The Age of Political Reform
People who care about China's future are likely to have been surprised and heartened by what Premier Wen Jiabao said during his press conference at the end of the National People's Congress meeting this year, broadcast live on March 14. Over three hours, Wen spoke several times of reforms, particularly political reform.
This time, though, he highlighted three relationships: that between political and economic reform; the link between reform and the people; and the relationship between reform and history. His words brought home the urgency of political reform, which China must no longer delay or avoid.
History will be the ultimate judge of his leadership, Wen said; on reforms, the premier also took the historical view.
Twice he mentioned the "Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party since the Founding of the People's Republic of China." This was no accident. The resolution, adopted in 1981, reflected on the mistakes made by the government in the 32 years of nationhood. It admitted that, between 1957 and 1966, the "party made serious mistakes in guidance, leading to detours in development." The ensuing 10-year Cultural Revolution was a period of internal turmoil "wrongfully started by the leadership and exploited by anti-revolutionary groups," that brought "catastrophe to the party, the country and the people."
Even after the fall of the Gang of Four, in 1976, China struggled for a time before finding the right path to development. The decision on reform and opening up was reached at the third plenary session of the Eleventh Central Committee in 1978 and was affirmed by the resolution.
No one can refute this decision. No matter how difficult the project of reform has been, China cannot turn back. The painful lessons of history are too raw.
China has made astounding strides since reforms began, but problems, too, abound. In particular, corruption, unfair wealth distribution and a loss of trust in society have created deep resentment. Solving these fundamental problems requires comprehensive reforms that have proved painful. Thus, some people mislead others by blaming reform for the problems, compounding the difficulty of progress.
This makes clear the relationship between reform and the people. As Wen said, reforms cannot succeed without the people's understanding and full-hearted support.
After the Cultural Revolution, China's economy was near collapse. Hence, economic reforms such as those on farm output quotas quickly won public approval.
Today, the multiple frustrations of daily life are feeding into public discontent, which can easily turn into mob rage. We've seen how, during the Cultural Revolution, ambitious politicians and fanatical populism ended up destroying civilization. Just recently, Vice President Xi Jinping warned in an essay against party cadres who play to the crowd for personal gain. History cautions us that regression for China would be dangerous. It reminds leaders of their responsibility to press on with reforms – they must face up to problems and win people's support for reforms.
Reforms are at a crossroads, Wen said. "Without the success of political structural reforms, economic structural reforms cannot be carried out in full, and whatever gains we have made may be lost." Without solving the roots of social problems, a historical tragedy like the Cultural Revolution could occur again, he warned.
For the past 30 years, China has been tough on reforms in some areas, but lax in others. Today, the lack of progress on political reform is stalling the entire project. Thus, many vocal advocates of market reforms, including the economist Wu Jinglian, have in recent years begun urging leaders to prioritize political reform.
But far too many people oppose change, and our biggest problem today is an
Our leaders waver because they are afraid political reform will cause instability. But reality has proved them wrong. The unrest that erupted last year in the Guangdong village of Wukan was eventually pacified when the party leadership worked with the villagers to reach a solution stressing people's autonomy, and fair and open elections were held. This is an example of successful political reform that improves, rather than disrupts, harmony.
Asked about China's democratic development, Wen said: "People who run a village well can run a county, and people who run a county well can run a province, and so on. We should encourage people to practice, because through practice they learn."
Political reform is not frightening. Reform should be gradual but firm. Two tasks in the government's work report directly relate to political reform: to hasten administrative reform and enhance measures to fight corruption. Both hold the key to a breakthrough in reform progress. The government must, as Wen pledged, press on.
The Communist Party will soon hold its 18th party congress, where some progress on promoting intra-party democracy is expected, including competitive elections. The recent political events underline the urgency of political reform. It is time for a responsible government to act.
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