Patrick Brown: No 'reformers' in China's political elite

Unlike five years ago when he used the word 'democracy' no fewer than 69 times, Chinese President Hu Jintao's address to the ruling congress Thursday seemed to slam the door on that idea, Patrick Brown writes.

Like a rare alignment of the planets — offering an unusual glimpse of two different worlds — the political orbits of the U.S. and China converged this week with the climax of the American presidential election and the opening of the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.

Just hours after a triumphant President Barack Obama left the confetti-strewn stage in Chicago, having energized his supporters with the rich promise of four more years, China's President Hu Jintao strode up to the podium in the Great Hall of the People to wrap up his 10 years in office, and begin the coronation of his successor, Xi Jinping, who will take over in the spring.

Hu's speech included a line that may disappoint but not surprise the many Chinese who take a passionate and sometimes envious interest in U.S. politics: "We will never copy a Western political system," he said.

China's next president, Xi Jinping, currently vice-president, at the opening day of the Communist Party Congress on Thursday. (Ng Han Guan / Associated Press)

The prospect of such a thing is as remote as ever, of course. But as the world tries to get some sense of what China will be like under Xi Jinping, foreign journalists and "experts" are once again being tempted to interpret Chinese politics as a Western, almost American, struggle between "hard-line conservatives" and "reformers;" and trying to figure out which camp Xi and prospective members of his governing politburo committee belong to.

When Hu became president in 2002, he was widely reported as being "reform-minded," and today there is much the same speculation about the new guy's leanings as well.

The fact is, though, after 10 years, the only thing we know about what Hu Jintao really thinks that we did not know in 2002, is that political reform, as we in the West understand it, is not on the menu.

In his speech to the last party congress, a non-leadership one five years ago, Hu used the word "democracy" no fewer that 69 times.

In this week's address, what he said about that was "We must continue to make both active and prudent efforts to carry out the reform of the political structure, and make people's democracy more extensive."

Sounds progressive, but in Communist Party jargon, "political reform" and "peoples' democracy" essentially mean strengthening the Communist Party's monopoly on power and making one-party rule more efficient.

'Ease of mind'

Answering questions this week, the spokesman for the Congress, Cai Mingzhao, whose day job is deputy head of the Party Propaganda Department, gave this immortal explanation of the current Chinese leadership's conception of democracy:

"We must combine centralism on the basis of democracy, with democracy under centralized guidance so that we will create a political situation in the party in which we have both centralism and democracy, both discipline and freedom, both unity of will and personal ease of mind."

What "centralized guidance" means is that the party as a whole has one single policy imperative, and that is to remain in power at all costs.

The recent New York Times investigation of the multi-billion dollar fortune of the outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao's family and friends uncovered evidence of what had been an open, but largely undocumented, secret for years.

Among Communist Party officials and their families enrichment on a grand scale is the rule rather than the exception.

One-party rule by untouchable officials has created a web of corruption and greed on such a scale that the party could not survive the fresh air of genuine political reform and openness.

From Mao to now

So, here, amidst the two turgid hours of Hu's speech, is the part we need to pay attention to. Take a deep breath before trying to read it out loud.

"The system of theories of socialism with Chinese characteristics is a system of scientific theories that includes Deng Xiao Ping Theory, the important thought of the Three Represents, and the Scientific Outlook on Development, and this system represents the party's adherence to and development of Marxist-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought."

The speeches do go on. Here Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu rubs his eyes during the opening session of the 18th Congress on Thursday. (Ng Han Guan / Associated Press)

This boilerplate phrase bases the legitimacy of the party's rule on a recitation of each successive leader's supposed theoretical insight from Mao to now, and in which Mao Zedong Thought remains the foundation of the whole edifice.

Hu's contribution is the bit about scientific development. And it is important to note that the speech Hu gave was in fact written by a committee under the direction of his successor, Xi Jinping.

I gave up making predictions about China many years ago, but I am willing to make a guess that if the party is still in power 10 years from now Xi Jinping will include this same sentence in his handover speech, with the addition of whatever signature slogan he adds to the list —  and that addition won't be "universal suffrage."

If the short version of Obama's speech is "hope and change," Hu's message, as far as democratically minded Chinese are concerned, was "no hope and no change."

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