Beijing faces a fresh legitimacy test

Asia Times
Sep 25, 2009
By Verna Yu

HONG KONG - When the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China is celebrated early next month, it will be an apt occasion for reflection on its six decades of rule.

Ahead of the October 1 National Day, the party-controlled state media have gone into overdrive to promote the "great achievements" made by China under communist rule, proudly highlighting the economic progress in the past three decades that propelled China towards becoming the third-largest economy in the world.

But will the "economic miracle" necessarily grant legitimacy for the continuation of the Communist Party in power? It seems even the party itself is not quite sure.

At the end of the annual plenary session of the powerful Communist Party Central Committee last week, it candidly admitted that many problems threatened its political standing, including rampant corruption, ethnic tension and social inequality.
These problems have "harmed the flesh-and-blood ties between the party and people, hampering efforts to consolidate the party's ruling status", and its "mission to strictly manage the party has never been so arduous and urgent", the plenum communique stated.

With an estimated 100,000 street riots and disturbances across the country taking place last year, a yawning rich-poor gap and continued ethnic turbulence in Tibet and Xinjiang, Chinese leaders are clearly thinking about how best to continue their rule.

Amid widespread social discontent, many people were now questioning the legitimacy of the Communist Party's rule, said former Chinese Academy of Social Sciences historian Zhang Lifan.

"The promises it made 60 years ago have not materialized, for instance, a directly-elected National People's Congress [China's legislature]," he said. "The [uneven wealth] distribution issue has not been resolved - all these affect the legality of their rule."

Many people were so disillusioned with the communist government that they no longer believed in the promises their leaders made, he said. "They haven't produced any good solutions to make people believe in them. So whether the government has done good or not, people think by default that 'the government must be deceiving me'."

To win back its people's hearts, the Communist Party should strive to become more like a genuine modern political party, said Bao Tong, who was the director of the Political Reform Bureau before the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement was crushed.

"It isn't difficult, what it should do is abide by the law, what it shouldn't do is lead everything," said Bao, who spent seven years in prison after the crackdown and still lives under tight surveillance.

"According to the constitution, the People's Republic's power belongs to the people, not the Communist Party," he said. "When the party can achieve this ... then it will achieve legitimacy."

Bao said China, which calls itself a "republic", should work on a step-by-step roadmap which tells people when it will start moving towards democracy.

However, there are few signs that China is about to do that.

Instead, the government has this year adopted more heavy handed tactics to target people it considers a threat, such as cracking down on non-government organizations and disbarring many-human rights lawyers as well as arresting several high-profile rights activists.

With the recent social unrest in Tibet and the far western region of Xinjiang, the government also vowed at the party plenary session to "effectively prevent and resolutely crack down on ethnicity-related separatist activities".

Yet despite these tough measures, the government appears convinced that it can still use economic growth and nationalism as a uniting force to secure the loyalty of its people.

The Beijing Summer Olympics Games last year, the space program and the military parade on the October 1 anniversary all help boost the feeling of national pride, said Willy Lam, adjunct professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"The basic thing is to persuade most Chinese that their standard of living has increased, along with a heady dose of nationalism - stirring up pride in China's 'greatness'," he said.

Veteran China watcher and journalist Ching Cheong said China had accumulated so much political capital during the past decades it still had a very special place in the hearts of ordinary Chinese people.

Although China was invaded and occupied by various foreign countries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Communist Party's courage in fighting against the United States in the Korean war in the early 1950s and the former Soviet Union over border issues had earned respect from ordinary Chinese, he said.

And in the latter 30 years of its rule, China's efforts in eliminating poverty, and its stellar economic performance were also a source of pride for Chinese people. "These have helped to strengthen its rule and uniting people behind it ... and are a rich source of legitimacy," Cheong said.

"The question is, how much longer can this keep going?" he asked.

Analysts warn against complacency - they say if China's leaders do not push for political reform and introduce genuine democracy, this political capital will soon be used up.

"This thinking: 'I have military and economic control' produces a powerful illusion and it's not good for someone to feel so euphoric," said Zhang.

Bao urged the authorities to push for democracy sooner rather than later, warning that their current method of ensuring stability was a precarious, short-term solution.

"When the situation is relatively stable, I hope they will take the initiative to announce a roadmap for universal suffrage," he said. "Don't wait until things are so unstable that you have to be pushed into it."

Verna Yu is a Hong Kong-based journalist.