Calibrated political reforms in China

The Chinese chew as much as they can digest. If the robust health of an average Chinese is reflective of their gastronomical precision, the surfeit of calm and harmony of their polity and economy is suggestive of meticulous micro management of their polity and the economy.

It is against this backdrop that the recent exhortation of Chinese premier Wen Jiaobao for people’s democratic rights and political restructuring should be perceived. His call for political reforms should be viewed in the context of recent spate of suicides by factory workers, strikes and protests in some parts of China.

In January a 19-year-old worker of Foxconn, a Taiwanese based electronic major, committed suicide by jumping from his high-rise apartment in Shenzhen. It was a bizarre case of harsh and hard life of a factory worker, which is in a different context reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ portrayal in some of his classical works during the Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom.

A spate of suicides

Since this incident, there have been 12 other suicides or attempts. Journalist David Barboza alluding to the reasons behind such depressing cases recently wrote that “sociologists and academics see the deaths as an extreme signal of a more pervasive trend: a generation of workers rejecting the regimented hardships their predecessors endured as the cheap labour army behind China’s miracle.”

Besides these cases of suicides exposing the seamier sides of glitter of China’s sustained double-digit growth story, there had been workers’ strikes and protests in various places in recent times. In second week of June, workers at a Honda factory in Zhongshan staged a strike demanding the right to form their own labour union.

Such protests and strikes though can not be generalised, are symptomatic of the deeper malaise that afflict China’s factory model of growth and development which prompted the Chinese President Hu Jintao to call for ‘transforming the growth pattern.’

These undercurrents eloquently speaks that there is greater degree of aspirations and yearnings among the Chinese people to have their voices heard. China’s trial and tribulations with democracy is nothing new. In the post-communist period, the pro-democracy movement of 1989 is still fresh in the memory of people both in China and outside.

Deng Xiaoping introduced economic reforms and liberalisation in 1978, which has enabled China to emerge as world’s second largest economy. The challenge before China is two-fold. Domestically, Beijing needs to address the Chinese people, particularly the younger generation who grew up in the post communist period and are exposed to information communication technology, and western ideas and influences; and secondly to the outside world, particularly at a time when India has endeared itself to the West for its democracy, howsoever imperfect it may be.

One more plausible reason behind the miniscule initiative for political reforms is the Hong Kong and Taiwan factors. The former British colony reverted back to Chinese sovereignty in July 1997 under the ‘one country, two systems’ which provides for the continuance of the political and economic systems inherited from the British for 50 years and to adhere to a roadmap for democracy prescribed by Hong Kong’s last governor Chris Patten.
China of course does not support Patten’s proposal in toto. At the same time, China does not want to disturb the apple cart. The success of Hong Kong’s  ‘one country, two systems’ is of great political significance to China to cajole Taiwan with which China recently signed the historic trade pact facilitating greater degree of economic integration between the two sides.

No wonder in recent years, China has passed certain very significant laws including the one providing for right to property. The composition of Chinese Communist Party and the National People’s Congress have also been changed to include rich entrepreneurs and business tycoons.

Political reforms in China, if there will be anything of the sort, will be under the gaze of the Communist party. The communist regime will, however, humanise further. The most resounding example being the recent move to do away with death penalty which has sparked off a debate in China.

Globalisation and technological revolution in ICT in particular will cast a sobering effect on the state and the Communist Party. There may be democracy in China but it will not be in line with the western liberal tradition of electoral politics of multiparty democracy; it will somewhat remotely approximate the Singapore variant of democracy.

(The writer is a senior fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi)

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