Will the Communist Party turn Democratic?

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(Warning: Inside Baseball on Chinese politics: those not interested should change channels now)

There is increasing speculation ahead of the opening of the 17th Communist Party National Conference on October 15th that the fierce factional struggle now going on behind the scenes may result in the elevation of the new Shanghai Party Secretary Xi Jinping into the hallowed ranks of the nine-member Standing Committee of the Party’s Politburo, the group that actually runs China. Xi is considered to be one of the “Elitist” faction because of the fact that
his father was a senior party member, making him a “princeling.” This in theory pits him against the “Populist” faction of President Hu Jintao and his supporters. (See here for more on this and Hu’s prospects and potential). Naturally, both the nature of his loyalties and whether or not he will actually be elevated are complete guesses, though highly educated ones by the experts, and I won’t add to the speculation. I think it is interesting though that if Xi does get into the Politburo along with President Hu’s own favorite, Liaoning Party Secretary Li Keqiang, it will
mean that there will be two members of the so-called fifth-generation (Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao make up the first four) of leaders in a position to succeed the president when his second term is up in five years. (There is an unwritten but explicit agreement among top leaders that Party Secretaries only serve two five-year terms). If that’s the case,
there could be a genuine vote when the 18th Congress rolls around, with two contenders as opposed to the single candidate usual in the past. Some people in Beijing say that this nascent form of intra-party democracy (党内民主) should be encouraged. Even the country’s eminence grise , kingmaker Zeng Qinghong was quoted by the official news agency Xinhua as weighing in on behalf of democracy. According to Xinhua, in a speech earlier this year, Zeng “highlighted the importance of inner-party democracy, quoting it as key to the improvement of the party’s creativity, governance capability and official integrity.” The last phrases of course might alternatively be translated as “the party’s ability to stay I power.”
And yet, it is still intriguing that even such a senior figure as Zeng is pushing for more democracy. What that means in practice is sill murky. So far, scholars cite the probable elevation of Xi as one recent example of the influence of the democratic spirit. He supposedly got a major boost to his chances of getting into the Standing Committee after topping internal party straw polls (摸底). I am a bit skeptical of how much influence such polls have in reality, but they may well have tipped the balance–or even been used to justify a decision that was
already in the making. The other creeping sign of democracy most often cited is the inclusion of more candidates than there are posts (gasp!) in party elections. Under the purported new arrangements for this year’s Congress, elections to the 150 member Central Committee would have 15 per cent more candidates than posts and elections to the Politburo would have 10 per cent more. These are pretty tentative signs of democracy, but to their advocates
they are nevertheless important. Li Datong, the former editor of the ground
breaking Freezing Point (冰点)who was fired for being too groundbreaking, told me a couple of weeks ago that he thought the only way China would evolve into a democracy was if the party democratized first. Maybe so, but as he himself pointed out in the same conversation, past attempts haven’t had much success. The last Congress that had some semblance of voting as the 13th in 1987, when Zhao Ziyang was Party Secretary. Of course, then came Tiananmen and that was the end of that. Li says that there was a test of the extra candidates rule ten years later at the 15th. But when then Party Secretary Jiang Zemin found that three of his desired candidates hadn’t made it, there was a mysterious delay of an hour in tallying the
ballots and, lo and behold, when the results were announced, Jiang’s men were in.

I am open to correction as ever, but I can’t help feeling that the whole intra-party democracy debate is something of a red herring aimed at legitimizing Party rule. Hence pronouncements like Zeng’s above. The trouble with having a closed, secretive system is that the open debate and disagreement necessary for any real democracy would bring with it all sort of questions about the legitimacy of the Party’s rule and many other tricky issues. It would also, it seems to me, encourage the factionalism that already bedevils the proceedings. That’s a scary prospect. The history of Communist China’s first 25 years–society in near permanent turmoil and
some 20-30 million dead because of idiotic political campaigns–after all can be largely attributed to factional infighting, that is t struggles for power between Mao Zedong and his rivals.