ANALYSIS: China's Communist Party dabbles in "socialist" democracy
By Bill Smith Mar 10, 2011, 3:02 GMT
Beijing - China's ruling Communist Party is again trumpeting the minor but slowly widening debate at its annual state parliament meeting as a reflection of the country's democratic development.
'We make progress every year in building democracy,' Xiao Yi, one of the 3,000 delegates to the National People's Congress, told the German Press Agency dpa.
This year's congress is airing cautious debate on everything from China's five-year economic plan and environmental protection to shark's fins and smoking.
Democratic development is also reflected in direct elections for village officials, greater transparency in government work and marginal competition for party posts, said Xiao, who, like most congress delegates, is one of China's 77 million party members.
The party has trumpeted these improvements for many years. But progress has been slow and no timelines or targets are attached to the policies mentioned by Xiao, leaving wide open the questions of if and when China could become a liberal democracy.
Some optimistic analysts and Western politicians have praised China's 'gradual' democratic reforms and backed the party's insistence that it must prioritize economic development and social stability over democracy and human rights.
With President Hu Jintao and other party leaders facing mandatory retirement from their top posts in late 2012, the optimists see hope of more substantial reform by the next generation of rulers, who are expected to be led by Vice President Xi Jinping.
Others anticipate that major change could come when the following generation of leaders take over from Xi and his colleagues a decade later.
In the run-up to this year's congress, the party mobilized its vast security apparatus to police the sites designated by anonymous organizers for weekly 'Jasmine rallies' in dozens of cities.
There are no signs yet that the low-profile 'strolling' rallies could turn into a mass democracy movement to challenge the party.
It also looks extremely unlikely that the party will make any concessions towards those calling for immediate political reform.
Premier Wen Jiabao gave an important, if implicit, indicator of the party's long-tern view of democracy in a speech at the opening of the congress.
'China is still in the primary stage of socialism and will remain so for a long time to come, so we must continue to take economic development as our central task and pursue scientific development,' Wen said.
Although Wen said relatively little about democracy, compared with other recent speeches by him and Hu, his appeal to the 'primary stage of socialism' directly reflects the party's core ideology.
In a speech in December 2008 to mark 30 years of the party's economic reforms, Hu said China's 'socialist modernization' period would continue for 'several, a dozen or even dozens of generations.'
Hu implied that the party would not consider moving towards multi-party, liberal democracy within the indefinite period of the 'primary stage of socialism.'
His speech came one week after the release of the Charter '08 for democratic reform by 303 leading Chinese dissidents, scholars and lawyers.
Liu Xiaobo, a co-organizer of the charter, was sentenced to 12 years in prison and the government has imprisoned, threatened or placed under house arrest many other leading activists in the last three years.
As well as silencing outspoken activists, the party has drawn in some of those with the potential power to oppose it, particularly the super-rich owners of private or semi-privatized businesses.
The party amended its constitution in 2002 to allow entrepreneurs and other 'new forces' to join.
State media reported that dozens of delegates to this year's congress were dollar billionaires.
Yet a pre-congress editorial by People's Daily, the party's official newspaper, called for the development of a 'new study-type Marxist party.'
The party still refuses to accept 'universal' principles of democracy and claims that its 'socialism with Chinese characteristics' reflects the will of most of China's 1.3 billion people.
'Different regions have different styles (of democracy),' Li Hongyun, a delegate from the central province of Hubei, told dpa.
'Asian countries would be in a mess if they learned only Western democracy,' Li said.
'If China learns Western democracy, it will be definitely be in a mess, so I think the democracy we have now is suitable for our national conditions.'