John Pomfret: Is Hu Jintao a reformer or a windbag?

We are about to find out.

Pomfret, who I have long regarded as the best foreign correspondent in China, has just posted a great story on how a rural bureaucrat, Wei Shengduo, attempted to hold a real, honest election for his township’s leader, as opposed to having him appointed by the CCP.

Will it surprise any of us to learn what happened next? Wei was, of course, thrown into jail, and the CCP has banned all coverage of his situation and the aborted ballot in his little town of Pingba.

The day before the election, the party secretary at the county seat, one notch above Wei, canceled the vote and had the 34-year-old would-be reformer arrested, then held in custody for two weeks. The official announced that he had smashed an “anti-party clique” and led a delegation to Beijing last week to ask authorities to punish an academic who had advised Wei, sources in the capital said.

The story of Wei’s attempt to bring democratic change to this mountainous corner of China is one that is being played out across the country. Experiments in limited democracy have been occurring quietly, but most are stymied by Communist Party officials fearful of losing their monopoly on power in a closed political system that appears increasingly at odds with China’s opening economy.

The article also explores the awful dilemma facing China’s impoverished rural regions; as the economy of the coastal cities soars, that of the countryside disintegrates, forcing more and more rural citizens with no hope to become prostitutes, thieves and streetsweepers. A grim and important reminder of the underside of the China economic miracle.

Wei’s fate could serve as a barometer for how China’s alleged “reforms” are actually materializing. This is a big challenge for pooor Mr. Hu:

Wei’s case, analysts and researchers say, amounts to a challenge to the central authorities, particularly to Hu Jintao, the president and party general secretary. In a speech on July 1, Hu said that power should be used by the people and that the people’s interests should come first. Before the speech, rumors had swirled that Hu would use it to give the green light for limited political liberalization. He did not.

“People are waiting for Hu to live up to the great expectations they had for him,” said Li Fan, the Beijing-based academic who advised Wei on the ballot. “But I think this case shows that our optimism about real political reform was misplaced.”

Pomfret’s reporting is nothing short of miraculous. He researches every aspect of Wei Shengduo with meticulous detail, and paints a vivid picture of the risks facing those noble enough to dare to do what is good for their people, even if it may not be good for the CCP (nor, of course, for themselves):

Wei also had personal reasons for pushing change, Li said. In 1957, his father, who was a teacher, was branded a “rightist” during one of Mao Zedong’s many political campaigns. The elder Wei was sent to teach in an isolated village, then fired and forced into hard labor in an even more remote mountain community. He was not released from this bondage until the 1980s. On his deathbed, he summoned Wei and his older brother, both government officials. “He told them that he didn’t mind that they were both government officials, but he wanted them at least to do something for China’s ordinary people,” Li said.

Wei was appointed Pingba’s party secretary in 2001 and quickly won the support of many of the town’s residents. According to the petition supporting him after his arrest, Wei played a key role in reducing an annual head tax from $24 a person to $5, a big drop in a township with an average annual income of less than $200. Wei also helped start a cement factory and convinced Chinese companies to invest in Pingba, the petition said.

And this is the man who is punished, while those who would see him arrested rule the land. It makes me sick. Read the whole thing.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 5 Comments

Nice article, though I have a different take on it than you do. For me, this article actually shows how far China has come on its path of reform and opening. A township party secretary pushing for direct elections would be hard to imagine a couple of decades ago. The article also seems to indicate that the implementation of village level elections is exerting pressure on the higher levels of government to democratize. Yes, there will be resistance from hardline groups within the CCP, but that we know already. The fact that academics like Li Fan now feel secure enough to go around persuading CCP officials to democratize is an indication that the momentum for political reform is increasing slowly but inexorably.

September 28, 2003 @ 1:26 am | Comment

There is no question: China is rising up and joining the modern world, becoming a member of the WTO, hosting the next Olympics, announcing all sorts of reforms and modernizing its industries, etc. The point I (and, I believe, the reporter) tried to make is that its actions in regard to human rights still fly in the face of what Hu and other leaders there have told the world.

We all know things are better there than they were under Mao, and some of the reforms are real and impressive. But I won’t give them high marks on human rights simply for being less brutal and repressive than they used to be. I really don’t think it was Pomfret’s intention for readers to say after reading this story, “Wow, China’s making terrific progress.”

September 28, 2003 @ 4:41 am | Comment

“But I won’t give them high marks on human rights simply for being less brutal and repressive than they used to be. ”

While I agree with your remark above, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect a country as big as China to go from a repressive totalitarian system to a liberal democracy in one dramatic instant. Changes will have to come in small steps. I’m not happy about where China is right now, but I’m optimistic about the direction things appears to be moving in.

September 28, 2003 @ 6:24 am | Comment

I certainly do not expect them to go to liberal democracy quickly. That would be absurd, just as it would be with Iraq. But they can clean up their act. There are many examples of what were police states rapidly moving away from systematic torture, murder and general oppression. As the Time reporter notes, under the current system such abuse is institutionalized and all but guaranteed. Until the government shows it is really serious about policing itself, putting into action what Hu has promised, I remain fundamentally skeptical, but willing to acknowledge any real progress.

September 28, 2003 @ 6:37 am | Comment

China Celebrates

Looks impressive. And so they should celebrate. They have built a modern nation in a century. We Australians should celebrate

October 2, 2003 @ 1:26 pm | Comment

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