China’s one-party rule and dissent

The last month in China has seen a range of reactions to the rescue of several hundred slaves, including children, from Chinese brickyards. In the cities there was shock; in the villages, where the victims came from, people knew that kidnapping is neither a new nor an isolated phenomenon. In the government, there was embarrassment: the existence of slavery cast something of a shadow over the party’s current promise of a “harmonious society”.

There was another, more unexpected result: the Southern Metropolis Weekly published an interview with the writer Wu Si, who argued cogently that both local tyranny and slavery had a long history in China, and that neither would be eliminated without democracy and the rule of law. His argument was simple: historically these things happened because the good behaviour of officials had depended on the vigilance of their superiors. Today, he said, the core power structure remained unchanged.

“It is,” he said, “still an upwardly responsible pyramid.” Just as in the Qing dynasty, slavery is illegal today, but the law is not just insufficiently specific, as the national lawyers’ association pointed out this week, it is also ignored. And just as in the Qing dynasty, senior officials complained that subordinates took bribes, lied to superiors and resorted to obfuscation and delay if ordered to enforce it.

Many village heads are now elected in China, but, as Wu pointed out, the more powerful figure of the party secretary is not. “Democracy may not solve this problem,” he said, “but a lack of democracy has caused it.” It is a measure of the government’s wider problem of legitimacy that the Southern Metropolitan Weekly has not yet been closed down for heresy against the Communist party. Indeed, the word democracy is on the lips of the party elite; the difficulty is to determine what they mean by it.

Two years ago, the Chinese government published a white paper on democracy that opened with the stirring proposition that “democracy is an outcome of the development of political civilisation of mankind. It is also the common desire of people all over the world”. Earlier this year PM Wen Jiabao announced that “democracy, law, freedom and human rights” were not exclusive to capitalism.

But the white paper went on to explain that “democracy with Chinese characteristics” had been the party’s gift to the Chinese people. On June 25, Hu Jintao, the party general secretary, told an audience at the Party School, the communists’ most important think-tank, that “greater participation” by the people was desirable — as long as it did not jeopardise the party’s rule.

But this is unlikely to satisfy the demands of a population that has seen the promise of prosperity falter as the wealth gap widens and the rich and powerful pillage the public good. Outside party circles, the democracy discussion is much more radical.

Citizens are organising themselves into a bewildering range of pressure groups and action committees, despite restrictions on civic organisation, learning how to take action and pressure officials to obey the law of the land.

In a growing number of articles, writers and intellectuals are challenging the proposition that the party has a divine right to the monopoly of political power - and the government no longer feels able to silence them. — The Guardian