Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Wen Jiabao talks of reform as his term nears end

China's premier Wen Jiabao has spoken of the need for "urgent reforms" in order to avoid the possibility of a repeat of the tragedies of the Cultural Revolution.

Speaking to reporters after the Fifth Session of the 11th National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Wen covered a wide range of subjects which he said the country's leadership needed to address in order to sustain growth.

"Critical stage"

Both economic and political reforms were necessary, Wen said. "Now reforms in China have come to a critical stage," the premier said. "Without a successful political reform, it's impossible for China to fully institute economic reform and the gains we have made in these areas may be lost, and new problems that popped up in the Chinese society will not be fundamentally resolved, and such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution may happen again in China."

Economic growth was the main focus of Wen's proposals. He said that China's decision to cut its economic growth target to 7.5% for 2012 was essential to sustain growth. But he appeared to acknowledge that China needed to do more to reform the leadership system of the Party and the government.

He did not outline the details of what specific changes were needed, however Wen was more forthcoming and transparent than during his opening address before party delegates earlier in the month.

Opening remarks at NPC

In his opening speech of the Fifth Session of the 11th NPC, Wen had outlined the need of reforms, but he was far more reserved than when he spoke to reporters on Wednesday this week.

In the one and a half hour speech before party delegates, when spoke of the need to reduce the income gap, improving the economy and increasing China's export trade [Xinhua].

He also spoke about China's increasing military budget [tvnewswatch: China increase military to "win local wars"]. "We will enhance the armed forces' capacity to accomplish a wide range of military tasks, the most important of which is to win local wars under information-age conditions," Wen said [BBC / CNN].

Talk to the press

But such issues were not discussed when sitting in a room packed with the world's media. Instead the outgoing Wen Jiabao talked about China's chequered past and possible moves towards greater freedom.

China generally avoids discussing its mistakes. But Wen Jiabao was open in his criticism of the Cultural Revolution and the political turmoil seen in the mid-seventies as the Gang of Four tried to seize power. "With the smashing of the "Gang of Four", our party has made a number of historical resolutions to such problems, and implemented reform and opening up," Wen declared. He also referred to the "error" of the Cultural Revolution, which he described as a "historical tragedy" [Full transcript in Chinese - Xinhua].

'Grandpa Wen'

However, much of what Wen had to say was for a foreign audience. His suggestions of political change may well fall on deaf ears within the party. The premier is often affectionately called Grandpa Wen. "A lot of older Chinese like him for his apparently nice character," a former Xinhua reporter told tvnewswatch. "But he just talks. He can't really do a lot." In fact it is likely Wen is sidelined by the party who use the 69-year-old as the friendly public face of the Communist Party of China.

Wen has appeared on CNN's GPS programme hosted by Fareed Zakaria and spoken openly about democratic change, Internet censorship and human rights [tvnewswatch: When China censored premier Wen]. But behind the apparent openness displayed by the Chinese leader, there is little or no movement for change within China's political circles.

"Gradual and orderly" reform 

When pushed at why China is slow to bring about democratic change and greater freedom, Wen often talks of "gradual and orderly" reform. Change rarely comes swiftly in China. Key to the resilience for bringing about too much change, too quickly, is China's past.

Wen Jiabao hinted at this when pointing to the turmoil seen in the wake of Mao's death and the struggle for power as the Gang of Four sought leadership. China has seen many internal struggles dating back centuries and is haunted by the spectre of disintegration.

Autocratic rule & rebellion

Autocratic rule has existed in China for at least 2,000 years, and maintaining stability and a "harmonious society" is one of the primary tasks of the current leadership.

Fear of falling into the chaos of wars that have nearly torn the country apart is the main reason why China cracks down on any form of dissent or whiff of revolt. Just as Emperor Qin ruthlessly removed every threat to the 'empire' so too does the Communist Party of China today.

China fears rebellion more than anything else. A violent popular revolt in the 1790s saw the rise of the White Lotus cult which swept across parts of the country and resulted in at least 16 million deaths. The 19th century also saw upheaval. Between 1850-1864 revolts and clashes between rival sects resulted in many more deaths, estimated to be more than all those who died in WWI. In the Taiping rebellion, initiated by Hong Xiuquan who modelled himself as the brother of Jesus Christ, at least 20 million are said to have died.

The turmoil of the Chinese Civil War, and the chaos seen throughout Mao's reign which saw many millions die, are not something China's leaders want to see again.


But while the party maintains a firm grip on power, there are muted voices that speak of change and a move towards greater democracy. China's definition of democracy is somewhat different from those in the West however. China has also tried to remain at arms length when it comes to calls for greater freedom abroad, for fear in part that a sign of support might encourage revolution at home.

But Wen moved away from the usual party line and apparently gave tacit support for the Arab Spring that has swept across the Middle East over the last 18 months.

The desire for democracy in the Middle East must be "respected and truly responded to" Wen said in response to a question concerning the Arab Spring. "I believe this trend towards democracy cannot be held back by any force" he added [BBC / Telegraph / Xinhua].

Last gasp

Wen Jiabao's comments are timely coming only days after the World Bank called on China to make changes in order to maintain growth. But they could be seen as a last gasp of a leader on his way out. "I don't think he's able to carry out any reforms as he's leaving office soon," the former Xinhua reporter told tvnewswatch.

Li Keqiang is tipped to replace Wen in the CPC reshuffle due to start later this year. Like many of China's top politicians, little is known about Li, with much of his past history having been carefully wiped from the record. According to the book China's New Leaders, Li has found himself sidelined and placed in a "passive position", likely because of accusations of liberalism [Telegraph].

Fearing Dong Luan [动乱], or turmoil, China is likely to see another set of leaders much the same as the last. In the immortal words from the Who song Won't get fooled again, "meet the new boss, same as the old boss".

tvnewswatch, London, UK 

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