China’s Political Future

China’s political future is never filled with certainty. It rejects what it labels as ‘Western Democracy’, opposes multi-party rule and yet frets about the instabilities of a one-party rule. South China Morning Post’s Deputy Editor and China specialist Wang Xiangwei had an interesting perspective about the political future of China in the SCMP 4/7/2011. A good read for those who wonder what system China could or might adopt. I still think China ought to move towards a multi-party system, but perhaps this is a good first step.

Road map for the party’s future lies within its ranks

Now is the time for the leadership to renew the push for intra-party democracy and ensure its survival

As the Communist Party held grand parties nationwide last week to celebrate its 90th anniversary, at first glance the contrast in coverage between the mainland and the overseas media could not have been any sharper.

The mainland media launched unprecedented propaganda to eulogise the achievements and benefits the party has brought to China’s people, while the overseas media focused on its enormous challenges, wondering about its future, particularly the lack of a clear strategy for its long-term survival.

Taking a closer look, however, it is not difficult to infer that both the party leadership and the overseas media share at least one fundamental observation: the party cannot stick to its present course and that reform is imperative.

President Hu Jintao said it himself when he gave a lengthy televised speech on Friday.

When expounding on the challenges for the party, he summarised them in “four tests and four dangers” that could threaten the survival of the party.

“We are facing long-term, complicated and severe tests in governing the country, in implementing reform and opening up, in developing the market economy, as well as tests in the external environment,” he said. “The whole party is confronted with growing dangers from a lack of drive, from incompetence, from divorce among the people, from a lack of initiative and from corruption.”

In other words, the party, along with the mainland’s economy and its society, has found itself at a critical juncture, a refrain Hu and other top leaders have argued repeatedly in the past few years.

So here comes the ultimate challenge facing the party leadership: while it clearly knows what it does not want – a Western-style democracy including a multi-party political system – it does not have a clear road map and strategy on how the party can move forward and maintain its one-party dictatorship by meeting “four tests” and overcoming “four dangers”.

In fact, the road map is not difficult to find, and it lies in the party’s efforts to push for a so-called intra-party democracy, something the party leadership itself has acknowledged as “the lifeblood of the party” but on which it failed to make any significant progress in recent years.

Now is the time for the party leadership to renew the push. It has a long-standing argument that has won a strong following from both home and abroad – that the mainland, given its uneven development and diversity, is not ready for a Western-style democracy, as this would bring chaos and turmoil.

But the party leadership is increasingly hard-pressed to argue against calls for full-scale democratic development within the party, as its 80 million members are the best educated and most enlightened, representing the cream of the societal crop – an assertion long advocated by the party itself.

Here are some measures that the leadership can adopt to strengthen the party’s legitimacy and ability to govern without risk of losing control.

First, as Hu Shuli , one of the mainland’s most respected journalists, argued in this newspaper last week, true elections, the starting point of the intra-party democracy, should be introduced at all levels of the party in choosing officials. For important decisions and personnel changes, the party should hold its congress every year, like the National People’s Congress, instead of the current arrangement of every five years.

Secondly, true elections mean multiple candidates for every post. This calls for making various factions within the party put forward their candidates and allow the best to govern the party and the country. This may sound improbable, but it can be done.

Because of the party’s tumultuous history of leadership succession, most mainland leaders have genuine concerns over leadership changes. But that is because the party lacks a transparent democratic procedure to choose leaders. It can learn from Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, which ruled almost continuously for nearly 54 years from its founding in 1955 until its defeat in the 2009 election – the main force behind the rise of Japan’s economy. Of course, the Communist Party should also learn from LDP’s mistakes and introduce a mechanism to prevent frequent leadership changes.

Thirdly, the party should take steps to ensure that its membership does not expand endlessly. The leadership has made its 80-million membership a badge of honour, signalling its strength and popularity. But further expansion of the membership, which is already bigger than the population of Germany, would make it difficult to manage, and would weaken the party’s control.