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Reorienting the 17th Party Congress: Boosting Unity and Thwarting Taiwan

Politics - 2007-10-04 - Nearly overnight, the focus of the 17th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress has shifted from the debate regarding Chinese political and economic reform to the promotion of internal party unity and the combating of Taiwan’s proposed referendum. This change has come about due to increasing concerns raised by the party rank-and-file, intellectuals and ordinary citizens over dislocations in the economy, particularly regarding the runaway prices of commodities and services ranging from foodstuffs to housing and health costs.

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Across the Taiwan Strait, the two primary parties in Taiwan—both the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the unification-leaning Kuomintang—have called for referendums, albeit with separate clauses, on Taiwan’s entrance into the UN. These perceived challenges to the authority of the Chinese leadership have apparently prompted the authorities to mothball discussions about liberalization—including the relatively innocuous agenda of “intra-party democracy”—for the foreseeable future. President Hu Jintao, well known for his cautiousness toward political reform, evidently fears that hoisting the flag of this controversial goal would engender further divisions within the party and country.

From mid-September onwards, the speeches and statements given by Hu, Premier Wen Jiabao and the other members of the Chinese leadership have turned toward enhancing unity within the CCP. In a late September Politburo meeting, Hu surprised many officials when he cited the imperative of “comrades of the Politburo abiding by [the requirements of] the overall situation, closely working with and supporting each other, and upholding and developing the favorable conditions of unity and pro-activeness” (Xinhua, September 28). Hu further called for efforts toward buttressing “the party’s ideological construction and organizational construction.” His admonition seemed to indicate that there was a lack of unity even at the Politburo level. Moreover, “ideological construction and organizational construction” are standard CCP euphemisms for enforcing a “unity of thought” by means of marginalizing CCP elements deemed unwilling to toe the “central line.”

That the party—and much of China—is divided over economic policy is evident from a “Politburo study session” conducted last week on ways to give a further push to the reform and open-door policy. While addressing the meeting, Hu did not explain why the leadership needed to reaffirm a plank that was first raised by late patriarch Deng Xiaoping nearly 30 years ago. “We must resolutely and unswervingly implement the basic national goal of the open-door policy,” Hu said. “We must expand both the breadth and depth of the policy of opening up to the world,” he added. “We must raise our ability in boosting [China’s] participation in economic globalization as well as maintaining national economic security.”

In a commentary on the eve of the October 1 National Day, Xinhua alluded to “controversies” surrounding Deng’s reform and open-door policy over the past three decades. Xinhua cited “exacerbated contradictions” among disparate regions and social sectors due to wide gaps in levels of economic progress, lack of social justice as well as environmental degradation. The party mouthpiece pointed out, however, that “there is no cause for people outside China to worry that the country will experience retrogressions in the arena of the reform and open-door policy” (Xinhua, September 30). Foremost among scholars and even cadres who harbor doubts about the correct direction of these reforms are those belonging to the “New Left,” who have blasted both Hu and Wen for deviating from socialist ideals and for embracing unbridled capitalism. For example, in a widely cited article decrying the “nine major crimes” of socialism with Chinese characteristics, “neo-conservative” theorist Zhang Deqin slammed the leadership for practicing what he deemed “market Darwinism.” Zhang argued that the marriage of political power and capital has spawned unequal competition in the market, which has in turn resulted in the cruelest form of “the strong preying on the weak” (www.wyzxsx.com, April 28).

Hu and Wen have become nervous about such criticisms, particularly in light of the apparent failure of Wen’s vaunted “macro-economic control and adjustment” policies. Despite repeatedly raising interest rates as well as mortgage charges, the overheated property market has shown no signs of losing steam. Even the official media has deplored how the “three big mountains”—unaffordable housing, together with sky-high education and medical costs—are crushing ordinary citizens. Partly as a result of the cyclical shortage of pork and other staple foodstuffs, the consumer price index increased by 6.5 percent in August. Western economists have estimated that real inflation could even be much higher. Mindful of the fact that it was hyperinflation in the mid-1980s that fuelled student protests—which culminated in the bloody June 4, 1989 Tiananmen crackdown—the authorities have essentially shelved all of the risky new initiatives so as to focus on nurturing internal unity and stability.

Sources in Beijing who are familiar with the Hu Jintao Faction point out that in the interest of fostering “intra-party harmony”—deemed a prerequisite for party unity—Hu has made major compromises regarding top-level personnel arrangements to be endorsed at the Party Congress. The latest reports from Beijing state that apart from Hu’s protégé Li Keqiang, who is party secretary of northeastern Liaoning Province, Shanghai party boss Xi Jinping has emerged as a frontrunner to join the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) (Reuters September 25; Ming Pao, September 26). Li, 52, is a former first secretary of the Communist Youth League, which Hu had headed in the mid-1980s. Xi, 54, the son of the late liberal party elder Xi Zhongxun, has no factional affiliation with Hu. Nevertheless, the low-key highest-ranking official of China’s largest business center boasts an illustrious track record as a reformist administrator and is deemed more acceptable than Li to most CCP factions. In the case in which both Xi and Li ascend to the PBSC later this month, it is believed that the former will assume Hu’s mantle as party secretary in 2012 and the latter will succeed Wen as the premier soon afterwards.

Apart from spreading the gospel of party unity and assembling a new leadership team that has cross-factional appeal, Hu is likely to use the Party Congress as a platform to issue a tough warning to Taipei. As the cabinet-level Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) pointed out, the 17th Congress will hammer out a new set of “guiding principles, overall requirements and major tasks” toward Taiwan (Xinhua, September 26). This is despite the fact that it is unusual for a CCP congress, which usually handles internal party affairs, to emphasize cross-Straits relations.

While the United Nations last month rejected Taiwan’s application to join the world body using the name “Taiwan”—as opposed to past attempts to join under the name “Republic of China”—President Chen Shui-bian as well as DPP presidential candidate Frank Hsieh and KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou are committed to holding referendums on Taipei’s UN bid on the same day as the March presidential elections. Beijing’s TAO has reiterated that the DPP’s referendum, which it states is a first step toward changing the official name of the island from the “Republic of China” to “Taiwan,” constitutes a solid effort at claiming de jure independence. And from Beijing’s viewpoint, the Chinese leadership is authorized by China’s 2005 Anti-Secession Law to use “non-peaceful means” to torpedo the separatist bid.

It is notable that in his National Day message, Premier Wen underscored the imperative of “countering and thwarting the separatist activities of ‘Taiwan independence’” in conjunction with “Taiwan compatriots” (Xinhua, September 30). More graphic and threatening language has been used by People’s Liberation Army generals while meeting foreign guests. It is significant that in the period leading to the 17th Party Congress, Hu, who also serves as the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, has promoted a host of officers with experience in the “frontlines” of the Nanjing Military Region (NMR), which is in charge of troops deployed in provinces opposite Taiwan such as Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Fujian. For example, the newly promoted Chief of the General Staff, General Chen Bingde, was the commander of the Nanjing MR throughout much of the 1990s. General Chen masterminded the war games and military exercises held opposite Taiwan in 1995 and 1996 in response to then-President Lee Teng-hui’s visit to the United States. Two others who have served in the Nanjing MR, Generals Wu Shengli and Ma Xiaotian, are also seen as rising stars. The two former heads of the Nanjing MR Air Force were recently named vice commander of the General Staff and commandant of the Academy of Military Sciences, respectively. Officers who have served in Fujian, the province closest to Taiwan, have also been elevated. Foremost among them is General Xu Qiliang, a former combat pilot based in Fujian who was last month appointed as the commander of the PLA Air Force. The newly named Political Commissar of the National Defense University, General Tong Shiping, also served in Fujian in the 1990s (Ming Pao, September 24).

Analysts in Beijing state that given the imminence of the 2008 Summer Olympics and the Chinese leadership’s desire to project an image of China as a responsible stakeholder on the world stage, Hu is likely to emphasize “closely working together with the great majority of Taiwan compatriots for the goal of peaceful national reunification” during the 17th Party Congress. Yet given the mounting difficulties that Beijing encounters in maintaining domestic stability in the face of drastic socioeconomic changes, the Hu-Wen team may find it convenient to use Taiwan, along with other emotional, “patriotic” issues, to tighten the cohesiveness within the party and country. Since officers from the PLA and the People’s Armed Police will be allotted around 20 percent of the new seats in the Central Committee according to time-honored tradition, Hu’s saber rattling will also help him to consolidate his grip on both the party and the PLA’s leadership. Indeed, in light of his aversion to ideological liberalization, Hu, who is to rule China until at least 2012, does not seem overly disturbed by the fact that the sudden prominence accorded to the twin goals of cementing party unity and combating “separatism” has upstaged the liberal faction’s aspirations for political reform.

Source: China Brief (Willy Lam)

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