As farewell speeches go, this one by the outgoing Chinese premier Wen Jiabao was an eye-opener. “We need to urgently usher in structural reforms to evolve politically and economically or else get ready to face another devastating cultural revolution,” he said in a speech telecast live on television.‘The time to act is now,’ ‘It’s a do-or-die situation’ are phrases routinely used by politicians and public figures all over the world. However, when such a comment springs from Wen Jiabao, the Prime Minister of China, a country whose leaders never voice such sentiments in public, the moment is indeed historic. In a rare frank statement Wen said unless China embarked on urgent political reforms, and capitalised on its economic reforms of the last 30 years, the Communist country could end up facing another upheaval, similar to the country’s drastic ‘cultural revolution’ of the past — a reference to the turbulent times between 1966-1976 when thousands of people were ruthlessly purged during Mao Zedong’s regime.
The Annual Event
China is a one-party ruled Communist country, and no one airs reformist comments in public. Wen has been the premier for the last nine years, and his term expires early next year. It is customary for the premier to meet with journalists after the end of the parliamentary session. But the meet on March 14 was also special, as this was in effect the podium for the outgoing premier’s goodbye speech. By this time next year there will be another premier in his place.
What Wen Said
In what has been widely termed an emotional speech, the 70-year-old Wen called for reforms, but did not give specific suggestions.
Speaking to journalists after the closing session of the annual National People’s Congress (the parliament session) in Beijing, China on March 14, Wen said, “Without successful political structural reform, it is impossible for us to fully institute economic structural reform and the gains we have made in this area may be lost.”
Hinting that he had not done enough for the country, Wen said that he would work towards the betterment of the country, even after retiring from his post. “The democratic system of China will continue to move forward in keeping with China’s national conditions and no force will be able to hold this process back”
Risk of Cultural Revolution
Experts believe Wen was sending a strong message to the more hardcore members of the Communist party, like Bo Xilai, who may not welcome such political change.
Wen invoked the spectre of the decade-long Cultural Revolution and its excesses when he said, “New problems that have cropped up in Chinese society will not be fundamentally resolved and such a historical tragedy as the Cultural Revolution may happen again”.
Who is Bo and What Happened to Him?
Bo was the party chief of the Chongqing province and a politburo member who was working towards getting into the highest power circle of China, namely the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee that in effect runs the country. Bo took on the ‘mafia’ and went after goondas who allegedly enjoyed the support of corrupt officials. In this drive, he was ably supported by then police chief of Chongqing Wang Lijun. Recent reports say Wang is under official investigation, after he reportedly arrived at the American embassy suddenly, seeking asylum. Bo’s detractors allege that he used the campaign against the gangsters to further his own political career. Another unpopular move of Bo was the ‘red songs’ movement, popularising songs that belonged to the Cultural Revolution phase of Chinese history. Wen made a reference to these happenings as well, when he said the Chongqing authorities should seriously reflect on and draw lessons from the incident (The embarrassing flight to the embassy).
A day after Wen’s speech on March 14, Bo was stripped of his post.
Needed: Support of the
The stand taken by Bo and others of his leanings point to an inherent power struggle within the Party. Unlike western countries — like in America which is gearing up for presidential elections, through a transparent process — what goes on in the Chinese corridors of power is never known to the public. Wen said that although the Communist Party had done its best to usher in reforms in the wake of the dreadful decade, “the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution and feudalism have yet to be fully eliminated.”
He also touched upon poverty and other problems facing the country. “As the economy continues to be developing, new problems like income disparity, lack of credibility and corruption have occurred. We must press ahead with economic and political reforms, particularly reform in the leadership system of our party and country,” he said. However, such objectives cannot be met, he felt, “without the support, enthusiasm and creativity of the Chinese people”.
Wen’s Focus on Chinese Media
Wen’s speech made headlines the world over, but more importantly it energised the Chinese media — many organisations ran editorials on the speech. Many also referred to the 1981 resolution, which noted the need for sustained development, including political reforms, and the need to avoid catastrophes such as the Cultural Revolution. Now, 31 years later, the same concerns were engaging the media.
The Beijing News said, “The Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party since the Founding of the Republic has already pointed out that intra-party democracy and the institutionalisation and legalisation of democracy in the politics, society and life of the nation are the only path to avoiding the recurrence of a tragedy like the Cultural Revolution.
“Only reform on the basis of democracy and rule of law can guarantee that momentum is kept and the objective is not lost. China can only move forward, we cannot move back or stand still. Moving forward can only depend on opening and reform.”
Decoding the Speech
Why did Wen make such a remarkable speech? There is no indication that the Chinese are in the grip of a mass hysteria, like they reportedly were in the 1960s. Yet Wen seemed to hint that people should have more of a say in matters of the state run by one party. He said there should be valid criticism of government policies by ordinary people so that course correction becomes possible. Democracy as we know it may be a long time in coming to China — if at all — but Wen did speak of a gradual election process, beginning at the village level before moving to urban areas. However, before that, a lot more reform is needed, both in terms of leadership, and the country.
In other words, the political system in China continues to be directed by a handful of men in Beijing with attendant factions. Their wrangling reverberates across the huge country, with vast natural resources and an economic growth few countries have been able to match. But a change of guard has never been smooth in China.
Wen’s speech gains further significance because of changes at the top, expected later this year. It is expected that President Hu Jintao will pass the mantle of Communist Party leadership to Xi Jinping. The transfer of power is likely to be smooth on the surface. If not, if there are undercurrents, then all talk of reforms and restructuring will remain just that.
The Cultural Revolution
Dubbed the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, it spanned 10 years from 1966-1976. It was touted as ‘a great revolution that touches people to their very souls.’ In reality, tens of thousands of people were persecuted.
It was launched by Chinese Communist Party chairman, Mao Zedong, with the aim of stemming the drift away from socialism. (Broadly speaking, socialism is about social economy, producing for human sustenance, refraining from overexploitation, and not being driven by a motive to make a profit. There are many types of socialism). Mao embarked on this revolution claiming he was propelled by worries over the bureaucracy that had gripped the party, the social degeneration and the divide between the rich and the poor. He felt that partymen had become the new ‘rich’ and the intellectuals were siding with the ordinary people. He was furious with both as harming the political and economic fabric of China.
Historians say the revolution took place in three phases: The mass phase (1966-69), characterised by Rhe red Guards, who went on a rampage to ferret out ‘class enemies.’ The Red Guards gave way to the People’s Liberation Army phase, and from 1969 to 1971, the PLA suppressed the excesses of the Red Guards. This ended when a coup was allegedly attempted by Lin Biao, the then defence minister. The final phase saw the reign of the Gang of Four (which included Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife) and was really a power struggle. By this time Mao was unwell, and the direction of the country became the question around which ideologues differed. It ended with the arrest of the Gang of Four in October 1976. Mao had died a month earlier.
The ultra-leftist policies followed during the Cultural Revolution decade had a negative impact on the country’s educational and cultural life and hindered economic development.
China moved to a market-oriented economic development in the late 1970s, when Deng Xiaoping came to power. But the excesses of the decade of chaos continued to haunt China’s politics. The ruthlessness with which the Tiananmen Square protests were crushed in 1986, was caused by a fear that the movement could snowball into a Red Guards-led movement. The Red Guards were mostly school and college students, like the Tiananmen Square protesters.