Since the bad old days, it’s been de rigueur for Communist Party mandarins to commission prominent newspaper editorials to plant — or crush – the seeds of major reform. To some extent it still is. But as the media has sprawled and opened up it’s become easier for editors and academics to shoulder in on the ideological beltway and try to impact the speed and direction of reform. That especially has proven to be the case in the lead-up to the 17th Party Congress later this year. Debate over “political system reform” (ÊîøÊ≤ª‰ΩìÂà∂ÊîπÈù©) has spilled over into the pages of influential publications. In many cases, they are using the congress as a peg to reprint work published less visibly many months beforehand. And leading magazines and newspapers are covering the resultant buzz and debate, finessing their way around Propaganda warnings to not to rock the boat ahead of the congress. In turn we’re gaining an unusual amount of information about the machinations behind the debate and the media’s semi-independent role in hyping it.
Herewith a few fresh details from interviews in the Chinese press and with your correspondent…
In a cover package last week tagged “2007: Democracy’s New Meaning”, China Newsweek magazine has recapped the touchstones of the current debate, from Hu-Wen think-tanker Yu Keping’s treatise “Democracy is a Good Thing” to Hu Jintao’s keynote speech at the Central Party School in late June. Gotoread.com has a digital version of the story.
In it, the magazine sits down with one of the big rabble rousers so far, retired Renmin University vice president Xie Tao. In the February issue of Yanhuang Chunqiu (Across the Ages), Xie professed that only “democratic socialism” (Ê∞ë‰∏ªÁ§æ‰ºö‰∏ª‰πâ) in the style of the welfare states of northern Europe could “save China”. In May, as the magazine notes, the People’s Daily ran a long-awaited rebuttal, countering that only “socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics” – the long-established model – would do the trick. Hu followed up on that in June with his new doctrine of the Four Steadfasts, in part an effort to circumscribe the mounting debate and put fresh ideological spin on the Party’s reform agenda ahead of the congress.
In view of the developments, the 86-year-old Xie reflects,”All I did was systematically express through an essay what the vast majority of people have been meaning to say.”
The new book still was not published when Xie Tao’s long essay began to circulate on the Internet. In October 2006Yanhuang Chunqiu managing editor Xu Qingquan read the article. “I had a feeling at the time. Although the article’s discussion of violent revolution could easily arouse misunderstanding, it nevertheless hit upon on the crux of the problem we’ve been unable to unlock in the past or at present.” The magazine’s deputy publisher Wu Si printed out the piece and passed it around, and everyone was very much of the same opinion: publish it.
“Big discussions of the recent years over state enterprises, health reform and education in reality had not gotten to the point,” Xu Qingquan told this publication. “When you consider reform, in the final analysis, reform of the political system still lags.”
Nearly four months were spent, start to finish, from the time the article was discussed internally to the time it was published. It was as though the rules of the news media were being violated. During the interim, Yanhuang Chunqiu was on the one hand carefully analyzing the impact the article would have on being published. On the other hand, it was waiting for an opportune moment.
This magazine of historical accounts, founded 16 years ago, is published under the jurisdiction of the little-known China Yanhuang Culture Research Association (‰∏≠ÂçéÁÇéÈªÑÊñáÂåñÁ†îÁ©∂‰ºö), but its publisher and legal representative is the former director of the General Administration of Press and Publication, Du Daozheng. Xiao Ke, Wan Li and many other former central government leaders have in the past published articles there, and the editorial department is not lacking in scholars who’ve moved over from the Party History Research Center.
On January 28, Yanhuang Chunqiu’s February edition was printed and published. On February 1, the magazine was mailed out to subscribers.
Eighteen days later on the second day of the Chinese lunar year, Xu Qingquan flew back to his old home of Yantai to spend New Year’s. As the plane landed he turned on his phone and found one text message written like so: “Brilliant stuff. Xie Tao’s article is the best I’ve read in recent years. Please pay my respects to Old Du and the editor-in-chief.” The message was signed: Zhou Ruijin.
Zhou was no ordinary character. In 1991, while serving as deputy editor-in-chief of the Liberation Daily in Shanghai, he published a series of articles under the pseudonym “Huang Pu Ping”, which stored up ample theoretical reserves for Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour speeches at the beginning of the following year.
A bureau-level official in the Shanghai government also called up Xu Qingquan, and told him, “You gave me the best possible New Year’s gift.” He made 48 copies of the Xie Tao’s essay and passed the “gift” around over the holiday
Like Xie, Yu Keping first published “Democracy is a Good Thing” as the preface to a book – an eponymous volume of his own conversations with the media, which came out in September 2006. The Beijing Daily republished it the next month. But only in late December did it catch the attention of many China watchers, after the Central Party School-published Study Times picked it up. Yu, who’s known to have advised Hu and Wen Jiabao on reform issues, called “political democracy” an “inevitable trend”, the “wave of history.” Was someone on high was pulling the strings?
Apparently not. Yu has told fellow academics in no uncertain terms that he was acting alone, two U.S.-based colleagues of his said in recent interviews. Ditto goes for Yu’s editors, media sources in Beijing say. Several weeks after picking up “Democracy is a Good Thing”, a top Study Times editor told a Party newspaper colleague the idea to do so was entirely theirs.
Another noted reformist who has caused a racket in recent months is retired Party School professor Wang Guixiu. Wang lit up Internet forums in May, as spotted by the China Media Project’s David Bandurski, with his case for stronger checks and balances on Communist Party power. Argued Wang:
Without rational separation of powers, there is no monitoring and checking of power to speak of. But for a long time now, we have been overly guarded or even terrified of the West’s “tripartite separation of powers”, and often have avoided mentioning “separation of powers”. This has given rise to the following understanding in people’s minds: political power in our party and government can only be centralized, not decentralized.
In fact, this is the ultimate misunderstanding Marxism has never been opposed in general to separation of powers, and even less so rational separation of powers.
Contacted by telephone at home in late May, Wang told your correspondent he had published his ideas on many previous occasions through “internal” channels. “They just didn’t arouse so much attention.” This time, the infirm 72-year-old said, he decided to repackage some of his old material for a broader audience. In April and May, he mailed two pieces to the Beijing Daily, which carries a theory section (ÁêÜËÆ∫ÈÄ±Âàä) each Friday. He was not familiar with the editors, he says, but they soon ran his pieces. The first, a call to dilute the power of party chiefs (‰∏ÄÊääÊâã) at all levels, expanded on his ideas in a short letter to the paper that ran last December. The second outlined eight big mistakes in official supervision (Ëµ∞Âá∫ÁõëÁù£ÁöÑÂÖ´Â§ßËØØÂå∫). In the next few days Xinhuanet and papers around the country Yangcheng Evening News picked it up.
“There are certain old or rigid views only block development,” Wang said on the phone, hacking up coughs mid-sentence. “Of course, I’m hoping that through the Party Congress we can take further steps to promote the building of democracy within the Party Naturally, I’m hoping that there will be more people appealing for that.”
-South Wind Window (ÂçóÈ£éÁ™ó) magazine’s June cover package, “Democracy’s ‘Chinese Knot'”.