As the Chinese Communist Party prepares to hold a plenum of its Central Committee this month, an old phrase is making a comeback in Beijing’s political circles. The phrase is “ideological threat,” and it is likely to feature prominently in the plenum’s deliberations behind closed doors. Appointed by President Xi Jinping, a team of party theoreticians have prepared a paper designed to prepare the People’s Republic for what they term “a decisive phase in the war against alien ideologies.”
The promised “ideological battle” may well be nothing but a subterfuge. The new leadership, elected at the end of 2012 for 10 years, may well be using the slogan to deal with Maoist discontent on the radical wing of the Communist Party. The recent trial and imprisonment of Bo Xilai, the once-powerful leader of the party’s Maoist wing, might have helped calm things down somewhat. But some China-watchers believe that, as the economy slows down, growing discontent might translate into ideological radicalization. The new leadership may want to preempt that by pretending that, as far as anti-West sentiments are concerned, it has nothing for which to envy anyone.
Prime Minister Li Keqiang has said that the plenum will discuss a major plan to reduce the role of the state in the economy, in effect, pushing the People’s Republic a few notches further up the capitalist ladder. The idea is to turn China into “a high-income economy,” with annual per capita gross domestic product reaching the same level as that of the Netherlands by 2030.
That is an ambitious goal, and President Xi says he hopes to achieve it without taking risks with the stability of the regime, which means the maintenance of the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. But could the new leadership avoid the ideological compromises enumerated in the paper submitted to the plenum?
The paper offers a political version of the “Seven Deadly Sins” according to Communist ideologues.
The first sin is a growing demand by China’s new middle classes for Western-style democracy. In recent years, China has been near the top of Forbes magazine’s list of nations with the largest number of billionaires. More importantly, perhaps, China today boasts a new urban middle class that includes more than 300 million people, almost the size of the total population of the United States.
How long might that gigantic social and economic force accept a situation in which it wields immense economic clout but almost no political power? To be sure, a good part of the new middle classes are members of the Communist Party or their business partners, and thus unlikely to wish to derail the gravy train.
But even then, it is in human nature to seek a say in how things are. After all, didn’t Aristotle suggest that man was a political, rather than a social, animal? Why shouldn’t Chinese billionaires diverge on political issues, just as their American or European counterparts have done for decades? In the last US presidential election half of the nation’s billionaires went for Barack Obama while the other half backed Mitt Romney.
Sooner or later, the Chinese Communist Party will have to provide space for debate and dissent. The question is to what extent and at what pace. Will reform in that direction include the presence of other political parties? Will free and multiparty elections be accepted as an important tool of policymaking?
The second sin discussed in the paper concerns “economic liberalization.” Should China allow its state-sponsored and controlled capitalist system to develop into a full-fledged market economy? The question goes beyond mere economics. If the party loses its monopoly on distributing economic opportunities, not to mention favors and the fruits of corruption, would it have enough moral authority to maintain a power-base?
Starting with Great Britain, all countries that adopted capitalism did so under initial central “guidance,” if not full control. But they all ended up with the market seizing the initiative with the state in the role of regulator. It may be possible to combine political despotism with a market economy for a while, but not forever. The experience of other Asian nations, notably Japan under the shoguns and more recently South Korea under successive military rulers, proves that point.
The third sin the Chinese leaders face is the “Western concept of human rights.”
If China succumbs to that sin it would have to relinquish such concepts as “class enemy” and “proletarian responsibility.” That would mean accepting freedom of thought, religion, expression and association. What would be the impact of such a dramatic change on China’s restive Muslim and Tibetan citizens? What would happen to the one hundred and one ways in which the Chinese state intervenes in every aspect of a citizen’s life?
The fourth sin mentioned in the paper concerns the possible emergence of privately owned media, notably television networks. As in all centralized systems, the Chinese set-up has used its monopoly on information as a powerful tool for domination. Privately owned and diverse media could terminate that monopoly which is already under pressure from the Internet and citizen journalism. A system used to offering a single version of events would have to contend with dozens, even hundreds, of different versions.
Sin number five concerns China’s atrophied educational system. Well-placed Communist barons send their children to Europe or the United States for higher education, while the offspring of the plebs are left with substandard schools and universities. Allowing space for private education could see China hosting branches of dozens of Western universities alongside private schools offering independent curricula.
The sixth sin is a separation of powers under which a truly independent judiciary could become the trusted arbiter of disputes. That would put an end to show-trials, special tribunals, and in camera hearings. It would also end party diktats that could deprive a citizen of his entire livelihood. Prime Minister Li promises new protection for private property. But that could not happen without an independent judiciary capable of protecting the weakest citizen against the most powerful.
Finally, the seventh sin concerns a growing demand for a review of the nation’s history, especially since the creation of the People’s Republic in 1949. This means accepting the separation of science and ideology. The Chinese want to know what really happened to their parents and grandparents and who was responsible for the tens of millions of deaths caused by man-made famine and political purges.
Premier Li has spoken of building a new China. That echoes Mao’s slogan “Destroy the Old to Build the New.”
However, what if the old that needs to be destroyed includes a good part of Mao’s legacy?