A political turn in China

A political turn in China

Call it a safety valve. On Sunday, China’s premier Wen Jiabao called for political reforms in his country. Among other things, he called for “people’s democratic rights", “creating conditions" to allow people to criticize government and “political restructuring".

On the surface, these remarks may appear to be revolutionary. Calmer reflection, however, reveals something less substantial.

Wen’s remarks, as reported by the official Chinese news agency Xinhua, were made in Shenzen, a symbol of China’s economic success. There, the premier argued, “People’s democratic rights and legitimate rights must be guaranteed. People should be mobilized and organized to deal with, in accordance with the law, state, economic, social and cultural affairs."

As in much else Chinese, that is as cryptic as it could get. While premier Wen is known to favour relaxing some of the more draconian features of his country, one premier is not sufficient to turn China democratic.

There are three problems inherent in China attempting to make a clean break with its past. First is the legacy of 2,000 years of centralized rule that has been as far away from democracy as one could imagine. Then there is the issue of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ceding political control to its rivals. This is an altruistic way of looking at political change. The CCP, as an organization, has its own corporate interests in keeping power centralized. As a group, it is least likely to share power unless it becomes important for its own survival. Finally, there is the issue of a “road map" for democracy. Experience, world over, shows that it is easy to calibrate economic reforms but political reforms cannot be taken in measured steps especially in non-democratic countries. The disastrous Soviet experience is there for all to see. Chinese leaders, one can be sure, have not forgotten that episode or their own experience flowing from the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Even if the Chinese leadership wants to traverse the road to democracy, it is littered with mines for any smooth transition to occur.

Like the Kremlinologists of yore, it is futile to read too much into what Wen said. Perhaps it was an attempt to test the waters. Shenzhen is the right place to do so: Economic success has led to political aspirations. And Wen was the right man to make those emollient noises.

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