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China's Political Debate Heats Up

  • Natalie Liu

An investor uses his mobile phone in front of electronic screens showing stock information at a brokerage house in Wuhan, Hubei province, August 16, 2013.

An investor uses his mobile phone in front of electronic screens showing stock information at a brokerage house in Wuhan, Hubei province, August 16, 2013.

China’s official media recently published a series of articles warning against the establishment of a Western-style constitution-based political system. Analysts said this is a reaction to growing public demand for a political system that puts the Communist Party under the rule of law, not above it.

China’s official news agency Xinhua published a commentary on August 1 saying that if China undergoes turmoil, it will end up more tragically than the Soviet Union. Additional articles appeared on the front page of the People’s Daily a few days later, warning of the dangers that a U.S.-style political system would pose for China.

In those articles, the author spoke of a "conflicted" U.S. constitution that talks about freedom and democracy, while serving mainly to protect capitalists at the expense of ordinary people. He charged that the collapse of the Soviet Union was caused, in part, by the decision of key leaders like Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev to pursue fundamental change under the guise of “constitutional democracy.”

The bylines were unfamiliar to most readers. But analysts said the articles represent the thinking of at least some Chinese leaders, possibly including President Xi Jinping.

Hu Ping is editor of the New York-based Beijing Spring, a publication dedicated to discussions about Chinese politics.

"To me," he says in an interview with VOA, "the article that appeared on Xinhua, and the series of articles that have appeared on People’s Daily, Global Times attacking constitutionalism and democracy, is obviously not an expression of a single [Communist] Party member. To a large degree, we can see this as a reflection of Xi’s own thinking."

Hu offers his own definition of constitutional democracy or xian-zheng - the political system criticized in the articles: "A relatively simple explanation of xian-zheng is that it’s a system that imposes limit upon the governing authorities, while leaving space for citizens’ freedom; it means drawing a clear line between government’s rights and citizens’ rights."

Arthur Waldron, Lauder professor of history and international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, says the articles appeared because elements within China are pressing for more democracy.

"There were a number of articles attacking the United States constitution, the only explanation is somebody is talking about the United States constitution; things don’t appear in the Chinese press by accident," he said.

Cheng Li, a senior China scholar at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based research organization, said the political debate coincides with the re-emergence of social problems amid signs of a slowing economy. He said the articles are alarming, even if they were not personally endorsed by Xi.

"I think it’s quite worrisome. A constitution-based political system is a notion held by all people; if they’re not even willing to promise, or adhere to, a constitution-based political system, then they’re really putting themselves up on the opposite side of history."

Professor Waldron said it is still unclear whether China's leaders have the strength and vision to complete the national transformation that began after the death of Chairman Mao Zedong.

"As I always say, reforms since Mao - they’ve done the easy things first, and a lot of the easy things have had large payoffs," Waldron said. "Now they’re down to the sort of 10 percent really difficult things which are going to make the difference as to whether the whole attempt to create a genuinely functional country succeeds."

It is still too early to predict which direction Xi will lead China. What is clear is that the Communist Party appears increasingly worried by the debate about China’s future.