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Saturday, August 21, 2004

New York Times > Chinese Advocates of Reform Seek Help From Deng's Spirit

August 21, 2004
EIJING, Aug. 20 - In keeping with the gold- and diamond-encrusted watches the Communist Party made to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth, Deng Xiaoping is being widely hailed as a visionary who freed China from its socialist straitjacket and created new wealth.
Yet influential party elders have used the anniversary, which falls on Sunday, to emphasize the urgency of one great endeavor that Deng never embraced: overhauling the one-party political system.
In party political journals and interviews as the Deng centenary has neared, several retired leaders made unusually direct pleas to allow more media freedom and to introduce at least a measure of democracy, though all described their proposals as a way of improving rather than replacing Communist Party rule.
China's retired elders often are given latitude to explore delicate topics that incumbent leaders shy away from. But these comments by former leaders appear to reflect mounting internal pressure for Hu Jintao, the president and Communist Party chief, to put forward at least modest proposals for fighting corruption, introducing greater accountability and reducing censorship.
"Compared to economic reform, our political system lags far behind," Zhou Ruijin, a former top editor of People's Daily, the Communist Party's leading newspaper, wrote in The Bund, a Shanghai-based weekly.
"Now the calls for political reform from every quarter of society are very loud," he wrote, adding that the country needed a new "intellectual emancipation" that should start with remaking the ruling party.
Similarly, two prominent retired officials who served Deng, Tian Jiyun, a former Politburo member, and Ren Zhongyi, former party secretary of Guandong Province, asserted in essays this month in the political history journal Yanhang Chunqiu that Deng long envisioned, though never carried out, bold political changes. Mr. Ren said the country urgently needed a sounder legal system, fewer controls on the media and real protection of constitutional rights.
"A society ruled by guns and hack writers can never be a democratic one, and it can't enjoy lasting stability," wrote Mr. Ren, who is 90.
Beyond adulatory documentaries, scores of new books, an elaborate renovation of his boyhood home in Sichuan and the memorial watches - for sale to the public at $2,500 apiece - Deng's legacy is being celebrated by officials who would like to see a more open society and want to put pressure on Jiang Zemin, Deng's successor.
Mr. Jiang, who remains military chief even after retiring as president and party leader in 2002, is being urged to follow Deng's example and fully relinquish authority to Mr. Hu, one well-connected party elder said in an interview. Deng voluntarily handed the reins to Mr. Jiang in the late 1980's and early 1990's, though he retained ultimate authority on many matters.
By many accounts, Mr. Hu has little leeway to undertake pressing changes because he must share power with Mr. Jiang, who never tried opening the political system. Some officials say they hope Mr. Jiang will step aside as soon as this fall, though that now seems unlikely.
Deng Lin, Deng's eldest daughter and a painter who rarely discusses politics, used a recent interview on Chinese Central Television to take an implicit swipe at Mr. Jiang's regency.
Referring to her father, she said: "When he handed over his work, he put his trust in his successors and let them mature on the job. He believed they would not make progress if he meddled. So from this perspective he was right."
Deng, who died in 1997, invigorated the Chinese economy by investing heavily in development projects, welcoming foreign investment and keeping ideologues from exerting too much sway. He is remembered for folksy expressions delivered in his thick Sichuanese accent, like his call for pragmatism: "It doesn't matter whether it is a white cat or a black cat. As long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat."
At the peak of his power in the 1980's, he allowed his top underlings to explore ideas like holding democratic elections and creating an independent judiciary. He separated the party from the bureaucracy and from day-to-day economic management.
But after popular protests for democracy culminating in the mass demonstration at Tiananmen Square in 1989, Deng ordered a violent crackdown on dissent. He also purged the most liberal leaders. Serious political reform became taboo. The notion that the Communist Party could increase its popularity by easing its grip on power also fell into disfavor with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Even after giving up all of his politicalposts, Deng kept the party focused on generating high economic growth, which he believed would mitigate demands for political change and prolong Communist rule.
That calculation proved right. Chinese Communists do not face any organized opposition today, a decade and half after their Communist allies in Eastern Europe tumbled.
Yet the price is that China has become something of a kleptocracy, with tens of millions of government and party officials using largely unchecked political powers to enrich themselves. Top leaders have called corruption a cancer that is eating away at the party's legitimacy and posing the greatest challenge since the street protests of 1989.
Mr. Ren, the former party chief of Guangdong Province, wrote that a recent raft of corruption cases was "the tip of the iceberg." He said the party had to focus on the ultimate goal of a "democratic political system" and submit itself to the rule of law.
"Hasn't the central leadership repeatedly stressed governing according to law and protecting human rights?" Mr. Ren wrote, referring to official propaganda. "But if we have laws and don't follow them, there can be no talk of the rule of law."
Nearly all of the recent commentaries on political change praised Mr. Hu as a potential standard-bearer and implicitly blamed Mr. Jiang for stifling change, both during his formal rule and now during his extended reign of influence.
Yet either out of caution or because he does not favor broad changes, Mr. Hu has tightened controls on the news media. He rarely allows discussion of sensitive issues, much less challenges to party policies.
Mr. Hu has indicated that how to improve governance is a matter he wants to address at a national party meeting to be held this fall. That session seems likely to focus narrowly on ways that the 70-million-member ruling party can increase its effectiveness and reduce graft, though some officials have argued for expanding the role of elections within the party as a check on power.
Whether pressure for bolder change will prevail remains an open question. The party has a knee-jerk antipathy to anything that could threaten social stability, and political reform has been tagged as a reckless gamble. But some contend that doing nothing now poses a greater risk than experimenting with popular checks on the party's power.
Mr. Zhou, the former People's Daily editor, said the party needed to take some chances. "Political reform and stability are not at odds," he said.
Chris Buckley contributed reporting for this article.

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