[South China Morning Post]
China’s outspoken elderly activists have spent a lifetime waiting for change. The 18th party conference is their last chance to see it happen
Every time one of Du Daozheng’s friends passes away, he feels a growing sense of loneliness. At 89, the former propaganda chief is becoming increasingly isolated in his quest for political reform under the communist regime’s one-party leadership.
“My old friends are leaving one after another … we are like fragile leaves falling in the winter. But this is the law of nature,” said Du, the publisher of the mainland’s most outspoken political magazine, Yanhuang Chunqiu.
With a once-in-a-decade leadership change in the Communist Party looming, Du and his surviving friends – mostly retired officials in their late 80s and 90s – are making what could be their final appeal for the party to introduce more freedoms and take its first steps towards democracy.
Du’s relationship with the Communist Party began some 70 years ago when, as an idealistic teenager, he joined to fight against the corrupt and authoritarian Kuomintang regime.
But now – almost a lifetime later – many feel frustrated they may never live to see their dream of democracy fulfilled.
In the past two years alone, several prominent figures in their circle such as Li Pu , Zhu Houze , Xie Tao and Peng Di have died.
Those left still remember times of great action. Many helped liberal leaders Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang launch political reform initiatives in the 1980s.
While the former officials acknowledge changes have to be introduced gradually, they say the party has dragged its feet for too long. Political reform stalled after the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 and was never resumed.
Du wants the party to embark on bold reform measures such as allowing freedom of speech and association and “intra-party democracy” – empowering party members to elect their leaders and representatives.
A former director of the General Administration of Press and Publication, Du once believed the democratisation of China should “move forward in small steps”.
Today, he says that will no longer suffice to cope with the social crisis it currently faces.
Rapid political reform is urgently needed because the level of anger bottled up among citizens over inequality, corruption and abuse of power is getting to a dangerous stage, he says.
“The people’s anger is boiling over and there are uprisings everywhere – now we need to move forward in medium-sized steps,” Du said. He was referring to social conflicts over the past few years, including the protests in Shifang, Sichuan, in July against the construction of a copper alloy plant and the long-drawn-out clashes between villagers and officials in Wukan, Guangdong, last year over local government corruption.
Political stagnation, Du warns, is also threatening economic development – the foundation of the party’s legitimacy. With unchecked government power, corruption thrives and suppresses the growth of private enterprises.
But party elders say they are not placing much hope in the new leaders, even if there is optimism that they will be more in touch with reality of citizens’ lives after enduring hardship in rural China as “educated youths” during the Cultural Revolution.
They see little evidence of a resolute figure like Mikhail Gorbachev – the last head of state under the Soviet Union – determined to dramatically overhaul the political system.
Neither president-in-waiting Xi Jinping nor premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang have particularly impressive records in their past positions as provincial party secretaries, but they are bland enough to be acceptable to a politically conservative bureaucracy, the elders say.
“Historically speaking, crown princes cannot be too outstanding. They tend to be ordinary and obedient,” Du said.
He Fang, an assistant to deputy foreign minister Zhang Wentian in the 1950s, believes the new leaders will be hesitant to overhaul the one-party system because their own privileges will be at stake.
Many officials have traded influence and used connections for lucrative financial gains, and their spouses, children and relatives have extensive commercial interests.
“[Under a reformed system] they would just become ordinary people and lose their special privileges,” 90-year-old He said.
He endured almost 20 years of hard labour after being purged along with his former boss, Zhang Wentian, who criticised the radical policies of Mao Zedong that led to nationwide famine.
He, now a retired academic at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says the political reform measures the government says it is undertaking are essentially administrative tweaks.
“They dare not talk about separation of party and government [powers], because [the country] is still ruled by the party,” he said.
Zhang Sizhi, 84, a prominent lawyer and veteran party member, agreed the incoming leadership would be much the same as the incumbents. “Their fundamental interest is the same, that is, to safeguard their sovereignty,” Zhang Sizhi said. “It is a huge clique with vested interests and that is very difficult to change.”
He cites political leaders’ unwillingness to declare their financial assets, despite repeated public calls, as an example.
Elders who have seen the party wheels turn for decades warn that even if individual leaders want to overhaul the system, the inertia of the regime is so strong it may not be possible to for them to wield substantial influence.
Premier Wen Jiabao has in the past couple of years repeatedly called for political reform and the respect of universal values, such as democracy and rule of law. But even he has been unable to make his aspirations a reality.
“The individuals might wield a certain level of influence, but it’s hard to change an authoritarian system,” He Fang said.
Instead, the over-riding priority for future leaders is to hold on to the Communist Party’s ruling authority over the country, inherited from their fathers’ generation. After all, that is the source of their legitimacy, he says. Many top party officials set to ascend to powerful positions in the next leadership are scions of revolutionary leaders who helped fight the Kuomintang and put the Communist Party in power.
“In democratic countries, political legitimacy comes from elections, but in China it’s hereditary. [The last generation] fought hard to become the rulers so [this generation] has to maintain their position,” he said.
Party elders agree that any changes must be gradual and cautious, but initial steps, even if tiny ones, must be taken.
They call on Beijing to allow press freedom and freedom of association and to permit party members to elect their own leaders within the Communist Party. These would be effective measures to rein in corruption and the abuse of power, they say.
“The Communist Party should first carry out an operation on itself … then the social conflicts could be ameliorated,” Du said. “Democracy is the only way; it cannot avoid embarking on this road.”
But a predominant view among the conservative bureaucracy is that reforms that would limit official power, mandate transparency and empower ordinary people to have a say in how their country is run would create chaos and likely threaten the Communist Party’s survival.
Zhong Peizhang, the 88-year-old former head of the central propaganda bureau’s information office, argues the party should not be afraid of reform – but rather what might happen in its absence.
He says that without change the regime could collapse, a fate that could be averted if people saw a genuine desire from the party to serve the people.
“If they rely on violence to maintain their rule that is very dangerous … crises could break out any time,” he said.
“But if you speak on behalf of the people, they will support you … Even the Kuomintang had the courage to carry out reform – why can’t the Communist Party?”
The Kuomintang, which was eventually defeated by the Communist Party, imposed martial law following its retreat to Taiwan in 1949. But Taiwanese president Chiang Ching-kuo initiated a series of political reforms in the 1980s that paved the way for multi-party elections.
Du Guang, 84, a retired professor at the Central Party School, says he is “cautiously optimistic” about the country’s future but believes the nation’s hopes lie not so much with the party but with the ordinary people.
Even though the mainland’s internet is policed and censored, the public are still able to have unprecedented access to news and information from non- official channels and are increasingly aware of their rights.
These days internet users can post pictures of riots and demonstrations onto blogs and social networks within seconds, forcing officials and state media to react quickly. Actions taken by citizens – such as the protests in Shifang – have also forced policy change.
Officials backed down from the plan to build the copper alloy plant after residents protested over its impact on the environment.
“I’m optimistic in the people,” said Du Guang, who helped found a semi-official think tank that analysed reform issues in 1988 but was forced to close after Tiananmen.
“With the internet’s popularisation, grass-roots power will influence the people in the upper echelon,” he said.
The elder adds that government officials starting to open their own microblogs to communicate with the public is also a positive sign.
“The power of ordinary people is getting stronger. It’s not obvious but it’s subtly having an impact on society,” he said.
“It’s a struggle between democracy and authoritarian [systems]; we need people and government to work together.”
For these party veterans, who had hoped to see their dreams for democracy, equality and freedom fulfilled within their lifetimes, their call for political reform this year is particularly poignant.
Many will probably not live to see another leadership transition such as the one that is due to be held later this year.
They warn that the party’s days will be numbered if its leaders continue to ignore the demands for political reform, emphasising that this is not something they wish to see.
After all, in their youth, many of them left behind anxious parents, assumed a different identity and risked being arrested, all to join the underground Communist Party to pursue their dreams of a free and equal China.
“We old comrades are extremely anxious,” Zhong said. “Many people have placed a lot of hope in the 18th party congress, if they don’t seize this opportunity to change the authoritarian way, the regime could fall at any time.”
Du Daozheng agrees: “If the country doesn’t embark on the road of constitutional governance, it [the party] will have to step down for sure … it won’t survive for very long.”