10/12/2007, 00.00
CHINA
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17th Congress: the “harmonious society” betrayed by the party

by Bernardo Cervellera
Few important changes are expected as corruption grows among party members. Hu Jintao’s slogans seem empty words. Repression of dissidents, religious figures and media appears to the only path to create a situation of “joy and harmony.”

Rome (AsiaNews) - The Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square in Beijing is ready to receive more than two thousand delegates for the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, (CCP) which will open on October 15th. The hall has been decorated with fresh flowering plants, a new round symbol of the Party (5 metres in diameter) and a new red carpet. Few other substantial changes are planned, even though the talk is of completely restructuring the Politburo, in which the 52 year-old secretary of the Liaoning, Li Keqiang could come to take part. Li Keqiang is seen by many as the man Hu Jintao has chosen to succeed him in 5 years’ time.

The upcoming Congress should be the scene of Hu Jintao’s victory over the so-called “Shanghai Gang” tied to former president Jiang Zemin - or at least the consolidation of his power. The Shanghai Gang suffered a setback with the arrest of Shanghai secretary Chen Liangyu, who stands accused of playing the main role in a series of financial scandals. It is expected that during the course of the Congress Chen will be expelled from the party and then tried.

Hu has succeeded in placing many of his men as secretaries in various provinces, but the Politburo still counts several of the Shanghai faction among its members, men tough to get rid of, like Jia Qinglin and Li Changchun. The most likely hypothesis would see the two factions reach a modus vivendi, without damaging each other.

Succession and Corruption

The Chen Liangyu episode – one of thousands of corruption cases among Party members – and the factional fighting are driving the Party to find new ways to nominate Central Committee members, opening up a sort of “internal democracy” in which at least some of the members will be elected by all the Congress delegates.

Having a formal structure for establishing who gains office could aid in weeding out the most corrupt elements, as well as resolve problems of succession within the Party. Until now, the Party has always been witness to attempts at “hereditary” succession, and even downright coups d’etat. Deng Xiaoping stepped right over Mao’s chosen heir, Hua Guofeng; Li Peng eliminated Zhao Ziyang (with Deng’s blessings); both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were chosen by Deng, Hu in 1992.

Internal democracy, however, is no guarantee for popular democracy. Hu Jintao has repeatedly and with great clarity expressed that Western-style democracy is not suitable for China, and that what he calls the supremacy of the CCP is not open to discussion. Even so – and as several Party think tanks have suggested - a broadly democratic base would make possible both effective oversight and whistle blowing against the CCP’s greatest plague: corruption. Graft, theft, manipulation and illicit use of public funds take place in China to the tune of €70 billion  (roughly 4% of GDP and 10% of government spending in 2004), and the figure is growing.

In the face of the stigma of a Communist Party oligarchy – with its trail of injustices against workers, poor people, retirees and savings-investors – the Party leadership continues to preach “service and selflessness”, while at the Congress the plan is for the umpteenth anti-corruption Commission. No one believes the Party has strength enough (not to mention the will) to control or punish itself. In 2006, only 1600 Party functionaries were arrested out of 33 thousand corruption complaints filed. 80% of those convinced were able to avoid punishment. Many judges have admitted that verdicts “must be in line with Party directives” and not with justice.

The reason for which Party membership is on the rise, is precisely that Party members receive benefit packages that are not accorded to the rest of the population: steady work, a pension, ease of travel, modern living quarters, and most of all, legal and social protection in case of trouble with the law. Just one example: for nearly two years, the government has ordered Party members not to invest in coal mines, threatening punishments and closure of the facilities in case of accidents that result in fatalities. The country’s hunger for energy, however, pushes investors to force miners to work 12 to 14-hour days, in tunnels that are often without any safety features, with the result that nearly 20 thousand miners perish each year. In 2006, 95% of Party functionaries implicated in incidents involving mine collapses were acquitted.

Society in the service of the Party

These simple figures show a crude reality: instead of being the vanguard of society, the CCP has become society’s oppressor. The Party’s membership has become an oligarchy that uses the economy in order to maintain political power, and uses political power to increase its own economic benefits. The vast majority of the population is excluded from this vicious circle of power and lucre. At least 600 million peasants receive salaries as low as 10% of those paid to city-dwellers, and have neither pension funds nor access to health care. In the privatisation of industries, through which many Party members have grown rich, retirees and the unemployed remain without any assistance. More than 300 million people live below the poverty line.

An indicator of how careless the government and the Party are for the plight of the people can be found in the figures relating to social security. The Chinese government spends less that 12% of GDP on schools, health care, pensions and subsidies, while developed countries spend as much as 50% of GDP on the same things.

To China’s social ills, add the country’s environmental woes. Chinese air is the world’s most polluted, and half the population lacks safe drinking water. Three quarters of China’s rivers are polluted, and a thick blanket of smog perennially enshrouds China’s cities, causing respiratory disease and death in tens of thousands of people annually. All this is due to unlimited exploitation of the territory, to a lack of respect for the environment and for the laws, to the violent industrialisation of many rural areas.

The response of the people to this river of injustice continues to be revolt.

According to Public Safety Minister Zhou Yongkang, mass protests in the country are on the rise. In 1994 there were 10 thousand. In 2004, there were more than 74 thousand. In 2005, there were 87 thousand public protests in China. Each day, the country records between 120 and 230 protests, mostly in rural areas, where expropriations in favour of village chiefs and Party secretaries who then sell the lands they have seized to development companies or industrial concerns. In 2006 the number of protests dropped, though those that took place assumed a more violent character, with the police firing on protestors.

Harmony and repression

In order to cover the great divide separating the paradise of the Party from the hellish conditions of society, Hu Jintao has coined a number of slogans: there is that of the “harmonious society”, to which all must contribute and from which everyone ought to obtain an equitable level of well-being; there is that of “scientific development”, which stands to indicate the idea that profit and industrialisation must be in step with care for the environment and a balanced rapport between the city and the countryside. There is even talk of inserting the two slogans into the constitution of the Party at the next Congress, next to the contributions of Mao, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. The problem, on which Chinese academics have shed light, is that the government has yet to show that these are not mere slogans, a sort of somniferous smoke for the masses.

Adding to this impression is the merciless campaign of arrests launched by the leadership against human rights activists, defense attorneys, peasants, religious leaders and protest groups. The campaign responds precisely to the desire to create a “joyful and harmonious atmosphere” ahead of the Congress, by eliminating the elements of “disharmony”. Media outlets must erase everything that is out of tune with this rhetoric, as well. A new law, passed last year, forbids the media from publishing news of “emergency situations” before local officials make statements. The same law provides fines from 50 to 100 thousand Yuan (5 to 10 thousand Euro)for transgressors. The law applies to coverage of such things as explosions in mines, environmental disasters, public heath dangers, and even violent clashes among police and peasants. The new norms apply also to the foreign press, including that of Hong Kong.

Add to this the control of the Web, blogs, preventive censorship of international providers and the blocking of many sites that speak of democracy, human rights, religious liberty, Taiwan, etc.

From this point of view, it is easy to understand why in these days, the Beijing media do nothing but praise in rhapsody the great results achieved during these 58 years of the Chinese Communist Party’s uncontested domination.

In order to avoid possible challenges to this “harmonious repression”, Hu Jintao has secured to himself the support of the Army. Since 2004, from the time he succeeded Jiang Zemin as president of the Military Commission, Hu has increased the budget for military spending, strengthening space research and promoted dozens of officers to key posts in the general staff. The result is that the army “adheres to the Chinese Communist Party’s supreme leadership” and remains “a tool in the hands of the Party”.

There is not even the slightest fear that the “harmonious repression” might be shaken by external pressure. Just a few weeks before the Congress, Hu Jintao made it clear that eventual changes within the Politburo shall not change the open door policy toward international investments and the business of international entrepreneurs. Hu also promised greater “integration in world-globalization”. Clearly, Hu means economic globalization, not the global spread of human rights.

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