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Does China’s left turn indicate reforms ahead?

by Frank Ching

Ever since the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989, Western observers have been hoping for a reformer to emerge in China. Thus, in 1990, when then Shanghai Mayor Zhu Rongji visited the United States, he was dubbed “China’s Gorbachev” by the American media. The exasperated Zhu responded, “I am China’s Zhu Rongji.”

When Hu Jintao appeared on the scene a decade ago, many hoped that he was the longed-for reformer. But that was not to be.

Last November, another Communist party leader, Xi Jinping, was installed, and again hopes stirred that he would institute political reforms. Expectations rose after he said in a speech that no one “has the special rights to overstep the constitution and the law.”

Nine months later, the new leader sounds and acts more like a conservative than a reformer. He seems fearful that China will go the way of the Soviet Union, with the Communist Party losing power, and has insisted on stringent adherence to party discipline and the undisputed leadership of the party.

Despite his words last December, the party is cracking down on those calling for constitutional rule. In fact, constitutionalism tops the list of what is being called the “seven don’t talks” — seven ideas whose promotion is forbidden.

Next on the list is “universal values.” The core of this concept, the party alleges, is the abrogation of the party’s leadership.

The third no-no is “civil society,” which is seen as an attempt to weaken the party’s social basis.

Then follow “neo-liberalism,” which is said to be aimed at changing China’s basic economic system; an independent media; “historical nihilism,” criticism of the party’s past under Mao; and questioning whether a bureaucratic bourgeoisie and state capitalism have emerged in China.

Apparently, these seven “perils” — as The New York Times calls them — were discussed at a nationwide meeting of propaganda officials. Subsequently they were incorporated into what is called “Document No. 9,” issued by the party’s general office. The document has not been made publicly available, and there may well be different versions.

According to the latest issue of Kaifang, a respected China-watching magazine, the “document” was put together from secret oral directives issued by higher echelons of the party.

Instead of democratizing, the Communist leadership has been tightening political control. Indeed, the party is acting as though it is in danger of losing power if there is the slightest challenge to its authority. The party is trying to suppress any attempt at greater freedom, whether from the media, civil society or academia.

According to the international nongovernment organization China Human Rights Defenders, 58 individuals have been criminally detained or “disappeared” in the ongoing crackdown. In recent weeks, there has also been an attempt to tighten control of the Internet with the issuance of a judicial interpretation that is supposedly aimed at combating online “rumors” by widening criminal liability.

Interestingly all this is going on at a time when Xi says that he wants a new model of major-country relations between China and the U.S., one in which there is “no conflict or confrontation,” “mutual respect” and “win-win cooperation.”

Yet, as Document No. 9 shows, the Communist Party is trying to seal itself off from all Western influence, even to the extent of making its own constitution an irrelevant joke.

All liberal concepts are considered foreign in origin and threats to the party’s supremacy, and well they may be.

But amid all the emphasis on ideological purity, China’s economic opening continues. The Shanghai free trade zone was inaugurated Sept. 29.

The move is being likened to the opening of the Shenzhen special economic zone more than 30 years ago under paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. The Shanghai zone is expected to experiment with such reforms as the full convertibility of the renminbi (the Chinese currency) and market-set interest rates.

Many people are also looking ahead to the convening of the Third Plenary Session of the party’s Central Committee in November, when further reforms are expected to be announced. So, will Xi turn out to be a reformer after all?

Some analysts believe that the current turn to the left is a tactical move to cover his flank so that, when major reforms are launched, the new leadership will not be accused of ideological backsliding or wavering.

With his left flank protected, such analysts think, Xi will be able to be his true self and launch reforms, both economic and political, that are badly needed for the country to move ahead.

We will know soon enough.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. E-mail: Frank.ching@gmail.com Twitter: @FrankChing1