July 17, 2012
By MICHAEL WINES
BEIJING — A heavyweight crowd gathered last October for a banquet in Beijing’s tallest skyscraper. The son of Mao Zedong’s immediate successor was there, as was the daughter of the country’s No. 2 military official for nearly three decades, along with the half sister of China’s president-in-waiting, and many more.
“All you had to do,” said one attendee, Zhang Lifan, “was look at the number of luxury cars and the low numbers on the plates.”
Most surprising, though, was the reason for the meeting. A small coterie of children of China’s founding elites who favor deeper political and economic change had come to debate the need for a new direction under the next generation of Communist Party leaders, who are set to take power in a once-a-decade changeover set to begin this year. Many had met the previous August, and would meet again in February.
The private gatherings are a telling indicator of how even some in the elite are worried about the course the Communist Party is charting for China’s future. And to advocates of political change, they offer hope that influential party members support the idea that tomorrow’s China should give citizens more power to choose their leaders and seek redress for grievances, two longtime complaints about the current system.
But the problem is that even as the tiny band of political reformers is attracting more influential adherents, it is splintered into factions that cannot agree on what “reform” would be, much less how to achieve it. The fundamental shifts that are crucial to their demands — a legal system beyond Communist Party control as well as elections with real rules and real choices among candidates — are seen even among the most radical as distant dreams, at best part of a second phase of reform.
In addition, the political winds are not blowing in their favor. The spectacular fall this spring of Bo Xilai, the Politburo member who openly espoused a populist philosophy at odds with elite leaders, offered an object lesson in the dangers of challenging the status quo. And official silence surrounding his case underscores high-level fears that any public cracks in the leadership’s facade of unity could lead its power to crumble.
As a result, few people here expect the party to willingly refashion itself anytime soon. And even those within the elite prepared to discuss deeper changes, including the second-generation “princelings,” as they are known, have a stake in protecting their own privileges.
“Compare now to 1989; in ’89, the reformers had the upper hand,” said Mr. Zhang, a historian formerly associated with the government’s Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, referring to the pro-democracy student protests that enjoyed the support of a number of important party leaders but were crushed in Tiananmen Square. “Twenty years later, the reformers have grown weaker. Now there are so many vested interests that they’ll be taken out if they touch anyone else’s interests.”
To Mr. Zhang and others, this is the conundrum of China’s rise: the autocracy that back-flipped on Marxist ideology to forge the world’s second-largest economy seems incapable of embracing political changes that actually could prolong its own survival.
Much as many Americans bemoan a gridlocked government split by a yawning partisan gap, Chinese advocates for change lament an all-powerful Communist Party they say is gridlocked by intersecting self-interests. None of the dominant players — a wealthy and commanding elite; rich and influential state industries; a vast, entrenched bureaucracy — stand to gain by ceding power to the broader public.
Many who identify with the reform camp see change as inevitable anyway, but only, they say, because social upheaval will force it. In that view, discontent with growing inequality, corruption, pollution and other societal ills will inevitably lead to a more democratic society — or a sharp turn toward totalitarianism.
An overriding worry is that unless change is carefully planned and executed, China risks another Cultural Revolution-style upheaval that could set it back decades.
“The bureaucrats still don’t have this sense of a crisis,” one editor at a major Communist Party newspaper, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said in an interview this year. “They think that they can continue to muddle through.” And perhaps they can — at least for a while longer. Most Chinese credit the party for lifting hundreds of millions of citizens from poverty and creating a huge urbanized middle class, providing a foundation of support for the status quo.
But many people are dissatisfied with an elite that retains tight political control, holds immense wealth and operates with largely unchecked authority. Scholars say the number of “mass incidents” — a vaguely defined official measure of discontent that includes spontaneous citizen protests — has doubled since 2005. The government stopped publicly reporting the total in 2006.
“We recognize the achievements,” said Yang Jisheng, an editor of the liberal journal Yanhuang Chunqiu. “But we worry about how to sustain them.
“The cake is extremely big, the second-biggest cake in the world. But it’s divided extremely unfairly,” Mr. Yang added. And “it’s systemic. If the system doesn’t change, it is always going to be unfair.”
Some leaders share those fears. The Communist Party’s only vocal advocate of systemic reform, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, warned at his annual news conference in March that failing to overhaul the party’s leadership risked setting off a second Cultural Revolution. Political change is a common topic of debate in the government’s many research groups and in the party’s school that trains up-and-coming leaders.
“Neither the rulers nor the ruled are happy with the current situation,” said Mr. Zhang, the historian. “The prevailing belief is that change is coming soon, but the question is how. Change is either going to come from the top leadership, or from the grass-roots level.”
Critics complain of stagnation during President Hu Jintao’s decade in power, and note that Mr. Wen has only halfheartedly pushed for change. They say the party has focused less on addressing citizen grievances than on erecting a sophisticated security apparatus to stifle them.
Mr. Hu’s stab at loosening up the Communist apparatus has been a call for “intraparty democracy,” code for giving the party’s lower ranks more voice in setting policy and choosing higher-ups. But there is scant evidence that even those minor changes in the power equation have been seriously pressed.
Little is clear about the leanings of a new generation that will supplant Mr. Hu and most other members of the Politburo standing committee, the party’s top ruling body, in the transition starting this fall.
The political views of Xi Jinping, China’s vice president and Mr. Hu’s anointed successor, are unknown, though he has flashed brief signs in a few speeches and meetings of what sound to analysts like more progressive leanings.
Some others who seem likely to ascend to the leadership have shown glimmers of support for change. They include Li Keqiang, Mr. Wen’s expected successor as prime minister; Vice Premier Wang Qishan; Li Yuanchao, the head of the party’s powerful organization department; and Liu Yandong, a contender to become the standing committee’s only female member.
“I’m optimistic,” Zhou Zhixing, a media executive and former official at a Communist Party research organization, said of the next standing committee. “I think these people have a very good understanding of China’s current situation, and they know that people’s demands include political reform.” Mr. Zhou’s Web site, Consensus Net, has become an important forum for political debate.
If peaceful change is to occur, Mr. Zhou and many others say, it must begin inside the Communist Party; the lesson of Tiananmen Square is that the leadership will not tolerate threats to its control. Many speak of a transformation along the lines of that in Taiwan, where authoritarian rulers peacefully gave way to direct elections in 1996, and helped spawn today’s robust democracy.
But the pro-reform contingent agrees on little else: on whether China should seek Western-style democracy, a more open form of the Communists’ single-party dictatorship or something altogether different.
Populists want to remake the party to reflect Mao’s early vision, redistributing billions in government riches to the people. A so-called new democracy movement, led by a rural economist and journalist named Zhang Musheng, is gaining followers with a plan to add checks and balances to one-party rule and to significantly expand welfare benefits. But Mao-style populism is disdained by most current leaders, and Mr. Bo, perhaps its leading apostle, was felled by scandal last spring.
A second Communist camp wants to open the party to internal competition, abandoning the leadership’s facade of unity and letting rival factions take their ideas to the wider party for approval. Over the long run, they say, transparency will spawn competing parties under a Communist umbrella — a sort of one-party democracy. But in a China where stability is the leadership’s obsessive concern, the notion of baring divisions at the pinnacle of power seems almost farcical.
Indeed, the reformers cannot even agree on their motivation. Intellectuals and dissidents see political opening-up as an article of faith. Many in the second red generation, the children of the founding warriors, are driven by anger over what they believe China has become under Mr. Hu.
“They think the Youth League has ruined the country that their fathers fought and died for,” said Mr. Zhang, the historian, referring to the Communist Youth League, which is Mr. Hu’s base of support.
The beleaguered idealists cannot afford to be too choosy, though. “We welcome them,” Mr. Zhang said. “It’s better to at least have an interest in reform, no matter why.”
But the sheer scope of the discord leads some who call for change to wonder whether they are less a movement than a debating society — intellectuals trading theories over plates of noodles in their apartments, the second red generation trading theories over lavish hotel banquets.
“Mao used to say that ‘revolution is not a dinner party,’ ” Mr. Yang, the editor at Yanhuang Chunqiu, said sardonically. “But right now, revolution is precisely a dinner party.”
Sharon LaFraniere and Jonathan Ansfield contributed reporting. Mia Li contributed research.