As the 30th anniversary of China’s reform and opening draws near, talk of political change is again bubbling to the surface.
For mainstream Chinese society, the last time such reform was mentioned was 1989, followed largely by official silence on the matter. Debate within the Communist Party, however, continued, and now signs of that discussion are appearing beyond party confines.
A report by the Central Party School (CPS) published at the end of February, a week before the National People’s Congress (NPC), outlined the dimensions of the debate. Titled “Storming the Fortress: A Research Report on China’s Political System Reform after the 17th Party Congress,” it calls for political reform to facilitate continued economic progress.
“China’s economic reform has reached a stage in which it becomes a must to deepen the political system reform,” said Li Junru, vice president of the CPS, a training ground for top cadres. “The market economy has met many obstacles, and the majority of these obstacles have to do with the political system.”
The political obstacles to economic progress have to be removed urgently, the report said. It named official corruption, increased consciousness of democracy among the people and social divisions as pressing matters that had to be addressed by a change in the political system.
“If we cannot push forward the political reform in time … our economic reform will lead to the collapse of socialist politics finally,” the report said.
One theme from the recent NPC session was how to cut through the tangle of red tape enmeshing official decision-making. This culminated in the announcement that Beijing will unify several existing regulators to create five new “super-ministries.”
Zhou Tianyong, a CPS economist who co-authored the report, believes action is necessary because business conditions have worsened in recent years.
“Citizens’ enthusiasm for investing in start-up businesses is much lower than 10 years ago because of arbitrary regulations, licensing procedures and heavy fees levied by the government. As economic activity is subdued, the unemployment rate goes up,” he said.
“All these have to do with the fact that major problems in the political system have not been solved.”
The CPS report also advocates government streamlining. The current structure comprises five levels: central government, provinces, municipalities, towns and counties. By removing the municipality and county levels, provincial governments would have direct control over towns.
Shortening the chain of command is not a new idea. Zhou made a similar proposal in a Ministry of Finance-controlled journal last year. Indeed, since 2002, the idea has been tested in eight provinces, with town governments reporting directly to provincial authorities, bypassing municipality and county officials.
“The decrease in government levels has been in the pipeline for a decade and it is surely the way to go in spite of the many pressures,” said Wu Jiang, a leading researcher at the Ministry of Personnel.
Besides reforming the government, the report recommends strengthening the NPC by making it fully representative. The number of deputies would be reduced from the 2,987 who attended the latest session to around 450 in order to streamline decision-making. Each deputy would represent 2 million voters.
Deputies to the NPC are currently elected by people’s congresses at the provincial level. Those in turn are elected by congresses at the county and township levels, where direct elections are held.
The NPC would also oversee the National Audit Office, with adjustments to the NPC timetable so that it can review annual budgets. The report proposes that the first NPC session of the year be held in December instead of March so that deputies can scrutinize budgets for the fiscal year, which starts on January 1.
It doesn’t end there. The CPS calls for the judiciary to become more financially independent of local governments; religious groups, non-governmental organizations and trade unions should be encouraged; and the media should be subject to fewer controls.
“Media outlets in China function under the leadership of the party and cannot be fully independent, but they need to have a relatively independent power towards the party organizations and governments … Only in this way can corruption be effectively restrained,” it says.
Same old, same old
While the report’s recommendations are sweeping, they stop short of calling for democracy to replace China’s hybrid socio-political system.
It stresses that the aim of the reforms should not be “adopting the model of universal elections, a multiparty system and freedom of the press.” Instead, reform is couched in the terms of economic progress. Change is to be utilized to “remove obstacles of the market economy development” in order to create a model that is “appropriately centralized and moving toward a market economy,” it says.
China’s economy has undergone profound change over the last 30 years while its political system has remained largely static. Now this system is beginning to show signs of strain. There is a growing acceptance that economic growth must be complemented by a new political framework, or it risks sputtering out and, ultimately, grinding to a halt.