On November 8th, the Eighteenth National Party Congress of the Communist Party of China will commence. This meeting of the Communist Party of China’s most powerful leaders will select the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, which in practice, sets the stage for the election of the President and Premier by the National People's Congress in spring 2013. In addition, the Eighteenth Party Congress will resolve the ambiguity surrounding the composition of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China. Altogether, this leadership transition will have a considerable impact on China's approach to political and economic reform.
Last week, OpenCanada.org interviewed Chinese journalist and dissident Jiang Weiping. Jiang Weiping reported extensively on corruption in northeast China, most notably on Bo Xilai's term in Dalian, prior to his stints as Minister of Commerce and mayor of Chongqing. In late 2001, Jiang was sentenced to eight years in prison, which was later reduced to six years upon appeal. He was released early in January 2006. In early 2009, PEN Canada arranged for him to move to Canada on a special permit granted on humanitarian grounds by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. In our interview, we discussed the significance of the upcoming Eighteenth Party Congress, the continuing challenge of corruption and the future of reform in China. Jiang Weiping spoke through a translator.
What is your view of legal reform in China today? How might the Eighteenth Party Congress impact the scope and pace of that reform?
The political system in China lacks the legal oversight that a lot of the democratic countries have. Due to the lack of an independent legal system, cases like those of Bo Xilai, Wang Lijun and the Chongqing government can happen. There are a lot of crimes of this corrupt nature that are committed – this is a flaw in the system, and it is also an obstacle to economic reform in China.
People tend to compare the current political system to how it was during Chairman Mao’s day and emphasize the changes. There has been a lot of economic and political reform in China – particularly as a result of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms – but we’re still in the early stages of legal reform. In recent years, the Communist Party of China has done a lot of positive things, especially the reformist faction of the party, but since there is still no freedom of press, or an independent legal system, we see cases like Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun. So there is still a lot of legal reform needed in China.
Ever since the Wang Lijun incident, there has been this new-versus-old dichotomy inside the party – and this continues in the lead-up to the Eighteenth Party Congress. The atmosphere is very tense because of these factions. One of the factions is a reformist faction that advocates for economic and political reform within China. Another faction is a more traditional faction that wants to take the country backwards. The Eighteenth Party Congress deserves more attention because that’s when these two factions – the reformers and the conservatives – will resolve the issues that they have been fighting about.
At the Eighteenth Party Congress, there will be a struggle between members of the Shanghai Clique, the Princelings (the Maoist faction), and the Chinese Communist Youth League. How might the party’s approach to reform changed as a result of one or another of these groups taking power?
As I said, there are two major factions within the Communist Party of China at the moment that have the most power: the reformist faction, and the conservative faction. The Bo Xilai case has provided a good lesson to the reformist faction – represented by Premier Wen Jiabao – for them to continue to push for reform and to prevent corruption within the party.
The latter faction – the conservative faction – is somewhat divided. Some want to protect the status quo while some actually want to go backwards to a more conservative time. This more backwards faction was represented by Bo Xilai, who fell out of power. Support for his conservative agenda is still growing as a result of the single-party system, but, there are a lot of people within this conservative faction that now see the Tiananmen Incident as a lesson that could change this faction’s agenda.
The leadership transition that is coming up, which will leave Xi Jinping as the new president and Li Keqiang as the new premier, leaves me hopeful. Xi Jinping’s father (Xi Zhongxun) was a former reformer and an ally of Hu Yaobang, the former reform oriented president of China. Xi Jinping himself went through the Cultural Revolution and so witnessed a lot of the disadvantages of the Maoist system. Li Keqiang was also part of the Cultural Revolution generation and studied law at Peking University. Based on their experiences, I believe the new leadership has a lot of potential to carry out reforms.
The next term of highest-ranking party leadership will leave China relatively better off than we are today, I believe – especially with Li Keqiang as the new premier. I knew him back when he worked in my home province of Liaoning and from what I learned there, he was a very decent and clean politician, so I have a lot of hope in his leadership.
A little story about Li Keqiang: I heard that on his first day working in Liaoning province, he drove his car to Xinhua News Agency, unaccompanied, because he wanted to know the truth, so I think that Li Keqiang is someone who loves to know the truth – if he had been driven or been accompanied by others, they would have prevented him from actually talking frankly with people.
I think the future leadership is likely to have an open spirit toward reform in a number of areas, but nevertheless, it is unlikely to reform the single-party system that’s currently in place. So there is still a lot of work that will need to be done.
How different is Bo Xilai from the current reformers? Did he merely present himself as being open to reform?
Since 1984, when Bo Xilai took a position in Dalian, I got to know Bo. We became friends, and so I can tell you that what appears to be openness to reform is in reality a very backward attitude. His father, Bo Yibo, was actually one of the main catalysts for the Tiananmen Incident. Bo Yibo was not a reformist and Bo Xilai is not either.
In 1989, after the Tiananmen Incident, Bo Xilai was the leader of municipal propaganda in Dalian and he oppressed a lot of journalists and students that participated in the Tiananmen incident. Bo Xilai actively suppressed the grassroots movement.
And in the early 1990’s, Bo Xilai became the mayor of Dalian. Whenever he went to an export exhibition, he would ask the news journalists to wait for him before he held a news conference on the exhibition, because he needed time to manipulate all the statistics before they were announced to the public.
During Bo Xilai’s mayoral term in Dalian, his wife Gu Kailai opened a law office and engaged in bribe-taking and all sorts of other corrupt activities. When Bo Xilai went to Chongqing, he branded more than 600 groups as criminal organizations and launched a crackdown. A lot of money was confiscated, but it did not go into the National Reserve but into Chongqing’s police department, where Wang Lijun was the chief of police.
As a Chinese citizen now living in Canada, how do you think Canada and Prime Minister Stephen Harper should approach Canada’s relationship with China? How can we balance different interests in that relationship?
I’ve been in Canada more than three and a half years now, and I am very thankful to Citizenship and Immigration Canada for granting me entrance to Canada. Having observed the Canada-China relationship since my arrival, I think that the Canadian government now focuses too much on trading and investment with China and not enough on protecting freedom of speech and related human rights issues. I also think Prime Minister Harper needs a better adviser to inform him about China, because right before Bo Xilai fell out of power, Harper actually went to Chongqing to support Bo Xilai. I was very disappointed by his actions in this case.
Bo Xilai started a lot of conflicts that ruined Chongqing’s economy and political system. I agree that Prime Minister Harper should discuss trade and investment with China as this is in Canada’s interest, but he should also talk to reformers within the Chinese government such as Wang Yang, the current Communist Party Chief in Guangdong and contender for the Politburo Standing Committee, rather than talking to backward officials like Bo Xilai.
You mentioned Wang Yang – a leading reformer in Guangdong. Can you share your perspective on the challenges to general reform in China?
I think Wang Yang is the most hopeful politician for China today. With regard to political system reform, we have been discussing this for many years, but problems persist. For example, Bo Xilai built a lot of affordable housing in Chongqing, but it was the Party Bureau that distributed that housing. So if there is no political reform, even though we may make societal improvements like more affordable housing, a politicized distribution of benefits will keep us from moving forwards.
I don’t know if you know about Wang Yang’s “Wukan model” that he installed in Guangdong Province – there, they actually voted for the position of party chief. Political reform must begin in this way, starting from the smallest political units such as villages and counties, where the norm is that “everything belongs to the chief,” and continuing upwards. If not, the bigger reforms cannot happen. I believe that Wang Yang’s model is a way for China to move further along the path to political reform, and is a good direction for China to take.
Wang Yang once said to the people of Guangdong, “Don’t think your happiness came from the party – it is earned by you and you deserve it.” Wang Yang was very critical of Bo Xilai. I have great hope in terms of what might happen if Wang Yang were to end up in the Standing Committee of the Politburo.
Can China replicate the Singapore model?
Models such as Singapore or Taiwan won’t happen in China in the near future, but I think the reform model implemented in Taiwan by Chiang Ching-kuo, the former president of Taiwan and son of Chiang Kai-shek, was a very effective one. I think Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang should learn from Chiang Ching-kuo’s case, and this does not seem impossible. Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was jailed during the Cultural Revolution and was a big reformer. Wang Yang will also lend more power to the reform faction if he gets into the Standing Committee, but if he doesn’t, then we will continue to wait before testing a different model.
But if you read recent articles published by the Communist Party of China, the Maoist model has already been abandoned, in a way. They only praise the thinking of Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao – Mao Zedong is not mentioned anymore.
It is still too early to decide what the outcome of the Eighteenth Party Congress will be, but I hope to use my time to push for reform. I think the path to reform is still very long. First, I think we should try to make China more like it was during the Hu Yaobang era. That was already a better time than it is today. Hu Yaobang’s son, Hu Deping, recently had a conversation with Xi Jinping. They talked about how he would like to redress his dad, Hu Yaobang, and the Tiananmen Incident, which is a promising sign. But as I said, the outcome of reform in China, and of the Eighteenth Party Congress, remains unclear.
This interview was edited for length and clarity