Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Wen - will China be democratic?

Wen Jiabao - China is developing a 'socialist democracy'

China may be moving towards democracy. In the National People’s Congress which took place last week, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao uttered a word which has often drawn condemnation and if uttered might have even resulted in being jailed. As Mr Wen spoke he talked of building towards democracy. But what type of democracy and how soon might one see changes to China’s political system.

“By developing socialist democracy we mean we must make people the masters of their own house, to do this we must ensure the people are entitled to the right to democratic election, decision making management and oversight”, Wen was translated as saying by Channel Four News in the UK.

Reporter Lindsey Hilsum had this to say on the comments coming from the statements made at the National Peoples Congress, “Rarely has the gap between theory and practice been more evident.”

She said that despite Mr Wen’s claim that people should have oversight to corrupt officials and be able to criticize the government this was in contrast to the large police presence in Tiananmen Square preventing any protests from taking place.

Restrictions do exist on protests outside Government buildings in Beijing, but this is true also in London where protests are banned within a mile of parliament, unless permission is sought well in advance.

The Channel Four News report highlighted the fate of one citizen who had attempted to petition the government. Zheng Dajing’s home had been demolished by ‘thugs employed by local corrupt officials’. Mr Zheng said he, along with his young daughter, were held captive by the men. The report also claimed that Mr Zheng was one of 700 arrested during the NPC. Channel Four News found the man held in a room at the back of the Yuan Hotel in Beijing. Being held in a room without access to a toilet, Mr Zheng claimed that he had been threatened with being sent to a labour camp. On tackling an official, Channel Four were told that it was their job to return petitioners home but did not elaborate on reasons why. Meanwhile Mr Zheng’s family remained homeless and his wife did not know when she might be reunited with her husband. “We petition according to the law” she said, “we are not looking for trouble [but] we have no home now. The government hunt us like fugitives. What law did we break. They break all the laws and get away with it.” [Channel Four News]

It was precisely issues such as these that Wen Jiaboa covered in his speech at the National People’s Congress. The Prime Minister was asked, by a CCTV correspondent, how he proposed to deal with corruption. He acknowledged that as the market economy developed corruption had become more serious and widespread, even to the extent of affecting high ranking officials in the country. As well as acknowledging the people’s complaints, punitive measures needed to be employed against corrupt officials, the Prime Minister said. “No matter who the official is or how high ranking, they should be brought to justice”, Mr Wen reiterated.

CCTV9 provided significant coverage of Wen Jiabao’s speech. Leading with the strap ‘Premier Wen Meets the Press’ the Prime Minister entered a large hall filled with hundreds of journalists, photographers and TV news organisations.

“This will be my last press conference serving in this government” he said in his opening remarks. It was to be a wide ranging speech covering issues that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

He talked about ‘netizens’ who had been given the opportunity to make representations via the internet [BBC]. He said that 26,000 had logged on the relevant websites to put questions to the Chinese Premier. He said that he had browsed some of these websites and noticed one comment from a primary school student. He said that he responded to the young girl “using traditional Chinese writing methods and took out a brush to write a letter “. In his letter to the child, Premier Wen said he had encouraged the student “to grow in an all round and sound manner”. He said he had seen demands for better healthcare for children, something he said he took very seriously. “This government as been serving the people for four years, and in that time I have learned that we must be guided by one principle. All the power of the government is bestowed on us by the people, all the power belongs to the people, everything we do should be for the people, we must rely on the people for all our endeavours, and we need to attribute all we have achieved to the people’s power,” Mr Wen said. “We must uphold the honourable conduct of public servant, government officials should be good public servants and not have any privileges and we must remain in the conviction that as long as we free our minds, keep paces with the advance of times, pursue truth, continue reform and opening up, pursue scientific harmonious peaceful development, we will surely turn China into prosperous democratic culturally advanced harmonious and modernized country.”

He then opened the floor to questions. The Wall Street Journal was the first correspondent to put a question to the Prime Minister. She asked whether the Chinese stock market needed further controls. He responded in saying that he “paid much attention to the stock market” in China, “but more importantly I pay attention to the health of this market”. He said, “Our goal is to build a mature capital market”. This would be achieved by “improving the quality of listed companies, and put in place an open and transparent market system” and also by “strengthening the oversight of the capital market to further improve the legal system”. Perhaps with reference to the recent crash on world stock markets he said that education about the stock market was important. “We need to do a good job in the timely disclosure of information in the stock market and to increase the awareness of the ordinary individual investors of the risks,” the Premier said.

In response to a question put to him by a China Daily journalist over the well being of the people, Prime Minister Wen said it was important to, “Improve clothing, transport and housing and also to improve equal opportunities in education and pursue a proactive employment policy”. With reference to the increasing gap between rich and poor in China, Mr Wen said he wished to, “Reduce the gap in terms of income distribution and put in place a rural and urban social security system that covers all people.”

“Issues concerning the people’s well-being, we pay attention to the most vulnerable groups,” he said, “the population in the rural and urban areas most vulnerable groups account for a large proportion of the total population, particularly the farmers.” He added that China’s development could only succeed if “vulnerable people’s lives were improved.”

Japan and Taiwan

Other issues raised concerned Sino-Japan relations and issues pertaining to Taiwan. With regards to Japan, Prime Minister when said it was important to strengthen ties with its neighbour. Although he had sympathy for Japan’s citizens held captive in North Korea, he said it was a matter for Japan to negotiate with the DPRK. As regards to the difficult relationship with Taiwan, Wen said “peace and stability” was important. He reiterated China’s stance on the issue of independence saying, “We are strongly opposed to any secessionist activities”. He insisted that Taiwan had been a part of China “since ancient times”.


Asked by Le Monde what he meant by his much quoted “China will be socialist for another 100 years”, another factor in the recent slump in stocks, Mr Wen said, “My view that democracy, the rule of law, freedom, human rights, equality and fraternity are not something peculiar to capitalism, rather these are the common achievements made in the long course of history of evolution of civilisations in this world. They are also the common values, that we as human beings, pursue.”

“By socialist democracy we mean to make people the masters of their own house. To do this we need to ensure our people are entitled to the right of democratic election, decision making, management and oversight”

“To do this we need to create the necessary conditions and better enable our people to oversee and criticize the government.”

He said that the Chinese government and its people lacked the experience to develop towards democracy, but that “we need to open our minds”. He said that his quote with regards to ‘100 years of socialism’ was misunderstood. “What I meant was that it may take a long historical period for the immature underdeveloped socialism and socialist democracy to gradually develop into mature full fledged developed system,” Mr Wen explained.

Environment & Pollution

With regards the environment and ‘green-house gas’ emissions the Premier said he would take measures to curb such pollution adding that China endorsed the Kyoto protocol.

Arms spending

An Associated Press reporter asked whether China’s perceived military build up, and specifically the recent ‘space weapons test’, was contrary to China’s stated peaceful aims. Wen Jiabao said that, “By conducting this test China has not breached any international treaties. China has always advocated for the peaceful use of outer space and we are opposed to an arms race in outer space.” He added that China’s level of military expenditure was much lower than that of many other smaller and developing countries and insisted that China had a “defence policy that is defensive in nature”.

Channel Four’s report on the plight of displaced peasants was sceptical of Wen Jiabao’s proposed reforms. Lindsey Hilsum ended her report with a certain amount of cynicism and a little sarcasm. Prime Minister Wen, she said, had promised to “improve the legal system”.
“Maybe one day the Chinese people won’t have to petition the Communist government as they petitioned the Emperor in ancient times. But Mr Wen did say that to achieve a true socialist democracy will take a long time.” Too long for western critics as well as those caught in unfortunate circumstances like Mr Zheng.

In Mao Zedong’s famous Little Red Book, or more correctly Quotations from Chairman Mao, there are tracts that refer to the importance of representations to the Communist Party. In the Chapter “Criticism and Self-Criticism”, Mao is quoted as saying, “The Communist Party does not fear criticism”. He emphasises that Chinese Communists should base their actions on the “highest interests of the broadest masses of the Chinese people”. He is pragmatic in recognising that “it is hard for any political party or person to avoid mistakes” but says “once a mistake is made, we should correct it, and the more quickly and thoroughly the better”. Modern China must look to its past as well as its future in resolving some very difficult problems.

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