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Twenty-two years ago, the sleepy southern Chinese city of Shenzhen became the test case for China’s future. It was designated a “special economic zone,” a laboratory for economic reforms that would transform the nation. Today, Shenzhen is again in the forefront of change in China. This time, the city is experimenting with political reforms whose effect will be no less profound.

According to news reports, since confirmed by Shenzhen’s mayor, Mr. Yu Youjun, the city will establish a three-tiered administrative structure that will include three divisions: policymaking, execution and supervision. This system introduces a division of power within government, a striking innovation for the traditional communist government structure in which the ruling party was assumed to be all powerful and not subject to external checks or balances.

In fact, the declared objective of the reforms is limiting the influence of the Chinese Communist Party. In the future, the CCP will merely provide strategic direction for government. According to Mr. Yu, the party would be responsible for “drawing up the overall economic development strategy for an area and for setting some other important policies.” It would not be allowed to go over the heads of the government and get involved in executive work. That authority would devolve to the regional government and legislature. The reforms could go into effect as early as February or March; if the results are good, they may be expanded to other cities as well.

Officials report that the reforms were the product of extensive study of government structures in Hong Kong, British Commonwealth nations, northern European countries and the United States. While the changes appear to mimic the American system with its three equal branches of power, the analogy is inexact. There will be no equality of branches, there are no plans to permit opposition parties and there will be no direct elections of senior officials.

The moves are a victory for democrats who argued that economic reform would force political change on China. Mr. Yu has acknowledged that the changes are designed to create the business environment required by businesses that are investing in the city — and whose investments have turned Shenzhen into China’s wealthiest city with a per capita gross domestic product of $5,558. Chinese officials concede that reform is the only way to fight the pervasive corruption in China. Mr. Yu admitted that the transparency and rule of law that would ensue is essential if China is to meet its commitments to the World Trade Organization.

The Shenzhen reforms appear to be part of a broader reform agenda within China. There are reports that China will set up a special think tank on political reform at the Central Party School in Beijing, the first to address that sensitive issue since the 1989 Tiananmen repression of democracy movements. Liberals in China also point to speeches by new Party General Secretary Hu Jintao that suggest he is a reformer at heart.

In a December talk on the 20th anniversary of the Chinese constitution, Mr. Hu stressed the clause that says “no organization or individual has special powers to override the constitution and the laws.”

That is good news, but there is a domestic political dimension to talk of reform. Implicit in Mr. Hu’s comment is criticism of his predecessor, Mr. Jiang Zemin, who has managed to stack the Politburo Standing Committee and regional cadres with his own supporters, as well as hold on to the position of chairman of the Central Military Committee while elevating that group’s role within the party decision-making hierarchy. The efforts to elevate Mr. Jiang’s cronies are designed to maintain his influence even after he gives up his official positions. The call to respect the rule of law and the provisions of the constitution would undermine Mr. Jiang’s bid to cling to power.

While any progress toward greater institutionalization of the rule of law is to be encouraged, it is a mistake to call these reforms democratization. There are no indications that Mr. Hu or the reformers pushing for change in Shenzhen are willing to countenance outright opposition to the Communist Party. Political reform, like economic reform, is designed to solidify party rule. Economic liberalization is intended to legitimize the party leadership; rising standards of living buy political peace in communist countries as they do in capitalist ones.

The political changes that are now in the works are intended to consolidate economic reform and increase efficiency in the system, not transform it. Of course, the reformers of two decades ago are unlikely to have foreseen the changes that have been forced on their successors. That is why political reform, no matter what the motive, is to be applauded and encouraged.

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