicked way of changing our banner.” The statement has disappointed those who were expecting gestures toward political reform, and some media and individuals turned their hopeful eyes to the new Party leader, Xi Jinping.
The so-called reform, which has always been how the regime adjusts in order to survive crises, usually happens under one or more of the following situations: The regime’s channels of profit are blocked; the foundation of the regime is weakened; the resistance by society is out of control; and, the regime is under tremendous external pressure.
China is now enjoying a very favorable international environment and has little external pressure. As for the first three, the Party still has remedies.
The CCP is confident that it has prepared enough armed forces to suppress regional mass protest.
Channels of Profit
In the late 1990’s China entered a period, still ongoing, in which people of power began relentlessly plundering fortunes at little risk. The current system in China ensures the Party interest group’s full control over all state resources in the name of (or on behalf of) the people. (Resources include urban and rural land, forests, rivers, mines, and other natural resources, as well as the decision rights for special industries.)
The state then decides how to allocate income from these public resources. The portion that the Chinese state takes from the growing GDP has risen from one-fourth to one-third. Therefore, public assets have become a source of wealth for the privileged few and those close to them.
In the past two decades, China’s growth mainly came from land, mining, financial services and the stock market, while the public projects provided numerous opportunities to bribe the officials. From the “red aristocrats” and provincial officials to village cadres, everyone in the system has been milking these public resources.
As of now, the rich and the powerful, as well as state officials, still have easy access to such resources. The retired are protected by those they promoted and benefitted, while the new comers can attach to the food chain and gain profit.
The CCP is the rule maker, a player in this Monopoly game, as well as the judge of market behavior. In addition, the CCP has long formed a criminal alliance of plundering, in which a village cadre can easily embezzle hundreds of millions, while a county official can keep dozens of mistresses. Why on earth would they want to change this rare system that protects their own people?
Therefore, Hu’s remarks on not taking the “closed and rigid old path” spoke the mind of the privileged group. In Mao’s era, though the government was in full control of all resources, the officials were not blessed with a market in which they could trade power for cash, and the gap between senior officials and the grassroots was still small.
Many senior Party officials said, ‘So I just won’t change. What can you do?’
But now the gap has widened exponentially under the present combination of totalitarian rule and market economy, as the regime has all the resources in the country under its tight control. In such a system, officials conveniently partner with business people to trade power for wealth, and then hide the wealth abroad. The powerful and privileged elites have accumulated a fortune big enough to provide several generations with luxurious lives.
For these people, it is simply self-destructive to fight corruption or to seek democracy, separation of powers, freedom of the press, elections, and transparency about officials’ income. This said, Hu’s declaration is a clever way to appease the Party.
The “political reforms” in the CCP’s dictionary are mainly measures to strengthen its rule, such as increasing the number of Party members, allowing private business owners to join the Party, and establishing Party branches in foreign and private businesses.
Former Party head Jiang Zemin’s contribution to communist ideology, called the “Three Represents,” has changed the CCP from representing the three revolutionary classes of workers, peasants, and soldiers, to representing three key interests: the development of advanced productive forces (directed toward economic elites, the urban middle class, intellectuals, and high-tech experts), the orientation toward an advanced Chinese culture (e.g. promoting materialism and consumerism), and the interests of the vast majority of the Chinese people.
Since Jiang advanced his theory, the CCP has made every effort to construct a new social foundation. All levels of the People’s Congress, the Chinese Political Consultative Conference and the eight “democratic parties” financially supported by the CCP have since become political clubs that the CCP uses to recruit business, cultural, and social elites.
At the same time, the CCP accelerated the expansion of the Party, especially among college students. By the time the 18th Congress started, there were 82.602 million Party members, more than the total population of the United Kingdom and France.
The Chinese view Party membership as a ticket through the door of privilege. Liang Wengen, president of Sany Group and member of the Communist Party inner circle, said in an interview during the 18th Party Congress, “In China, if a young man is a Communist Party member, it’s easier for him to find a girlfriend. Most wives of Party members are more beautiful than the ones of non-Party members.”
Liang’s comments have become a popular joke online. But what Liang really expressed is: 1. In China, money is not everything. Power is. So business elites must rely on the CCP, because the entrepreneurs who are successful like Liang will need the CCP’s protection. 2. Only by becoming a Party member can an ordinary Chinese get a ticket to power. 3. The (potentially) powerful people are the prize in the marriage market. But, again, one has to join the Party to become powerful.
For such a mammoth organism united by material benefits, how can it stop abusing power in exchange for maximal profits? For such a political party obsessed by self-interest, how can it think beyond their own profits and consider the people and the future of the country?
Resolute in Making No Compromises
Insiders in Beijing revealed before the 18th Party Congress that many senior Party officials (including the retired senior Party leaders) said, “So I just won’t change. What can you do?” This indicates the CCP no longer cares to justify their political decisions and prove their legitimacy. They are now not much different than a Mafia boss.
In my opinion, the CCP’s confidence to make no changes is built on the following.
First, the Party’s propaganda has continuously preached the doctrine that “China will fall into chaos without the leadership of the CCP.” The bottom of the society and the poorer areas have become such a jungle that the middle and lower middle classes feel increasingly unsafe. Between a violent state and a violent mob, they prefer the former.
Second, the CCP is confident that it has prepared enough armed forces to suppress regional mass protest.
China is facing a very dire prospect under the rule of a political party that has no other legitimacy than the “bread contract” (a tacit contract implemented by the Tunisian government to provide “bread”—mostly subsidies—in return for political deference). Members of Chinese society have been suffering, and will continue to suffer, as the rotten system slowly approaches its end.
He Qinglian is a prominent Chinese author and economist. Currently based in the United States, she has authored “China’s Pitfalls,” which concerns corruption in China’s economic reform of the 1990s, and “The Fog of Censorship: Media Control in China,” which addresses the manipulation and restriction of the press. She regularly writes on contemporary Chinese social and economic issues.
First published in Human Rights in China Biweekly.
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