Professor Guoguang Wu of the Chinese University of Hong Kong addressed a Carnegie luncheon to discuss political reform in the People's Republic of China. He began by emphasizing the continued importance of political evolution in China, but noted that while the term "political reform" is used in numerous ways-both within and outside government-there is great confusion over its meaning. Therefore, the best way to understand political reform in China is to survey the various perspectives held by the "ruling elite."
Professor Wu traced the controversy over political reform within the general development of political debate in China, emphasizing that the debate has always existed in a "state of political flux." The rhetorical popularity of political reform today follows three previous "waves" that occurred since 1978. The first wave began on August 18, 1980 when Deng Xiaoping presented a speech that aired internal debates and stressed the need for reform. Unfortunately, Deng's focus shifted to economics as the decade progressed-political reform fell by the wayside. The second wave, or what Dr. Wu described as the "high tide" of reform, began on the eve of the 13th Party Congress in 1986-87. With economic reforms stalling, questions arose as to whether the problems being encountered were rooted in the political system. At this time the leadership undertook the first comprehensive study of political reform, a study in which Dr. Wu played a major role. The third and final wave occurred in the late 1990s and appears to have spread among the Chinese elite. Citing recent data from the Central Party School, Dr. Wu noted that political reform was among the top issues that cadres claimed to pay much attention to, and these numbers had increased since the early 1990s. Furthermore, articles in restricted journals and think tank publications regularly discuss the importance of reform. He stressed that a "hard discussion" on political reform is taking place despite the reluctance of the current leadership.
Dr. Wu then outlined eight perspectives on China's political evolution, beginning with the Efficient Government Perspective. Currently popular among the elite in management, State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs), and non-governmental businesses, it argues that the main problem in China is governmental inefficiency that slows modernization and creates social problems. Proponents argue that efficiency should come first, for administrative issues serve as the juncture between the economic and political systems. This notion of efficiency has been popular since the beginning of reforms. For example, Deng Xiaoping supported decentralization in the 1980s and then supported re-centralization in the 1990s, both in the name of efficiency. As Dr. Wu noted, proponents of this view have no trouble arguing against democracy. They call for a range of measures ranging from privatization to personnel reform, but all reforms are intended to create more effective and "streamlined" government.
The second perspective was the Legalistic Perspective, currently the most popular among the ruling elite. It emphasizes the rule of law and proposes that the Party and nation must function under an "unwavering set of rules." Moreover, the CCP itself must follow the rules set by the constitution. In principle the party accepts this argument. But the problem is how to implement such reform without radical change. Dr. Wu used the notion of an independent judiciary as an example. Before 1989 many intellectuals and officials suggested the need for an independent judiciary. The plan was to slowly loosen the party's control over the legal system but the move was blocked in the late 1980s. Now very few reformers emphasize judiciary independence because the regime "hates the idea."
Dr. Wu also noted that some Chinese have returned to pre-1989 perspectives. One such perspective is the Party-State Relations Restructuring Perspective. In fact, Deng had proposed this technique in 1986 as an avenue for increased efficiency. It holds that the key to reforming China is the political system. In its vision the party is "boss," or perhaps the "owner," and the government administration is the "manager." But the relationships become very complicated. It is often interpreted as "party-administration separation" but this formula must include a third party-"the people"- with the National People's Congress (NPC) serving as "the people." It was the interrelationships between the party, administration, NPC, and the state council that were analyzed in the 1980s during the second wave of reform. The web of relationships makes it difficult to pin down what "Party State Relations" entailed. Ultimately the question is tied to checks and balances and this conflicts with various perspectives that focus on government efficiency.
The next perspective was the Party Reform and Internal Party Democracy Perspective. This perspective views the party as the core of the Chinese political system. However, it argues that power within the CCP is over-concentrated in the standing committee and the party must be responsive and subject to oversight. As Dr. Wu noted, since the 1980s the party has instituted various measures to improve the internal functioning of the party, including competitive elections. Many reformers see the CCP's internal democracy as an example for external democracy and as a way to ease into reforms and soften the resistance of hardliners. In the past few years this perspective has become very popular, in part because calls for external democracy have become weak since June 1989 and the political leadership now "defines a political discourse" that emphasizes internal reform and management.
Dr. Wu then briefly discussed the Parliamentary Building Perspective and the Grass-Roots Democracy Perspective. He noted that the parliamentary perspective has become victim of "department politics," but there are still intellectuals and officials who believe that the NPC is the key to opening up Chinese politics. The grass-roots democracy perspective, in contrast, is based on village elections. The idea is to expand village elections to counties and cities. Dr. Wu closed by noting that these eight perspectives only scratch the surface of the current debate over political reform in China. He did, however, stress one important commonality among them. None of the theories offered a major role for civil society.