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Political reform in China: the way to go

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In Brief

In the 18th Party Congress report, the single area that has justifiably generated the most attention is references to political reform.

But, in fact, views on this report will rely entirely on initial expectations.


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If one wasn’t harbouring unrealistic hopes, the report can be read as an indication of progress on political reform.

In recent years, the notion of ‘political reform’ became a kind of taboo subject. The mere suggestion of it was considered risky, let alone any meaningful discourse on viable frameworks. Leftists would be very happy to completely eliminate the concept from their vocabulary.

The fact that the party congress report contains the idea sends a clear signal that there is no question about the necessity of political reform. What is open for discussion now is how current institutions can reform. People who care about political reform must spot the trends and ride the tide.

The core of political reform is democracy, and the key to this will be strategic institutions which support this paradigm. Under the current political framework, the congress report highlighted two points: make sure people exert power via the people’s congress, and improve the political consultancy mechanism.

It seems cliché that whenever officials talk about democracy, the next term that follows is the people’s congress. But this time there is more substance. Compared with previous party congress reports, the new document said that legislators should enhance their supervision over government operations, as well as government budget and spending reviews that includes off-book revenues. If implemented next year, when the national people’s congress convenes, this would mark significant progress on introducing democratic processes to fiscal policymaking.

Another important step is reducing the number of party cadres in the legislative body. Currently party cadres count for 70 per cent of the national people’s congress, and many are at the same time government officials. The national congress meeting in 2010 established the principle of ‘equal vote, equal power’. If we see a significant drop in the number of party cadres in the legislative arm, and then a total exit, the ‘rubber stamp’ nature of the legislative body will finally become history.

On the political consultancy mechanism, we have to admit that much of that is merely perfunctory. The 18th Party Congress report didn’t limit the scope of the consultancy to existing consultative organisations. Instead, it brings forward the idea of ‘deliberative democracy’, a concept in political science that emphasises societal discourse in decision-making. The report laid out several goals, including improve the working mechanism for deliberative democracy, and having expansive, multi-layer participation that’s guaranteed by institutional setups.

In addition to the implementation of deliberative democracy, we also care about when elections will get on to the agenda. Democracy through deliberative decision-making with elections and better administrative transparency together can form a modern democratic political framework.

Another concept that frightens leftists is constitutional government. The idea is simply using the constitution to limit the abuse of government power. How the party report will later affect interpretations of the constitution is critical.

The report reiterated that Article 5 of the constitution states ‘no organisation or individual may enjoy the privilege of being above the constitution and the law’, and it further emphasised that ‘it is prohibited to replace law with words, trample the law with power, or abuse the law for private interests’. Once passed by the party congress, this report and this sentence clearly prohibits immunity of those in power and ends the day when a written note from officials can easily brush aside the force of the law.

The report goes on to mention that rule of law will be established and ‘human rights will be respected and guaranteed’ when China moves into a moderately prosperous society in 2020. Considering it’s only seven years from now, these goals offer hope. Of course implementation hinges on thorough plans and determined actions.

China as a country in transition bears signs of an authoritarian society. This makes it all the more crucial to have clear checks on power. Like previous reports, the new document reiterates the principle of checks and balances, but the measures it charts out are more practical, which will ‘guarantee the people’s right to know, right to political participation, expression and supervision’, power should be exerted in an open and standardised manner, and there should be transparency among the party, government, judiciary and other institutions.

It’s unfortunate that a ‘Sunshine Law’, or rules on disclosure of personal assets of officials, was not included in the report. But mentions of the public’s right to know and improving governmental transparency in this report give us optimism, as well as reasons to continue to call for such a law.

The 18th Party Congress is no doubt one of paramount importance. This period marks a once-in-a-decade change of this country’s leadership. And it also takes place during an eventful year which began with a local police chief running to the US consulate to claim asylum. Despite all the complexities, the main report continues along the basic principles of reform and opening up, brings out some significant reform measures and leaves room for further top-level planning and design on political reform. Reform is always easier said than done. For anyone that cares about the country and stands on its soil, they should see opportunities in the fight for better political governance.

Hu Shuli is editor-in-chief of Caixin Media.

This article was originally published here at Caixin Online.

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