China puts political reform on five-year agenda
October 14, 2010

As the 300-odd leading members of the Chinese Communist party prepare for their annual meeting which will set the tone for the next five years, on Friday, analysts expect the seeds of political reforms to be planted. With fractions developing within the one party system, – older leaders swinging towards a more democratic rule and younger leaders preferring to stick in the mud, all eyes will now be on the upper echelons of power – the liberal minded Wen Jiabao and the next generation of successors.

Premier Wen Jiabao, widely viewed as more liberal-minded than Hu Jintao the president and party chairman, has vehemently spoken out for the need for political reform recently. Known to have supported pro democratic warriors, Wen Jiabao, used a visit to Shenzhen, the city in southern China that is the spiritual home of economic reform, this August to push his message more firmly, saying that political reform was a necessary companion to economic modernisation. “Without the safeguard of political reform, the fruits of economic reform would be lost,” he said.

Born out of the collapse of the Soviet Union that indulged in political reform before economic reform, only to bifurcate and disintegrate into several states, China too which emerged from Communism, decided to implement economic reform prior to political reform. However, now that the older generation in the CPC has witnessed the fruits of economic reform, that they planted 25 years ago, they are keen to reap the benefits to political reform too. Nonetheless, the younger generation in the CPC, which has only experienced the fruits of economic liberalization, isn’t keen to shake things up.

Mr. Wen who retires in 2012, is however keen to leave his mark in history. While his timing in light of Liu Xiaobo winning the Nobel Peace Prize might not be appropriate, he has several strong supporters within the CPC. Following his comments in Shenzen, Mr Wen’s comments to CNN were even blunter. The Communist party should act “in accordance with the constitution and the law”, he said. “Freedom of speech is indispensable for any country” and “the people’s wishes and needs for democracy and freedom are irresistible”.

Yet not everyone is convinced. Some intellectuals in Beijing have grown frustrated at the slow pace of reform under Mr Wen and Hu Jintao and believe they are essentially conservative figures who pay only lip-service to shaking up the political system. Until now they contend, there is little detail on the substance of any reform, while talks of political change have been doing the rounds for a while now, nothing has been documented, suggested or planned for. Most feel that leaders within the CPC believe political reform to be more elections within the Communist party for positions, rather than votes involving the general population. For China to become a real democracy, hold elections and implement freedom of expression, leaders will need to do a lot more than discuss the idea openly.

During the four day meeting, party leaders are also expected to discuss a 2011-15 economic plan to enshrine a push to rely more on domestic demand and less on export markets. The plan is also expected to broaden the social safety net to address the growing gap between China’s super-wealthy and those left behind by three decades of economic transformation. Also With a 2013 handover of power by Hu and Wen approaching, Vice President Xi Jinping and Vice Premier Li Keqiang are seen as waiting in the wings. The plenum could entrench the future line-up, especially if Xi is named to the Central Military Commission — the top military decision-making body, which Hu heads now.

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