Jiang Zemin Steps Down --What Next for China?
Center for Chinese Studies Director Richard Baum participates in radio panel on China's future now that Hu Jintao has consolidated power.
What changes can we expect from the Chinese government in the wake of former President Jiang Zemin's September 19 surrender of his last major post, as head of the Chinese Communist Party's powerful Central Military Commission? UCLA political scientist Richard Baum, director of the Asia Institute's Center for Chinese Studies, took part in a September 20 panel on the "To the Point" show on Los Angeles KCRW Radio to probe the answers. Other panel members included Orville Schell, dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism; Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China; and Robert Marquand, China correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor.
Is Jiang Zemin Still Powerful behind the Scenes?
Moderator Sara Terry opened by asking Marquand what the weekend transition signified. He replied, "The man who has been in control of China for the past decade, since Tiananmen Square actually, has offered his resignation and the party accepted it. Some people thought that Jiang offered his resignation hoping they wouldn't accept it, but they did. . . . Jiang controlled the army for the last several years. Now Hu Jintao is in charge."
Marquand suggested that Jiang Zemin retains considerable behind-the-scenes power through his Shanghai clique and still has strong ties to the military. "Hu Jintao cannot change any policy on North Korea or on Taiwan, these are the very sensitive questions right now," he added. "This is ruled by consensus."
Orville Schell was asked about Hu Jintao's background. "His career has been reasonably public," he replied, "but rather blank. It's very difficult to assess not only what he stands for but what sort of temperament he is, what his proclivities are. There are very few tell-tale signs sticking out of his official biography. We know he was sent to Tibet to be party chief there in the late eighties; we know he was involved in martial law there just before the Tiananmen demonstrations and Beijing massacre, but he kept his nose very clean. . . . He's a technocrat, but what he really believes and where he may be inclined to take China is not at all clear."
"Huge Problems" ahead for Hu
Schell pointed to some "huge problems" that Hu will have to confront: "the gap between rich and poor, the problems between peasants and workers, this enormous internal migration which is in fact the largest migration in human history, of peasants moving to cities to take up jobs in factories and on construction sites so that in cities like Beijing and Shanghai a third of their population is this floating population."
Sara Terry, turning to Richard Baum, asked how he thought Hu Jintao would affect Chinese communism. "One of the problems with the communist system," Baum replied, "is that populism has always been substituted for participation; that is, a paternalistic form of concern by the leaders for the welfare of the masses. Whenever there are signs of citizen discontent in a communist system the leaders will go out of their way to show a kind of paternalistic regard for the weal and woe of the unfortunate, the disadvantaged. The problem is, there are no institutions to make sure that elite concern is translated into policies that actually work for the benefit of those disadvantaged people. There is a major problem for any communist leadership in transforming itself from a benevolent despot into a participant and responsive leadership."
Baum suggested that there had been moves toward greater representative institutions in the early 1980s, but that this had ended with the crushing of the Tiananmen democracy demonstrations in June 1989. "All talk of major political reform was pretty much stifled for the next fifteen years. Now with Jiang Zemin out of the way, finally, it looks like there is an opening for real significant institutional reform. We don't know, as Orville Schell just said, whether Hu Jintao is the man to do it, whether he is inclined to do it and whether he has enough support within the leadership to do it. But there are a number of areas where the Chinese political system stands in very serious need of repair. It is broke and it needs fixing."
Baum added that the regime over the last few years has been trying to address one of these issues by paying more attention to the rural areas and also to inland areas in general in the western half of the country, which "have been left behind to a considerable extent."
Sara Terry asked Orville Schell if Hu Jintao's comparative youth, at 61, meant he was more likely to promote serious reforms. Schell said he hoped so, but that in following China over many years, "I am constantly impressed by the refractory nature of this party and its resistance to political change. [Change] comes very grudgingly and very slowly. A little bit at the bottom in village elections, but still we have basically the system that was put in place in the 1950s when Stalin was in power in Russia and it was borrowed."
New Constituencies for Political Rights
Sharon Hom joined the discussion at this point. From a human rights perspective, she said, "the fundamentals are that for there to be sustainable growth and sustainable development in China and for it to recover its legitimacy as a government, the government is going to have to grapple with the fundamental questions of is there going to be a civil society in China? And for there to be a serious civil society there has to be a greater tolerance for difference and a tolerance for peaceful expression and a tolerance for critical voices. Because that's where the rubber meets the road."
Sara Terry asked Hom if there were constituencies in China pressing the government for these kinds of reforms. Hom replied that critics of the government face a powerful political and police apparatus that imposes a "climate of self-censorship." Nevertheless, she said, pressure points within China "are coming from peasants who are organizing independent peasant organizations. It is coming from workers all over China who are demanding back pay and safe working conditions. It is coming from the people who are organizing around forced relocations, wanting their homes, wanting their compensations paid. It is coming from religious leaders who are organizing and just trying to practice their religion in underground churches. It is coming from independent newspaper journalists who are publishing on the web or publishing before they are shut down. It is coming from lawyers. More than 100 lawyers have been arrested, for so-called false information, but that is just trying to chill lawyers."
Sharon Hom acknowledged that these critical constituencies have been met with pretty severe and effective government repression. She said she looked to the Western governments and media to put pressure on the Chinese government to respect some rights of their internal critics. "How do we safely and effectively promote and push the envelope so that the spaces inside China can expand, so that they can push for change? One way we push for it from outside is that we want to make China accountable within an international framework."
No Repeat of Tiananmen
Sara Terry then asked Richard Baum how reform stirrings in China today compare to the period in the late 1980s leading up to the Tiananmen demonstrations. Baum responded, "Things have become much more open and loose since Tiananmen, at a social level, at a grassroots level. As Sharon said, there are so many new social forces that have emerged, partially if not wholly as a result of the market reforms and the new enriched information environment in China. There are so many more sources of information, so much more movement in the society than there was fifteen to twenty years ago. So these forces, I think, are gathering great momentum. I think Sharon is absolutely correct that the pressures for civil society at the grassroots level are mounting extraordinarily rapidly. And the regime is going to have to respond to them. And as Orville has said, it will either do it in a proactive way or it will be facing some very serious opposition down the road."
Sara Terry asked Baum if he expected a repeat of the 1989 military crushing of the reform movement. No, he replied. His reasoning here was that 1989 saw a direct confrontation with the government by the intellectuals around issues of democracy and representative government. Today in contrast, he said, far broader strata are in motion around a far wider range of issues. While these did not come to as sharp a focus, the government's contemporary critics have collectively great power behind them. "It’s migrants, it's peasants, it's journalists, it's religious groups."
Published: Monday, September 20, 2004