China Orders Halt to Debate On Reforms
 

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 27, 2003; Page A01

BEIJING, Aug. 26 -- After several months of permitting China's intellectuals the freedom to call for political reform, ponder far-reaching revisions to the constitution and consider changes in the official history of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, the Communist Party has ordered a halt to such debate, and security personnel have begun harassing leading academics, economists and legal scholars, sources here say.

In the past weeks, party organizations, research institutes and universities have been instructed to stop all conferences and suppress all essays about those three topics, according to sources within the Communist Party. The new instructions spell out these "three unmentionables," while the Propaganda Ministry has informed China's news media that there are additional subjects that can no longer be broached, the sources said.

Participants in a conference on constitutional reform have been followed, interrogated or instructed to stop speaking about the issues. This month, security personnel began trailing and harassing the conference organizer, Cao Siyuan, one of China's experts on bankruptcy and a leading advocate of political reform, Chinese sources said. The conference was held June 19-20 in the coastal city of Qingdao. Two other participants have also faced criticism from the authorities: Jiang Ping, a leading legal scholar and the former dean of the University of Politics and Law, and Zhu Houze, a former propaganda chief for the party.

Separately, in internal meetings over the summer at universities and government institutes, some influential scholars have called for a reevaluation of the official position on the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. They questioned the government's version that the party was right to open fire on students who marched for democracy.

Chinese sources said the number and vociferousness of these demands had worried party officials, especially those close to Jiang Zemin, the former Communist Party boss and president. Jiang rose to power after the Tiananmen crackdown, and any change in the official version would undermine his legitimacy and that of people he placed in power.

More broadly, the effort to muffle debate about the three issues appears to be part of a broader struggle between Jiang and his successor, Hu Jintao, according to the Chinese sources and analysts. Jiang and his allies, the sources said, generally oppose any political loosening. By contrast, Hu has portrayed himself as a friend of reformers and other progressives, attempting to gain their support in his struggle against Jiang.

Hu was appointed general secretary of the Communist Party last November and became China's president in March. He had waited for more than a decade to succeed Jiang, 76. But on the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the party's most powerful body, Jiang surrounded Hu with his old allies. Of the nine members of the Politburo's Standing Committee, five are believed to be loyal to Jiang. The former leader kept for himself one of China's most powerful positions, head of the Central Military Commission, which controls the army. His men also took prominent positions on the State Council, the cabinet, in a move to hamstring Hu's main ally, Premier Wen Jiabao.

This spring, both sides attempted to use the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, to their advantage. Jiang and his supporters followed the party's traditional tactic: denying there was a crisis. However, by late April, Hu and Wen teamed up to force the party to cooperate with the World Health Organization and fight the disease. Hu and Wen also fired the health minister, a Jiang loyalist, and the newly appointed mayor of Beijing.

Li Fan, a leading political analyst in Beijing, said that by fighting SARS and firing incompetent officials, Hu further consolidated his position as China's new leader. Indeed, throughout China, support for Hu and Wen skyrocketed once the party joined the fight against the disease.

The SARS crisis created a window of opportunity for intellectuals to call for change, a subtle way for them to suggest that Jiang exit China's political stage and leave the country to Hu and Wen.

Li said Hu also won points by doing away with the annual summer meetings of Communist Party leaders at the resort town of Beidaihe and the party's tradition of elaborate send-offs for officials traveling overseas.

Many of the recent calls for change appeared to be a throwback to 1988 and the Third Plenum of the 13th Congress of the Communist Party, when the party general secretary, Zhao Ziyang, advocated political reform and the separation of the party and the government, and direct elections for local union leaders, among other reforms. Zhao was later ousted from his party post after Tiananmen because he opposed the bloody crackdown.

On July 25, the Workers' Daily published a call by Su Liqing, a senior official in China's government-controlled labor union, for direct elections of local union bosses by factory workers. This proposal had not been broached officially since before the Tiananmen crackdown. Also, a group of five senior party elders, including Wan Li, Qiao Shi and Deng Lijun, wrote letters urging Jiang to step down from all his positions. And independent intellectuals began raising the idea of revising the official history of Tiananmen.

Several other articles appeared in Study Times, a Communist Party publication run by the Central Party School. Over the past two months, the periodical has published six pieces advocating political reform. In early June, Seeking Truth, the party's main theoretical publication, ran an article calling for more democracy within the party. On Aug. 3, Study Times published an article urging party committees to stop interfering in the affairs of government departments -- an idea last broached in 1988.

The struggle has also stretched into the news media, which in recent months has been full of conflicting signals.

Following an explosion of ground-breaking reports during the SARS epidemic, the Propaganda Ministry, led by a Jiang loyalist, Liu Yunshan, has issued a series of circulars banning reports on a variety of topics.

At the same time, Liu's ostensible boss, Li Changchun, a member of the Politburo's Standing Committee, has been pushing a major reorganization of the state-run press that will result in the shuttering of scores of party newspapers and end the practice of forcing government units to subscribe to party newspapers. This reorganization, triggered by the increasing power of the Chinese media market, means that many party newspapers that previously enjoyed guaranteed circulation will have to compete to attract readers.

At the Qingdao conference, 41 leading Chinese academics and a few government officials presented papers on constitutional reform. China is planning to revise its constitution next year. Wu Bangguo, the chairman of the National People's Congress, is chairing a special committee on the issue. Chinese sources close to that committee said there are two main additions to the constitution being debated.

One is a clause protecting private property, another sign of the increasing power of the market economy in China. The other is a clause enshrining the "Three Represents," a modification of Marxist theory developed by Jiang that says the Communist Party should represent the interests of all the people, including businesses, rather than just the working class.

Writing the Three Represents into the constitution is significant because it will secure Jiang's legacy and give Jiang a status almost equivalent to Communist China's two other towering figures, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. This is important to Jiang's allies because, with their former boss a recognized "great man" of China, their current positions would be more secure.

But at the Qingdao meeting, conference organizer Cao and others lambasted Jiang's efforts to write himself into the constitution. Cao issued a statement saying the constitution should be free from all ideology -- a direct slap at Jiang.

"He might have gone too far," said one participant, who has been followed by security agents for several weeks. "But we all agreed with him."

 

 

2003 The Washington Post Company

 

 

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