POLITICAL REFORMS IN POST-DENG CHINA
When Deng Xiaoping passed away, Jiang Zemin mentioned in the eulogy the contributions of his mentor on political reforms and declared the intention of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to deepen the reform of the political structure and run the country according to law. More importantly, at the 15th Party Congress in September 1997, Jiang devoted some space in his report calling for efforts to “continue to press ahead with the reform of the political structure, further extend the scope of socialist democracy and improve the socialist legal system, governing the country according to law and making it a socialist country ruled by law”. This no doubt has re-ignited interests in sizing up China’s moves in political reforms.
It may be recalled that the suggestion of having political reforms in the post-Mao period started in earnest with Deng Xiaoping when he delivered a speech “On the Reform of the System of Party and State Leadership” to an enlarged meeting of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the CCP in August 1980. Many of the problems and suggestions by Deng on party-state relations, tenure of cadres, leadership and bureaucratic styles and others were further discussed by Deng himself, notably in 1986, and resulted in the formal proposal to have political reforms by the then General Secretary Zhao Ziyang at the Thirteenth Party in October 1987. However, the Tiananmen incident of June 1989 put a stop to whatever progress that might have been made in political reforms. In fact, any public discussions on political reforms after the incident were considered to be politically unwise and were looked upon with great suspicion and skepticism. It remains to be noted that the leadership, notably Deng, did not seem to have wavered much on the need to introduce political reforms. He maintained that the resolutions of the 13th Party Congress should not be altered. Thus, while the pace of political reform was evidently slowed down , the 14th Party Congress in October 1992 did reiterate superficially and perfunctorily the need for political restructuring, socialist democracy and the development of China’s legal system, among other things. Interestingly and more importantly, when the 15th Party Congress was convened in September 1997, the first Party Congress after the death of Deng, the CCP seemed interested in carrying on with Deng’s unfinished agenda on political reforms. The question is : why political reforms ? What are the major emphases? How would the political reforms change the Chinese political system? It is the intention of this short paper to answer the questions and throw some light on the challenges of political reform in China.
It should be emphasized at the outset that when Beijing talks about political reform, it is not interested in having the western democratic arrangements like the separation of power, bi-party or multi-party system, western parliamentary democracy, or other aspects of the western political system. To China, the western model is a recipe for instability, destruction of socialist norms and legal values and political impasse and disaster. After the 1989 Tiananmen incident and the decline and problems of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the concern with “peaceful evolution” and “bourgeois liberalization” would reinforce Beijing’s determination to adhere closely to its “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”. While it may want to borrow strength from capitalism, it is based on the rationalization that China needs to go through “the primary stage of socialism” in order to reach socialism. To be sure, it is relatively more relaxed in accepting modern technology, science, investment and trade from the west for the sake of its four modernizations. However, it is a lot more reserved and resistant to western political traditions, values and practices.
It should also be noted Beijing has been persistent in following the four cardinal principles in launching its political reforms. The principles are: 1. keep to the socialist road; 2. uphold the dictatorship of the proletariat; 3. uphold the leadership of the Communist Party; 4. uphold Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. Laid down by Deng in 1979, these principles eventually boil down to unchallenged leadership and dominance of the CCP. And Deng Xiaoping made no disguise that this must be the case. As will be shown later on, this has restricted the political space for non-party actors or inputs.
One of the most important reasons for the political reforms was no doubt related to the economic reforms and the opening of China to the outside world. China’s dramatic recognition of the use of market forces and the private sector over the years has made the political structure based primarily on the needs of a centrally planned economy obsolete. Some would argue that there was institutional decay leading to declining performance of the party, state and the bureaucracies. Apparently, the Chinese leaders were aware of the fact that political restructuring was necessary and unavoidable. Thus Deng was brutally frank when he noted the major problems of the leadership and cadre system of the party and state were “bureaucracy, over-concentration of power, patriarchal methods, life tenure in leading posts and privileges of various kinds”. To Deng, these problems were linked to the influence of feudalism and bourgeois thinking and had to be eliminated by distinguishing between the responsibilities of the party and that of the state, reforming the outmoded organizational and personnel systems, amending the constitution, strengthening the legal system, grooming younger leaders and other measures. It must be emphasized that Deng was abundantly clear that these political and organizational reforms were meant to strengthen the leadership of the CCP so as to meet the needs and challenges of China’s modernization drive. The plan was to put these proposals on the table at the 13th Party Congress, deepen the reforms at the 14th Party Congress, and basically complete the reforms by the 15th Party Congress. Deng’s criticisms and suggestions were taken up seriously and after a period of research and investigation, the party considered it mature to put political reforms on the agenda of the 13th Party Congress in October 1987. Thus, Zhao Ziyang, Deng’s protégé at that time, proposed formally to make efforts separating the responsibilities of the party and the state, strengthening the construction of a socialist legal system, reforming the personnel system, streamlining the state apparatus and other undertakings. However, the proposals at the 13th Party Congress did not really have a chance to take off. The clampdown on demonstrators in the 1989 Tiananamen incident and the dismissal of Zhao Ziyang was a fatal blow to advocates of political reforms. Although political reforms were not really snuffed off completely, the tempo was slowed down and the scope narrowed as analyzed later on. In the meant time, economic reforms were pressed on with full steam. This was especially true after Deng Xiaoping’s famed tour of the south in early 1992. By the time of the 14th Party Congress in October 1992, the CCP stated clearly its desire to establish what it called a socialist market economy, endorsing officially the necessity of borrowing the experiences and practices of the capitalist market economy. And when the 15rh Party Congress was held, Deng’s thoughts and policies were uplifted to Deng Xiaoping Theory, making it the guiding ideology for China’s modernization. As such, the party constitution stipulated that the CCP takes Marxism-Leninism , Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory as its guide for action. The thrust of Jiang’s report was on economic reforms. Jiang highlighted China’s developmental strategy at present and probably for the next hundred years as a strategy for a country at the primary stage of socialism. His report endorsed, among other things, joint stock companies for state-owned enterprises and acknowledged that “ the non-public sector (self-employed and private businesses) is an important component of China’s socialist market economy”. While it is beyond the purview of this paper to analyze Chinese economic reforms, the point that should be noted is that political reforms have been trailing behind economic reforms. The Chinese were much more liberal and willing to borrow capitalist economic experiences but most reluctant to follow western political practices.
However, it would be prudent to note that Jiang and his colleagues could not have failed to notice the relevance of political reforms. To many of them, it was probably more of a question of political feasibility. Obviously, it was politically unwise to bring up the issue of political reforms in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen incident even though selected administrative reforms were introduced. The concern with stability after the incident and the adverse developments against communism in Eastern Europe and Soviet Union would require Beijing to be more prudent in mapping out political reforms as evidenced in the 14th Party Congress in October 1992. Notably, the talk of separating the party from the state and the decentralization of power, proposed in the previous 13th Party Congress in 1987 were not brought up again. Nonetheless, the socialist market economy endorsed by the party had to be supported by reforms to streamline the party and state administration to upgrade management and organizational efficiency. A new civil service system would have to put in place as soon as possible. Laws would have to be enacted to bolster the introduction of market forces in the economy. Growing corruptions and other economic crimes would also denote the failure and problems of the political system. Obviously, sporadic hits against selected targets were not enough. Criticisms, self criticisms, self restraint, party disciplinary action against errant members and the promotion of spiritual civilization would not be enough and would have to be topped up with tough legal and political reforms. In other words, the problems created by the economic reforms would have to be tackled by political means. Moreover, the progress of the economy as a result of the economic reforms would also have to be rationalized and consolidated in ideological and political terms. Thus on the eve of the 15th Party Congress, there were already signs that political reforms would be taken up by the post-Deng leadership. Notably, there was mentioning of political reforms at the time of Deng’s death as noted before. In addition, there was the so-called “third thought emancipation” sparked off by a speech of Jiang Zemin at the Central Party School in May 1997. The speech not only set the tone of the coming party congress, but gave rise to the hope that political reforms would be given a new lease of life. As Jiang and his colleagues surveyed the political scene, they probably thought it was opportune and necessary to re-look at political reforms with the fizzling out of opposition, ideological or otherwise, to such a move. For one thing, the realm of the revolutionary generation has gone as the course of nature took its toll on the old guard. Unlike the days of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang when elder statesmen dominated the political scene and younger successors had to work at the behest of their patrons, the third generation leaders with Jiang as the core have a relatively free hand to run their own show. There were no doubt challenges from the remnants of the “leftists” attacking the reforms, particularly economic reforms embracing capitalist practices. Wanyanshu (ten-thousand-word articles) circulated in Beijing reflected serious leftist criticisms of the reforms. Nonetheless, the leftist criticisms did not seem to have much support in the party. And in spite of the moves by the leftists to influence the agenda of the 15th Party Congress, it turned out they were not considered seriously and they exerted little influence on party policy agenda. Apparently, the new technocratic leadership felt confident enough to sidestep both the conservatism of the old and ideological criticisms of the leftists to bring up political reforms again at the 15th Party Congress in 1997. More importantly, the third generation leaders under Jiang were keen to put their stamp on future developments and map out new directions while adhering to the contributions of Deng Xiaoping Theory. The third thought emancipation was probably useful to lay down the groundwork and conducive atmospherics for a re-look of political reforms. In the light of the concerns with the fate of socialism, it would also be wise for the post-Deng leaders to respond by highlighting, among other things, their emphasis on China’s future political developments. They are no doubt not as authoritative and influential as early revolutionary leaders like Mao, Deng, Chen Yun and others. As such, they would find it to their advantage to firm up with some of the rules of the game, be it political participation in a less tightly controlled system, transfer of power and other political issues. Last but not least, it seems that institutionalized corruption had reached unbearable proportion that the post-Deng leaders had come to the conclusion that there were indeed loopholes in the political structure and that the communist regime would be ruined if much more serious efforts were not made to resolve the problem.
As far as political reforms were concerned, the post-Deng leadership with Jiang as the core emphasized that “building socialist politics with Chinese characteristics means managing state affairs according to law and developing socialist democracy under the leadership of the Communist Party of China and with the people as the masters of the country”. In this regard, it professed that it would be interested in institutionalizing and codifying gradually institutions and laws that would remain intact even with a change of political leadership. The proposed list of political reforms included safeguarding the dignity of the constitution, strengthening the legal system and the supervisory and legislative work of the people’s congresses and their organs, restructuring the government by separating its functions from enterprise management, streamlining the state administration and reforming the civil service, improving socialist democracy by cooperating with the other political parties, holding elections, instituting democratic management and supervision, maintaining stability and unity and other measures, all led and advanced under the leadership of the CCP. When compared with proposals by Deng Xiaoping and Zhao Ziyang, the list did not really cover new grounds. In fact, it is rather cautious and in some ways limited in scope. Notably, it evaded the earlier suggestion of separating the functions of the party and government as proposed by Deng and particularly Zhao at the 13th Party Congress in 1987. Apparently, the lessons of the 1989 Tiananment incident had cautioned the CCP to strengthen the leadership of the party over the state and other organizations. The demise of the former Soviet Union and the turmoils in Eastern Europe revealed vividly to the CCP that it would be digging its grave if it relinquishes its direct guidance and intervention into state affairs. Thus it has been less concerned with party leaders holding concurrent posts in the government after the 14th Party Congress in 1992. General Secretary Jiang thus became the President of the state. Standing Committee members of the Politburo Li Peng and Li Ruihuan served as Chairman of the Standing Committee of the NPC and Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) respectively. Provincial party secretaries may serve as provincial governors or running the Standing Committees of their people’s congresses. Some dissolved party organs in the government and mass organizations were also re-established. The re-assertion of overt party presence in the state and other sectors was actually nothing unusual in a one-party communist state. Obviously, the CCP had decided that it would be premature or unwise to lessen too much its power or control over the legislature, united front work and other areas. The assignment of more party heavy weights to lead other institutions, notably the Standing Committee of the NPC, signals not only the CCP’s decision to re-confirm its leadership position, but also its acknowledgement of the importance in participating and linking up with emergent political forces like the NPC, a point to be elaborated later on in this paper.
If we look at the deliberations of the 15th Party Congress of 1997 , NPC in 1998 and 1999, it could be seen that the major emphasis of political reforms in the post-Deng era has been yifa zhiguo (rule by law). And it seems that the major avenue through which the CCP could do this has been to pay more attention to the place and role of the NPC. To strengthen the NPC’s legislative and supervisory role, the CCP has been amending the constitution and declared that it would establish a socialist legal system by the year 2010. In this regard, it is interesting to note the changing role of the highest law-making institution, namely, the NPC. Long considered to be a rubber stamp of the CCP, the NPC seems to have a certain amount of autonomy since the days of Deng Xiaoping. Senior party leaders like Peng Zhen, Wan Li, Qiao Shi and Li Peng have been assigned to lead the NPC. In fact, third generation leader Qiao Shi, in trying to strengthen the role of the NPC, went so far as to suggest the supremacy of law over CCP members. The NPC has also become more assertive and critical of government policies and activities. This could be demonstrated by instances where deputies of the NPC have revised or proposed bills in the legislature. They may voice their objection to a bill by voting against it or refusing to vote for it. And it seems that the NPC is getting more and more important in the selection and confirmation of candidates for senior government positions. Last but not least, they could displayed their displeasure with government reports by not endorsing them wholeheartedly. Thus it is not surprising that increasingly, more Chinese citizens may contact the NPC and its delegates to address their complaints and grievances. However, it would be misleading to suggest that the NPC would be an independent source of political power. The CCP makes no disguise that while strengthening the role of the NPC, it is done under the leadership of the party. Notably, the constitutional amendments are initiated by the CCP. And as a whole, the constitutional amendments under Deng and Jiang were used to legalize the economic restructuring by the CCP. Thus the present constitution based on the 1982 version has been amended three times. The latest amendments in 1999 confirm, among other things, the rule of law as the basic method and strategy for governance. The legislative process is also normally initiated by the CCP’s zhengfa xitong (political-legal system). As made known by Li Peng, who replaced Qiao Shi as Chairman of the Standing Committee of the NPC after the 15th Party Congress, while China wanted to uplift and strengthen the supervisory role of the NPC and its Standing Committee, it did not mean that it wanted the Chinese legislature to perform the same role as its counterpart in the west in checking the power of the executive and judiciary. He maintained that the mission of the Chinese legislature was to help and support the work of the government and other state organs.
Nonetheless, it should also be noted that with the growing body of law and legislation enacted by the NPC, the building blocks towards the rule by law and rule of law have been laid down. Having gone through the rule of man and the chaos and total disregard of the constitution in the Cultural Revolution, there seems to be a general recognition in Beijing that some rules of the game would have to be established. Thus it was reported that Beijing had already enacted 311 laws and issued 700 sets of regulations and 4000 sets of administrative rules from 1979 to 1997. And according to one estimate, of the laws enacted, more than one third were adopted in the last five years of the period. The most striking feature of these laws is the fact that most of them are meant to lay down the legal framework for a rapidly changing economy. Laws in contract, property rights and foreign business are necessary for the economic reforms launched since 1979. In addition, laws are enacted and used for political and social control. Notably, economic crimes like corruption would have to be dealt with seriously under yifa zhiguo (rule by law). Efforts would also have to be made to improve the criminal justice system so as to lessen arbitrary punishment. However, the supremacy of the party and the state and not really the rule of law was evident in the case of political offences. Any challenge towards the political monopoly of the regime would be dealt with severely and legal requirements may not be followed closely in such instances. A case in point is the stiff sentences meted out to the activists of the Chinese Democratic Party.
In addition to the problem of the intervention of the legal system by the party, the other perennial problem is the non-enforcement of the many laws enacted. Estimates of the enforcement ratio of court decisions was about 50 percent. Nonetheless, with legal reforms since 1979, the size of the legal community has increased over the years. Thus the number of lawyers has increased from 31,000 in 1988 to 100,200 in 1997. And it is estimated that the number of lawyers would be exceeding 150,000 by the end of the 1990s. Efforts were also made by Beijing to upgrade the training of judges and making judicial proceedings relatively more transparent. More importantly, perhaps, there is now a growing desire by Chinese citizens to turn to the legal system to resolve their problems. And these included law suits against the government filed by private citizens. While it is too optimistic to expect the growth of a legal culture and the prevalence of the rule of law in the near future, the emphasis on rule by law seems to have enhanced, among other things, the autonomy of lawmakers and the legal community and the legal consciousness of the citizens. Such developments could dilute the dominance of the party although the supremacy of the CCP will probably remain unchallenged.
Another major development in political reform worth noting is the emergence of grassroots democracy. While this could be related to both urban and rural areas, the most interesting is the rise of self-government in the countryside. From all indications, the post-Deng leaders are now interested in using the introduction of self-rule by various village committees as a showcase for the development of socialist democracy. They have become fairly confident of the success of such an experiment, at least in some areas, so much so that even foreigners, including President Clinton, were invited to observe such rural democracy at work. Foreign funding trying to help in the organization of the elections in selected areas in the countryside was also endorsed by Beijing..
The need for self-government in the rural areas began with the introduction of the household responsibility system when economic reforms were launched in the countryside under Deng in the late 1970s. This eventually led to the dissolution of the communes. The loosening of the collective grip on the rural population and the erosion of traditional grassroots organs no doubt was contributed by the rise of economic autonomy of the peasantry. This erosion was aggravated by years of under-investment and neglect of improving the infrastructure in the rural areas. As a result, some peasants began to form their own self-governing mass organizations due to pragmatic needs to resolve their own problems in agricultural production. These self-initiated experiments caught the eye of the political leaders, notably Peng Zhen who felt strongly that the village committees or their equivalents could be most useful in the management of the rural economy. It seems that Peng was able to prevail on his colleagues as reflected by the emphasis of the 1982 constitution. Thus article 111 of the constitution stated that “…residents’ committees and villagers’ committees established among urban and rural residents on the basis of their place of residence are mass organizations of self-management at the grassroots level”. With this constitutional endorsement, village committees began to emerge as the mass organization for self-government allowing the peasants to elect their own leaders. As more concrete experiences were gathered from the testing points, the Organic Law of the Village Committees of the People’s Republic of China was adopted by the NPC in 1987 as a guide for the formation of the village committees. The trial period for the implementation of this Law began in 1988. Despite the set back in holding village elections with the removal of Zhao Ziyang after the 1989 Tiananmen incident, the momentum for self government picked up again in the early 1990s. In fact, demonstration units were selected for national emulation. After a decade of the trial period of the Organic Law, it was revealed that more than sixty percent of the villages had already established self-rule with some having three or even four rounds of direct elections.
The post-Deng leaders seemed to be keen to improve the performance of these village committees. Efforts were made by the NPC to revise and improve the Organic Law. Jiang Zemin in his report to the 15th Party Congress had earlier urged that “all the grassroots organs of power and self-governing mass organizations in both urban and rural areas to improve the system of democratic elections”. As far as the countryside was concerned, it was known that Jiang Zemin and Li Peng had made rather extensive trips to various areas to have a better understanding of the rural areas and the problems faced in the agricultural sector. Specifically, Jiang went to Anhui and Jiangsu in 1998 after the Yangtze floods to size up the needs and developments in agriculture. Thus it was not surprising that the third plenum of the 15th Central Committee of the CCP held in October 1998 paid special attention to the agricultural sector. And in the party’s summation of twenty years of agricultural reform, it not only noted the experiences , problems and challenges, but also laid down the goals and action plan for agricultural construction till the year 2010. As far as self-rule in the countryside was concerned, the plenum reaffirmed its interest in the construction of grassroots democracy in the villages.
Elected directly for a three year term, village committees are essentially the executive branch of the village administration. To complement the work of the village committees, village assemblies or elected village representative assemblies would be adopted to broaden rural political participation and legitimacy. These assemblies are supposed to examine and monitor the major decisions and performance of the village committees. Through these committees and assemblies, the activities of the rural areas were made more transparent and accountable to the villagers.
It must be added that the success of self-rule in the countryside varies in the light of the vastness of China. The performance of the village committees is also uneven. As admitted by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, there were problems in the elections and the running of the village committees and assemblies. More importantly, it remains to be seen if the power structure would be altered or liberalized in the countryside. The CCP, as expected, is insistent in emphasizing the leadership of the party in the introduction of self-rule in the rural areas. Intervention by the party, or for that matter, by the state organs at the lower levels, notably at the township level, could frustrate the genuine development of village democracy. It could also be argued that the village committees are the new avenues by which the CCP could firm up its control over the countryside in the light of the erosion of grassroots organization and the uneven quality of its cadres at the lowest level. However, the introduction of self rule in the rural areas may have a demonstration effect on the urban areas. The success of rural self-government at the grassroots can also embolden the CCP to do likewise at slightly higher levels so as to garner more support for the regime and the party.
Finally, it should be noted that while the post-Deng leaders are still extremely cautious in inching towards political reforms, they are much less reserved in introducing sweeping administrative and organizational reforms. Such reforms include the streamlining of the state administration and reforming the personnel system and the civil service at various levels. Such efforts to restructure the Chinese government and reform the various bureaucracies have been carried out ostensibly by Premier Zhu Rongji. While it is not the intention of this paper to deal with administrative reforms, suffice it to say that they are meant basically to improve and increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the administrative machine in supporting the regime and the party.
 For the text of the speech, see Editorial Committee for Party Literature, Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, ed. Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping (1975-1982), Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1883, pp. pp. 302-325.
Studies on Chinese Communism , Volume 26, No. 11, November, 1992, pp. 48-54 and Volume 33, No. 3, March 1999, p. 24.
 See, for example, Minxin Pei, “Racing Against Time: Institutional Decay and Renewal in China” in William A. Joseph, ed. China Briefing, the Contradictions of Change, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1997, pp. 11-49.
 For details of the third thought emancipation, see Feng Chen, “An Unfinished Battle in China: The Leftist Criticism of the Reform and the Third Thought Emancipation” in The China Quarterly, June 1999, pp. 447-467.
 For an analysis of the technocrats, see, for example, Li Cheng and Lynn White, “The Fifteenth Central committee of the Chinese Communist Party” in Asian Survey, March 1998, pp. 231-264.
 Pitman B Potter, “The Chinese Leal System: Continuing Commitment to the Primacy of State Power”, The China Quarterly, September 1999, p. 676.
 For a fuller analysis, see, for example, Minxin Pei, “Is China Democratizing ?”, Foreign Affairs, January/February 1998, pp. 74-76.
 John Burns, “The PRC at 50: National Political Reform”, The China Quarterly, September 1999, p. 589.
 Minxin Pei, “Racing Against Time: Institutional Decay and Renewal in China” in William A Joseph, ed. The China Briefing, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1997, p. 41.
 John Burns, “The People’s Republic of China at 50: National Political Reform”, The China Quarterly, September 1999, p. 590.
 Minxin Pei, “Racing Against Time: Institutional Decay and Renewal in China” in William A Joseph, ed. The China Briefing, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1997, p. 43.
 See the Appendix A in James C. F. Wang, Contemporary Chinese Politics, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey : Prentice Hall, 1999, p.395.
 People’s Daily, 14 June, 1998 as cited in Studies on Chinese Communism, Volume 32, No. 7, July 1998, p. 5.
 For details, see, for example, Studies on Chinese Communism, Volume 32, No. 7, July 1998, pp. 6-7.