Human Rights and the Renminbi
Wei Jingsheng, one of China’s most prominent dissidents exiled abroad, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 1979 when he called on Deng Xiaoping to implement the “fifth modernization” —democracy. He was released from prison in 1997 under pressure from then-US President Bill Clinton and deported to the United States. He spoke with NPQ in November.
NPQ | The Communist Party’s Central Committee recently held its annual plenary session. What is the significance of the promotion of Xi Jinping, the vice president? Was there anything notable in this meeting that the world ought to be paying attention to?
Wei Jingsheng | By naming Xi Jinping as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, the party leaders have put him in line to succeed Secretary-General (of the Communist Party) Hu Jintao. What does it mean? It indicates the internal fight within the party has been relaxed a little. Xi Jinping was mayor of Xiamen (from 1985 to 1988) and worked his way up to governor of Fujian (until 2002), then party secretary of Zhejiang Province (until 2007), before he became party secretary of Shanghai. All these places are in the economically booming coastal region. In 2009, he was also in charge of an internal party group that sought to suppress liberal intellectuals and non-government organizations as well as further restrict Internet access on sensitive political topics.
The second major issue of the plenum had to do with the economic development plan running up against US pressure on China to let its currency appreciate and the related risk of trade wars because of China’s huge surplus.
What is little understood outside China is that while there are separate factions in the Communist Party with respect to political reform—the reformists and the hardliners—both factions are in agreement on economic issues. Both factions are hardliners with respect to economic policy toward the US.
Despite what some commentators in the US believe, the reformist political faction around Premier Wen Jiabao, including some of China’s top billionaires, wants to protect their economic interests and thus strongly resist the appreciation of China’s currency. In this respect, they are supported by the hardliners against political reform around Party Secretary and Chinese President Hu Jintao, who also want to protect their vested interests.
Despite this, I believe the majority in the party advocates compromise on the exchange rate and measures to expand the domestic market inside of China. So, for the moment, there is a standoff.
NPQ | Premier Wen Jiabao of late, in Shenzhen and on CNN, has been talking up political reform. He’s said things like “the people’s wishes and needs for democracy and freedom are irresistible,” that “freedom of speech is indispensable for any country,” and that “without the safeguard of political reform, the fruits of economic reform would be lost.”
Surely, this cannot be pure rhetoric and must mean something. Is the reform faction in the party gaining strength?
Wei | Premier Wen is a cautious, calculating and seasoned politician. He does not like to stir up conflict. He has managed to thrive inside the party despite the fact that, back in 1989, he accompanied then-party chief Zhao Ziyang to Tiananmen Square to meet with the students on a hunger strike. Yet, he wasn’t punished and has risen to his current position.
It seems the custom in recent years within the Communist Party is to speak about reform when you are just about to exit the political arena. Speaking out when exiting power is really part of a bargain to maintain the status of his faction and improve his image among the people.
Besides Wen Jiabao, there are others inside the party who are more interested in political reform. Unlike what most Westerners think, they are a group of people who have handsomely profited from the current system, and they are motivated to protect their gains. At the same time, they know the Communist Party will have a hard time maintaining one-party autocracy in the times ahead. So, they advocate “peaceful evolution.” They even formed an official faction last year.
But these political reformers are not the mainstream within the party. The mainstream today consists of those officials who have not yet made enough money for themselves and thus want to keep the current political structure intact as long as possible. They are not for political reform because they suspect that if the “mob” is ever empowered, they will not forgive the party. Since international pressure on human rights in China is so weak these days, this is the absolute majority in control of decision-making in the party today.
NPQ | Premier Wen was saying these things about political reform in the lead-up to the party central committee meeting. Then, in the middle of the process, Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Will this cause a reaction against political reform?
Wei | For a Chinese dissident to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize is extremely embarrassing for the hardliners within the Communist Party. It is a great encouragement to the reformers. Certainly, it will intensify the struggle between the two.
Given the current balance of power, however, the reformers will lose to the hardliners because those in the middle, feeling humiliated and insulted by this act of the West, will react even more strongly against reform measures. Clearly, the time of the reformers has not yet come.
Also, given Liu Xiaobo’s more than two decades of cooperation with the Chinese government, the regime will exploit his status as a moderate to guide people to accept a more cooperative and less confrontational tone against the tyranny of the Communist Party. This will reduce the pressure on the party to change.
It will maintain its rule while people beg for reform.
No doubt the large Western companies will welcome this since they believe it will not affect their profits in China and maintain stability. In this they are mistaken.
What we will see is a replay of the failure of constitutional reform at the end of the Qing Dynasty. When the opportunities for peaceful evolution are lost, it will mean another revolution.