Who would have thought it? Same old, same old. However, this time there are new ingredients in the broth, namely a rapidly growing middle class and a wave of support among intellectuals for reform and even the “D” word.
The Communist Party cautioned China’s increasingly impatient reformers and intellectuals Tuesday that political liberalization and democracy are still a long way off despite the rapid pace of economic change during the past two decades.
The warning, in an article attributed to Premier Wen Jiabao in the official People’s Daily, constituted the party’s first-known response to a bubbling up of political debate as China prepares for an annual session of its legislature and an important Communist Party congress — held every five years — that is scheduled for this fall.
Most of the debate has remained behind closed doors, in keeping with the party’s tradition of secrecy. But two recent articles by prominent establishment figures brought out into the open suggestions to President Hu Jintao’s government that moving faster on political reforms would help smoothe the transformation to a market economy.
One, by Zhou Ruijun, a former People’s Daily editor known for reformist views, said greater democratic opening is necessary to defuse tensions over a growing gap between rich and poor, which he warned could lead to instability. Another, by former Renmin University vice president Xie Tao, suggested that China should move speedily toward a Scandinavian-like social-welfare democracy.
Wen, who recently was reported to be in charge of preparing a leadership platform for the party congress, reached into familiar Marxist vocabularly to build an argument that China is not yet ready for such democracy, even though it remains a distant goal for the “socialism with Chinese characteristics” that the party hopes to build.
I know, I know, China’s not ready and they need a tough, no-nonsense leader to be “the Decider” and the people are too uneducated. Still, the demand for reform is being accelerated every day by China’s progress. Could there come a time when these inherently different philosophies – demand for representation and personal freedoms vs. the authoritarian quasi-police state – collide (or perhaps I should say collide again)? I don’t see it happening anytime soon – not when so many people here are having such a good time. But I do see the two forces grinding away at one another like tectonic plates, and ultimately we will witness a major shift, precipitated by an unforseen event like
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.