China in Transition

Achieving the Goals Set Forth in the Scientific Outlook on Development - Political reform is the key

Chi Hung KWAN
Consulting Fellow, RIETI

With the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) held on October 15, 2007, the regime of Hu Jintao, general secretary of the CPC Central Committee inaugurated in the fall of 2002, entered its second term. In his political report to the congress, Hu set China's reform agenda for the next five years, calling for pursuing balanced economic growth and improving quality of life based on the "Scientific Outlook on Development," which, seeks to put "people first as its core, comprehensive, balanced, and sustainable development as its basic requirement, and overall consideration as its fundamental approach."

"People first" refers to the idea that the goal of development is to improve quality of life, not to merely expand production as symbolized by gross domestic product (GDP). With this in mind, increased GDP goes against the idea of people orientation if polarized income and wealth distribution and exacerbated pollution and environmental problems are its end products.

"Comprehensive" refers to the need to pay attention not only to economy but to society, politics, culture, and ecology. In particular, the need to promote a "conservation culture" was for the first time covered in Hu's report.

Furthermore, the term "balanced" is intended to convey the notion of redressing structural distortions. Hu made special note of the need to promote "five balances": 1) balancing urban and rural development (putting greater emphasis on the development of rural areas and solving farmers problems), 2) balancing development among regions (assisting underdeveloped regions), 3) balancing economic and social development (expanding employment opportunities, enhancing the social security system, and improving public services such as medical care and education), 4) balancing domestic development and opening to the outside world (accelerating the development of the domestic market while adhering to the opening-door policy).

Finally, the term "sustainable" implies that not only benefits to the current generation but those to future generations must be taken into consideration. To achieve this end, China needs to change from the current input-driven pattern of growth to productivity-driven growth.

As acknowledged by the Chinese leadership, comprehensive development including political reform is crucial to achieving these goals set forth in the Scientific Outlook on Development. Unfortunately, China's political reform clearly lags far behind its economic reform. Prior to the latest CPC national congress, there were calls in some quarters for political reform, such as with the active academic debate over whether North European-style democratic socialism could be a model for political reform in China, but such calls are completely ignored in Hu's report.

While calling for "liberalization of thought," the report points to the need to adhere to the Four Cardinal Principles of socialism, people's democratic dictatorship, CPC leadership, and Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. However, by not discarding these four principles, the room for democratization and other political reform is extremely limited.

In fact, democratization discussed in Hu's report is limited to "democracy within the party" and almost no reference is made to concrete measures to give individual citizens the right to participate in politics.

Since Hu Jintao's rise to power five years ago, China has undoubtedly steered away from the growth-first development strategy toward one focusing on more equitable and environmentally friendly growth. Such a policy shift, however, has yet to generate the desired effects since debate on many policy measures is gaining consensus in principle but disagreement on specifics. In order to address existing disparities, all Chinese citizens - including those belonging to underprivileged groups of society, such as farmers - must be granted the right to participate in politics based on the one person, one vote principle.

At the same time, solving environmental problems requires civil society and the media to oversee companies as well as the assurance of fair and impartial court rulings, in addition to the establishment of appropriate laws and regulations. Under the current one-party dictatorship, it would be difficult to fulfill these conditions.

Furthermore, with the ongoing transition to a market economy and its accompanying economic development, both social values and interests have become more and more diverse in China. As a result, the traditional Communist ideology advocating class struggle has lost its appeal to the people. The emergence of this new political, economic, and social environment is forcing the CPC to find new justification for maintaining its one-party rule. In this regard too, the CPC must reform itself, which includes ideological reform, and the implementation of fair elections.

November 2, 2007

November 2, 2007