Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images
China's Vice President Xi Jinping (shown here in Tokyo in December 2009) has been promoted to vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. It's a stepping stone to becoming the country's next leader. But his appointment is seen as a sign that political reform is not on the horizon.
China's Vice President Xi Jinping (shown here in Tokyo in December 2009) has been promoted to vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. It's a stepping stone to becoming the country's next leader. But his appointment is seen as a sign that political reform is not on the horizon. Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images
China's political elite have just promoted the man likely to be their next leader and issued a communique laying out the country's future direction that seems to put an end to talk of political reform. The developments come despite raised hopes after China's prime minister repeatedly called for political change.
Now, the mouthpiece People's Daily newspaper has entered the fray, calling on Communist Party members to resist multiparty democracy.
Is China's leadership divided on the issue of political reform?
Imagine a country where even the premier is censored. That's the situation in China. Over the past few weeks, Premier Wen Jiabao has made seven calls for political reform. For a while, it seemed as if these calls had given new life to old hopes for change.
"The people's wishes for and need for democracy and freedom are irresistible," Wen said on CNN.
"In spite of some resistance, I will act in accordance with these ideals unswervingly and advance, within the realm of my capabilities, political restructuring," he continued.
But few outlets in China, apart from the boldest, reported his words. And then the propaganda ministry ordered all websites to delete any references to the interview.
Before that, 23 party elders had signed an open letter of support. They were also calling for censorship to be abolished.
Jiang Ping was among them, and he doesn't doubt Wen's sincerity.
"Reform of the political system can't be postponed. Every day it's postponed is more dangerous. But we are not that powerful. We're considered dissidents within the party who don't have much right to speak," Jiang says.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (shown here in Rome earlier this month) has repeatedly called for political reform. But he is in the minority of China's top leadership on the issue of change.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (shown here in Rome earlier this month) has repeatedly called for political reform. But he is in the minority of China's top leadership on the issue of change. Alessandra Tarantino/AP
Just how little influence they have is only now becoming clear. The central committee communique issued on Oct. 18 has just one half-line reference to political reform. The document calls for "vigorous yet steady efforts" to promote political restructuring. It is boilerplate language, some observers say, repeated year after year.
Willy Wo-lap Lam, a longtime China analyst at Japan's Akita International University, says Wen "remains a minority of one within [the top] leadership as far as political reform is concerned."
Lam believes there is "no possibility" before the 18th party congress in 2012 of any movement toward political reform, even the more circumscribed version that would refer to more intraparty democracy and increased transparency of decision-making.
But Lam believes China's premier has his eye on his historical legacy.
"Wen, who is the consummate bureaucrat, realizes better than anybody else that there is actually zero possibility his ideals will be translated into action. It's just perhaps pacifying opinion in the West, and appealing to the younger generation, with the hope that 10 years or so down the road, under the sixth- or seventh-generation leadership, the possibility of old reform ideals might be revived," Lam says.
Others are more cynical still. Author Yu Jie recently wrote a highly critical book about the premier titled Wen Jiabao: China's Best Actor.
The book is banned in China. Yu, who is under house arrest, said in a telephone interview that he thinks Wen is simply mouthing his lines.
"This is a collective decision by the Politburo to make the premier play a very moderate role, calling for political reform. This is a fraud, which relieves people's anger and dissatisfaction. He's talked a lot, but he's done nothing," Yu says.
'China In Crisis'
Much now rests on the man who received a critical promotion during the recent annual Communist Party central committee meeting.
Vice President Xi Jinping — who coordinated last year's 60th anniversary military parade — was named as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. It's a stepping stone to the top job, party secretary, which is expected to be his in late 2012, followed by state president in 2013.
Xi is a "princeling," the son of a revolutionary elder. But Lam says he's a compromise candidate — innocuous enough to offend none — with few leanings toward political reform.
"Xi Jinping is a conservative in ideological matters. This is very clear. In general as a princeling, he puts utmost importance on the party remaining China's so-called perennial ruling party," Lam says.
The recent award of the Nobel Prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo may end up strengthening hard-liners. For those with liberal leanings, like Hu Xingdou of the Beijing Institute of Technology, this past week — and the realization that political reform is not in the offing — has been sobering.
"I'm a little disappointed, because right now China is in crisis. If there are no political reforms, we won't be able to solve lots of social problems like corruption, mass demonstrations and conflicts between officials and ordinary people," Hu says.
This serves to remind the outside world that China's Communist Party isn't monolithic; there are different factions, pushing in different directions. But at this point, engrossed in a coming leadership transition, those in charge clearly value stability of the regime above all else.