Hu Jintao

Reform Hopes Fade as New Leaders Promotes Marxism

January 20, 2005


BEIJING -- When Chinese President Hu Jintao rose to the top party and state positions two years ago, many observers and intellectuals hoped this new leader would turn out to be China's Gorbachev, paving the way for dramatic political reforms as the Soviet leader did in the late 1980s.

Relatively young for a Chinese leader, Hu represented a new generation of politicians and he seemed determined to distinguish himself from his predecessor, Jiang Zemin.

He began his term by championing the poor and emphasizing sustainable development over no-holds-barred economic reforms. In his first year, he fired officials who covered up the spread of the deadly SARS virus and allowed an unprecedented disclosure of a naval submarine accident.

But lately, the 62-year-old Hu has proven a big disappointment to those who hoped for change. Not only is he not a reformer, it seems he's a Marxist.

He has launched a new political campaign that sounds like a throwback to the early days of the Communist Party. It calls on party members to maintain their "advanced nature" so as to "consolidate the governing status" of the party. He has initiated a 10-year project to perfect Marxism's "guiding status" in China and sent experts to Russia and North Korea to study their systems, according to the People's Daily, the party's mouthpiece.

"The advanced nature is the life and strength of the Communist Party," Hu said at a party meeting, according to a front page article of the People's Daily last week. "Construction of the advanced nature of the party is a fundamental task of a Marxist party."

The language is almost impenetrable even for those who have grown up here. But the intent is clear.

"He's certainly more determined in sticking to his Communist doctrines," said Liu Junning, an independent scholar in Beijing.

It's not just rhetoric.

China has been cracking down on critics of the government, including activists, intellectuals and certain media in the past year. Several prominent writers have been detained, professors have been banned from teaching and editors have been arrested.

Authorities have also clamped down on use of the Internet, which is growing fast in China, as a forum for free thought. Hundreds of Internet cafes have been shut down, chatrooms are heavily censored, Internet essayists have been detained and members of the public have been invited to report suspicious activity on the Internet.

Last December, the People's Daily published a sternly-worded commentary whose language was reminiscent of China's paranoia in the 1960s. It warned against "foreign hostile forces with ulterior motives ... who want to see the disintegration of China" putting dangerous material on the Internet. It said the Internet should be monitored using "Marxist principles."

In a modern China, where young Chinese mix easily with foreigners at bars and nightclubs, urbanites vacation abroad and consumerism far outweighs communism as a ruling ideology, why is the party talking about Marxism?

"It will certainly help consolidate his political power," said Liu, a former professor of political science who was expelled from the government-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences five years ago for his liberal views.

Hu was officially named secretary-general of the Communist Party in November 2002 and president five months later. His predecessor, Jiang Zemin, finally stepped down as chief of the military last September, making Hu the undisputed head of all three branches of power -- the party, the state and the military. Yet many of Jiang's allies are still in office.

"(Hu) is basically a cautious guy," said David Zweig, a China scholar at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "You can't be the leader of the Communist Party of China and not be cautious. I see (the latest campaign) as a consolidation of power and ... also a response to the high degree of social instability."

All of this comes at a sensitive moment for the Communist Party. Last week saw the passing of Zhao Ziyang, the former head of the Communist Party who was ousted in 1989 opposing the use of force against pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square.

The government's suppression of the news of Zhao's death betrays its own deep insecurities. Although many young people barely know who he is, older generations remember him for his liberalism.

For Hu, Zhao represents something different: the consequences of being too reform-minded. After Zhao was ousted, he remained a virtual political prisoner until his death, confined to his courtyard home in central Beijing and essentially turned into a non-person.

"What's the lesson of Zhao Ziyang? If you want to stay the secretary-general of the Communist Party, don't be too liberal," said Zweig. "Jiang Zemin wasn't liberal. He survived a long time, a guy nobody thought would survive."

The "advanced nature" campaign is also meant to combat corruption, one of the top complaints of Chinese people, by educating party members and raising their moral awareness. The nightly news is full of shots of low-level cadres holding study sessions and reading party newspapers and documents.

Any real attempt to rein in corruption would require structural reforms which, from the leadership's point of view, are far too risky. Given the examples of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, where events quickly snowballed out of control, China is careful not to allow even the first step towards a more open government.

"There's no limit to this kind of reform," said Liu. "No one knows what will happen. There's no end to it. People will want everything."

The country has seen an alarming level of social unrest in the past year. As it has transformed itself from one of the most egalitarian societies in the world to one of the most unequal, it has failed to provide any safety nets for those left behind. Clashes between different social groups, some of them violent, are increasing in number and scale. Some are ignited by the smallest of incidents.

Experts are unsure whether Hu's Marxist campaign represents his true ideology or is merely a tactical move. Liu, for one, doesn't think he's a reformer.

"I think Hu dislikes those bourgeois liberalization ideas -- constitutional government, private property, privatization, individual freedom, limited representative democracy," said Liu. "They are all just too bourgeois."

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