Saturday, August 20, 2005
China's president is increasingly revealing himself to be an authoritarian. We report how in this article, and in another
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IN THE nearly three years since Hu Jintao assumed the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, his image has changed markedly. Mr Hu was once seen by many as a potential liberal reformer—admittedly an assessment drawn from limited evidence. Now, he is widely regarded as a conservative authoritarian. Many Hu-watchers had seized on signs that he might be determined to open up China's secretive bureaucracy. Now, he is said to be holding up Cuba and North Korea as examples of how the party should keep its ideological grip. While Mr Hu has probably changed far less than his mercurial portrayal might suggest, it is increasingly clear that China under his leadership has wavered over economic reform and shunned political liberalisation.
Mr Hu's (in fact, fairly consistent) conservatism has been evident in his belief that the Communist Party, riddled with corruption and other abuses of power, is quite capable of cleaning up its own act without the need for any checks or balances. This year, for instance, he has ordered millions of party officials to take part in many hours of mind-numbing ideological training designed to tighten party discipline (known as the “education campaign to preserve the advanced nature of Communist Party members”).
More seriously, advocates of bolder economic reform have worried about a campaign against “neo-liberal” economic theories that sputtered into life early last year. This apparently stemmed from the worries of party leaders, including Mr Hu, that the cause of free markets and small government could, if given too free a rein, cause an economic meltdown in China similar to that seen in some Latin American countries. On the orders of senior officials, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences formed a research team and in June last year published a book of essays that proclaimed on its cover that Latin America and the Soviet Union had been “major disaster areas of neo-liberalism”. It said reforms of state-owned industries should be guided by “Marxist theory”.
Publicly, Mr Hu's comments have been moderate in tone. But he has been tougher at closed-door gatherings, such as during a meeting of the party's Central Committee last September. The plenum was of crucial symbolic importance for Mr Hu. It appointed him as the supreme commander of China's armed forces, thus completing his takeover of the country's three top positions, following his appointment as party leader in November 2002 and president in March 2003. The contents of Mr Hu's maiden speech have not been published in full. In the still secret portion, Mr Hu reportedly railed against “Western hostile forces” and “bourgeois liberalisation”. It was a worrying throwback to the paranoid language that suffused official rhetoric in the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
Yu Jie, a dissident writer in Beijing, says the authorities have stepped up harassment of liberal intellectuals in recent months. Dissidents who have expressed their views online have been particular targets. Mao Yushi, a liberal economist, says public discussion meetings held by his privately run public-policy think-tank, Unirule, have been banned, as have his writings. Unirule has been stripped of its official registration.
Cao Siyuan, another liberal economist who runs a private consultancy, says the attacks on neo-liberalism have coincided with a marked slowdown in the pace of state-owned-enterprise reform. He points to a campaign this year against management buy-outs of such enterprises, a once common form of privatisation in China. The government feared the practice was leading to rampant asset-stripping and was fuelling public resentment. Mr Cao, whose calls for political reform have earned him constant surveillance by the police (he skilfully evaded them to meet your correspondent), says the drawbacks of management buy-outs have been exaggerated by conservatives.
Yet for all Mr Hu's rhetoric, he has yet to strike out at perceived wayward tendencies with anything like the vigour shown by Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping or even Jiang Zemin, whose crackdown on Falun Gong, a spiritual movement, in 1999 sent many thousands to labour camps. The complaints of Beijing's intellectuals are offset by other signals that China's economic reforms are continuing, even if government enthusiasm for the kind of mass privatisation of state-owned enterprises that occurred in the late 1990s and early this decade may have abated. In February the government issued new guidelines for private investment in areas hitherto the preserve of the state. This month it issued a draft of China's first law on property rights, aimed at protecting individuals and companies from arbitrary appropriations by the state. Many say the new law is inadequate, but it is still something of a concession to a growing middle class.
Even in the realm of privatisation, the government continues to experiment. In May, a new attempt was launched at off-loading state-owned shares in the 1,400 companies listed in China's stockmarkets. The government has indicated that the reform plan will not mean selling off its controlling stake in “key enterprises”. But it will relinquish at least some of its firms.
Given the increasingly conspicuous inequalities emerging in China as a result of the country's embrace of capitalism, it suits Mr Hu to appear to pour cold water on the idea of laisser-faire economics, blamed for a growing gap between rich and poor, between regions and between urban and rural areas. In the past couple of years there has been an upsurge in the number of protests triggered by these disparities, as well as by rampant corruption. Mr Hu is trying to strengthen the party's legitimacy by stressing its sympathy for the disadvantaged.
Mr Hu's catchphrase is “balanced development”. This will be a central theme in a new five-year economic plan (a still cherished relic of the central-planning era) due to be discussed by the Central Committee in October and ratified by the legislature next March. It will be Mr Hu's first opportunity to put his stamp on a long-term economic strategy. But rapid growth will remain his first priority. Mr Hu has shown no sign of retreat from the core belief of party leaders since the early 1990s: that growth is essential to social stability and thus the party's survival. If redistributing wealth were to jeopardise that, even the conservative Mr Hu would back off.