Sunday, October 26, 2008

Article - China's leaders are resilient in face of change

The Chinese NBA star Yao Ming carrying the Olympic torch Wednesday through the Tiananmen Gate under a portrait of Mao.
(Cao Taeg/Reuters )

International Herald Tribune
Wednesday, August 6, 2008

BEIJING: As Beijing was starting construction on its main Olympic stadiums four years ago, China's vice president and leading political fixer, Zeng Qinghong, warned the 70 million members of the ruling Communist Party that the party itself could use some reconstruction.

Zeng argued that the "painful lessons" from the collapse of other Communist parties in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe could not be ignored. He said China's cadres needed to "wake up" and realize that "a party's status as a party in power does not necessarily last as long as the party does."

Zeng, who is now retired, was alluding to the pressures of economic liberalization, political stagnation and globalization that many analysts have argued would ultimately topple one-party rule in China. The Olympics also posed a pressure point, as some analysts wondered whether the expectations and international scrutiny brought by the Games might help crack open another authoritarian political system - as happened in Seoul in 1988.

But if the Olympics have presented unmistakable challenges and crises, the Communist Party has proved resilient. Public appetite for reform has not waned, but the short-term byproduct of the Olympics has been an upsurge in Chinese patriotism that bolstered the party against international criticism after its crackdown on Tibetan protesters in March and the controversy over the international Olympic torch relay.

Economic and social change is so rapid in China that the Communist Party is sometimes depicted as an overwhelmed caretaker. But in the seven years since Beijing was awarded the Games, the party has adapted and navigated its way forward, loosening its grip on elements of society even as it crushes, or co-opts, threats to its hold on political power.

The party has absorbed entrepreneurs, urban professionals and university students into an elite class that is invested in the political status quo, if not necessarily enthralled with it. Private capitalists may be symbols of a changing China. But the party has clung tenaciously to the most profitable pillar industries and the financial system, and it is not always easy to distinguish the biggest private companies from their state-run counterparts in China's hybrid economy.

Faced with public anger over corruption, Chinese officials are now required to attend annual training sessions in a nationwide, if not always successful, program to raise competency and promote accountability. And if officials long since abandoned Maoist-style thought control, the propaganda machine can still stir up nationalist passions or shut them off, depending on the party's priorities. It relentlessly positions the party as the guardian of national pride, proving adept at the task even in the more freewheeling era of the Internet.

"This is a very reflective party," said David Shambaugh, a political scientist at George Washington University. "They are adaptive, reflective and open, within limits. But survival is the bottom line. And they see survival as an outcome of adaptation."

The ultimate question is whether adaptation alone is enough. Many analysts say the lack of democratic reform is constraining China's economic efficiency and that reforms are needed to confront issues like stark inequality and environmental degradation. Thousands of protests erupt every year over illegal land seizures and official corruption.

The Tibet crisis revealed Chinese nationalism as a major political force, even as it exposed unresolved domestic issues about freedom of religion and minority rights. To some analysts, the harsh official response to Tibet revealed an insecure, defensive leadership.

"The party doesn't have self-confidence in its legitimacy," said Zhang Xianyang, a liberal political analyst in Beijing. "So the government overreacts in the face of social turbulence. I think the regime is not as strong as outsiders and the common people think. But they are not as weak as they feel themselves."

For the Communist Party, China's selection in July 2001 as host of the 2008 Olympics was a political and historic coup: a gift they could deliver to a thrilled citizenry and a new focal point, seven years in the distant future, which could be used to rally national pride.

Inside the party, leaders were intently focused on the viability of their system. The party faced no organized opposition; none is allowed. But the leadership, fretting about historical trends, had commissioned exhaustive autopsies of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. By June 2001, a month before the Olympic announcement, the Communist Party's Central Committee organization department, which oversees party promotions and training, published a blunt report that revealed deep public anger and recommended "system reforms" to address official corruption and incompetence.

China's economy was soaring, and the country was preparing to join the World Trade Organization. But if free trade could help China's exports, the party report also warned that deeper integration into the world economy "may bring growing dangers and pressures, and it can be predicted that in the ensuing period the number" of public protests "may jump, severely harming social stability."

The dismantling of the planned economy had already presented an ideological challenge: What to do about the emerging class of capitalists who were rapidly accruing wealth? Admitting capitalists struck old-guard Marxists as apostasy, but it made smart politics for a party leery of any group emerging as a rival for power. Less than two weeks before the Olympic announcement, former President Jiang Zemin chose the party's 80th anniversary to declare that capitalists should be invited to join its ranks.

State and Private - a meaningful divide?

Reformers hoped private businesspeople might one day prove a force for democratization. But today, together with the flow of party officials into the business sector, the mixing of money and power has rendered distinctions about the state and private sectors less meaningful than they seem in the West. Businessmen have established closer links to the government and party to get access to state bank loans and tap into the network of officials who control land and government contracts. College students eyeing a career in government or academia often make the same calculation.

"The party seems happy with that," said Bruce Dickson, a China scholar at George Washington University. "They are not looking for die-hard ideologues. They want to co-opt people into their system. And they've been far more successful than people realize."

Beyond managing the rise of private enterprise, the party also faced a major challenge in managing the collapse of much of the state-owned economy. The brutal transition to privatization meant closing thousands of unprofitable enterprises and putting millions of laid-off workers on modest pensions. Within a decade, the state's share of the economy had fallen to about 35 percent in 2006 from 80 percent in 1997, according to an analysis in China Economic Quarterly.

But that declining share does not reflect declining influence. The party's analysis of the collapse of the Soviet bloc faulted post-Communist countries for rushing too recklessly into privatization. To preserve the party's pre-eminence, senior officials adopted a policy of selling off small enterprises with lower profit margins while keeping a grip on the biggest industries.

Today, the state still exercises effective control over natural resources like oil, gas and coal; production of steel, oil refining and ferrous metals; telecommunications, transport and power generation; and the financial system.

Arthur Kroeber, managing editor of China Economic Quarterly, which recently focused on the resurgence of the state-owned economy, said officials had injected competition into the state sector by pitting state-owned entities against each other without surrendering control over strategic industries.

"They have retained all the industries that have huge scale and large cash flow," he said.

Nationalism and the Internet

If anything has been a change agent in Chinese society, it has been the Internet. In 2001, China had 26.5 million Internet users. Today, the figure is 253 million, the most in the world. One of those millions is a software engineer named Lu Yunfei, who joined the crowds at Tiananmen Square on the night Beijing was awarded the Olympics.

The following year, Lu began surfing the Web and soon stumbled across news accounts of a visit by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan to a controversial war shrine honoring Japanese soldiers, including some accused of atrocities in China. Infuriated, he became one of the legion of the country's patriotic cybernationalists.

"I made a U-turn in my life as a result of the Internet, as a result of freedom of information," said Lu, now 33. "The patriotism movement is a result of the development of the Internet."

Freedom of information always has been considered essential in liberalizing China, and the Internet has disseminated amounts of information once unthinkable. Despite an Internet firewall and tens of thousands of censors, dissidents still post petitions that once would have gone unheard. Farmers post videos of demonstrations on YouTube.

But nationalism also has flowered online into a complicated force that the party has often managed to cultivate for its own purposes. In recent years, China's nationalist passion has focused mostly on Japan and Taiwan. In 2005, amid a diplomatic standoff between China and Japan, thousands of Chinese protesters held raucous anti-Japanese demonstrations in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities. Initially, the government condoned the outbursts, even though such protests are illegal. But eventually, as the protests expanded, the police shut them down and, that quickly, it was over.

This year's Olympic controversies pushed Chinese nationalism onto a wider world stage. In the days after the violent Tibetan riots, state media carried hours of coverage of ethnic Tibetans assaulting Han Chinese as well as television documentaries praising economic policies in Tibet. When Western leaders began calling on China to show restraint as it suppressed the uprising, Chinese nationalists rallied to the government's cause on the Internet.

In April, the ugly anti-China protests that marred the Olympic torch relay in London and Paris intensified the patriotic anger in China. Voices preaching moderation, or questioning the government's responsibility in the Tibet crisis, were drowned out. State media defended the patriotic fervor as a justified response against Western bias. As happened three years earlier during the anti-Japanese protests, officials initially gave tacit approval to a mass boycott of the French retailer Carrefour.

At his group's Web site, Lu used his stints as webmaster to offer "virtual prizes" to people writing provocative postings about Tibet or about Western media bias. He highlighted the most patriotic posts at the top of his page.

"They were mainly criticizing Tibetan separatists, CNN and those who disturbed the overseas torch relay," he said.

For the Communist Party, nationalism has always been a central justification of its rule. Schoolchildren are taught a heroic narrative of the party as the savior of China in 1949 and the savior of Tibet from feudalism and economic backwardness. If Westerners often view China through the prism of the Cultural Revolution and the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, Chinese are taught about the Opium War and the colonialist advances into China by Japan and the West.

"Nationalism and patriotism mean love your country," said Zhang, the political analyst. "The Communist Party was so clever because they linked nationalism to loving the party. They said the party was the same as the country."

If the Internet once threatened to dilute that message with a barrage of new information, it instead seems to have amplified the nationalist cause and given the party a chance to engage a new generation of educated youth.

Li Datong, a former editor of a top state-run magazine who lost his job after clashing with the propaganda authorities, said officials in charge of mass media and the Internet tried to leave little to chance. He said the country's army of censors dipped anonymously into the Internet debate by paying part-time writers 5 mao, or about 7 cents, per posting to steer public opinion and monitor the tone of debate online.

"Their job is to post articles on the BBS to balance public opinion," Li said, referring to a bulletin board system. "The netizens call them the 5 mao party. If they get a post on a BBS, they get 5 mao."

Lu, the cybernationalist, said Chinese patriots make distinctions between country and party. In recent weeks, the Internet has been filled with angry posts - many later censored - blaming the government for a recent energy agreement with Japan. And Chinese nationalism is not always an anti-foreign force; after the Sichuan earthquake, rising public patriotism was one reason credited for the unprecedented public response.

But on the Olympics, there seems little disagreement.

"For ordinary Chinese," Lu said, "even if they can't really articulate it, they feel the Olympics are a very important opportunity for China to demonstrate state power."

Zhang Jing and Huang Yuanxi contributed research.

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