Many Chinese Distrust Party's Idea of Reform

John PomfretWashington Post Foreign Service

July 1, 2000; Page A18

BEIJING -- Despite 20 years of economic development, China risks falling further behind the West. Unemployment is rising. The Communist Party could lose power over corruption. A spiritual vacuum afflicts many people. Surrounded by a democratizing Taiwan, a diminished Russia and an India that never seems to fulfill its promise, the party needs a new model to lead China through the 21st century. This pessimistic assessment is what the elders who run the world's biggest Communist country are giving the rank and file of the 60 million-strong Chinese Communist Party. And not just any elder the party leader and president, Jiang Zemin.

In a campaign that echoes attempts a decade ago to rescue the Soviet Communist Party, China has launched a crusade to reform its ruling party. Kicked off by speeches by Jiang during a trip to southern China earlier this year and followed in May with publication of a 74-page booklet, "A Great Program for Comprehensively Strengthening Party Building," the campaign aims to penetrate every cell, every committee.

The stated goals are simple and serious "To ensure that the Communist Party stays in power," said Zhou Weiming, a senior theoretician at the Central Party School, one of the sources of the campaign. "Up until now, we've accomplished the easy part of the reforms. Now the difficult ones remain."

But the prescription is causing doubts around China. In a throwback to the days of Confucius, when Chinese officials embraced the "way of the scholar," Jiang essentially wants party members to discover the joys of clean living. No mention is made of political reform, systemic change, strengthening of independent agencies designed to supervise party work, separation of party and state or moves toward creating independent courts.

"First we need good people," said Zhou, intimating that this campaign is the beginning of significant political reform--a claim many doubt. "We need people of high consciousness and high moral standards. If everyone is out for themselves, we won't accomplish anything."

But Wang Ruoshui, a former chief editor of the People's Daily, the government newspaper, and a Marxist theoretician in his own right, said Jiang's emphasis on individual cultivation is a non-starter. For example, Wang said, in the battle against corruption, "Jiang has taken what's a legal problem and turned it into a moral problem and then a thought problem. That's music to the ears of the corrupt! They have a thought problem. Go to a few lectures and cure themselves. It's a lot better than jail!"

This gap between the prescription and the disease is a symptom of what is perhaps China's main political theme in the early 21st century--the increasing complexity of its society and the party leadership's seeming inability to cope with the changes.

A recent example is China's 11-month campaign against the banned spiritual sect Falun Gong. Tens of thousands of people have been jailed since the sect was banned last July, but demonstrations continue in cities across the nation, suggesting that heavy-handed tactics no longer work.

One problem is age. The average age of the seven members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the most powerful political organization in China, is 68. Jiang is 73.

Another is world view. Four of the seven spent their formative years in the Soviet Union studying metal-bashing industries, Jiang at the Stalin Automobile Works.

But there are deeper issues as well.

The campaign, called the "Three Represents," is founded on the idea that the Communist Party must represent the most advanced part of China's economy, culture and "the fundamental interests of the largest numbers of the Chinese people," according to the People's Daily. The problem is that more than 50 percent of the economy is essentially in private hands. And many of China's leading entrepreneurs are not party members.

The development of a market economy dependent on foreign trade has eroded the party's economic influence as well. Globalization and the Internet are knocking at China's door. China's urban youth are responding enthusiastically. Its aging officials, however, appear puzzled.

In addition, most if not all Chinese culture of any international significance is created not by party officials, but in defiance of strict party guidelines. Just in the past year, the party has banned dozens of books and closed numerous publishing houses. For spiritual concerns, the party is an empty shell. Millions of people have found religion, new types and old, in the wake of the collapse of the party's ideology.

Finally, many Chinese say the party's endemic corruption means that it no longer represents the "fundamental interests" of the people.

But as party theoretician Zhou pointed out, "this campaign wasn't started because things are going well, it was started because we are facing problems."

Jiang's prescription has also provoked accusations that he is using the campaign to elevate himself into the pantheon of Chinese Communist luminaries, alongside Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Jiang has faced this accusation before. When China celebrated its 50th anniversary as a Communist state last October, a float carrying Jiang's picture followed one of Mao and one of Deng.

Jiang's term as president and party chief will probably end after the party congress in 2002. But he apparently wants to continue to wield power behind the scenes, much as Deng did. Without a major contribution to China's Communist history, that role will be difficult.

To that end, every day, media throughout China call the campaign a "brilliant theoretical conclusion made by the party Central Committee with Comrade Jiang Zemin as the core." Every new day brings another article quoting a party figure backing Jiang's "breakthrough." Hu Jintao, Jiang's anointed successor, is leading the campaign, which observers here have interpreted as another sign the president is as concerned about his legacy as he is about the party's fate.

"We are laughing at the campaign," said Wang, who has been banned from publishing in China because of his views. "Jiang is really more concerned with strengthening his rule. He doesn't really care about the people's interests."

Wang and others point to a companion political campaign, called the "Three Stresses," as evidence that Jiang is not serious about changing the party. Kicked off last year, that campaign stated that all party members should stress politics, righteousness and study. In meetings last year, party members began to accuse leaders of corruption and to complain about graft at the top. Jiang put a stop to that with the announcement that stressing politics--in other words, loyalty--should come first.