Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
Published: October 12, 2007
BEIJING: It might have been called the greatest show on earth, except it’s not a show. No, not a show at all.
The ruling party of the world’s most populous country opens what is arguably its most important meeting Monday, a once-every-five-years affair that has traditionally determined who will lead China in the years ahead, and has set broad ideological directions for the country.
This year, it would seem that factional struggles are the main item on the menu, with the current leader, Hu Jintao, and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, battling it out for influence.
But the truth be told, few really know what’s going on at the summit of power in one of the most important places in the world, and those who do aren’t saying.
President Hu has maintained a longtime Chinese tradition of creaky, wooden-tongued slogans, things like “harmonious society,” and “scientific development,” whose meaning some interpret to include regularizing the rules of succession in Chinese politics.
If one seeks truth from facts, though, it is hard to escape the conclusion that this country’s authoritarian political system remains densely opaque. Yes, it has delivered the bacon of very rapid economic growth over nearly three decades, but in doing so its leaders have excelled at something else, too: suppressing discussion of the negative consequences of their actions, muddying the waters and covering their own tracks.
Much has been made lately about China’s global role as an emerging power of the first order. China’s rise is pregnant with a big question that can be summarized as follows: how not to feel uneasy about a country that treats equally, or better yet, indifferently, with countries that safeguard their citizens’ rights and places like Sudan, which commits genocide, or Myanmar, which uses brute force to put down peaceful protests by monks and others?
China’s own murky political system has drawn less attention lately, especially with profits to people doing business in or with the country, and benefits to consumers, spread so widely.
Beijing gives its own people an offer they can’t refuse, for now: trust us to make all the decisions that need making, behind closed doors. We’ll fill you in on an as-needed basis, no questions asked.
Eventually, some theorize, the middle class in China will grow so large as to make this proposition untenable. People endowed with good education, property and experience of the outside world will begin to insist on being part of the conversation, of knowing about decisions that affect their families and fortunes in real time, and on having a say.
The outside world need show no such patience, however. China’s rising prominence and its growing importance to the rest of the world give rise to a natural sense of uneasiness about a closed system that remains a throwback to the first half of the last century, and the normal response to Beijing’s trust-us proposition is: “Why?”
The tea leaves do not suggest that this will be the long-awaited party congress of political reform, and things don’t seem to augur well for “scientific development,” either, however construed.
What is left? For the most part, a peculiarly Chinese struggle for power between factions which, according to the system’s own rules, are not supposed to exist. Under the circumstances, politicians are sometimes easily tempted to manipulate emotional issues, foremost and most dangerous among them being that old reliable fallback, Taiwan.
How much more reassuring would it be to have a gathering of Chinese leaders openly discussing problems, and better yet, constructively debating solutions? This is simply not the “Chinese way” the system would have its people believe.
Indeed, Taiwan is often trotted out as an example of the horrors of democracy. From time to time, Chinese television viewers are treated to the spectacle of a parliamentary scrum in Taipei, supposed proof of the indignity of legislative debate. What the public here never sees is the serious side of democratic process, where Taiwanese debate an issue on its merits and decide for themselves, starting in fact with how to deal with China itself.
Of course the surface unanimity here has always been a sham, even during the sternest days of Maoist totalitarianism.
A gentle reminder of this comes these days in the form of pre-congress letters published by old men who worked long, loyal years in the system. One can easily think of the two men as representing Chinese analogs to the Republican and Democratic parties, yet they are both lifelong Communists.
The point is not to thrust America’s political model onto China, or even to push the parallel very far. Both men represent strong, distinct currents, though, and there is a natural tension between their views, which can be assumed to be shared by many others.
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Copyright The International Herald Tribune