Outgoing Chinese leader Hu Jintao opened the Communist Party’s 18th Congress here Thursday with a wide-ranging speech surveying the achievements of his decade in office, but denying succor to those hoping for democratic reform.
In an address full of platitudes and generalities, Mr. Hu insisted on the Communist Party’s right to rule China. But in unusually blunt language he warned that corruption could destroy it.
The 90-minute speech offered no hint of a change in government direction as Hu hands power to the next generation of Communist Party leaders, after 10 years that have seen remarkable economic growth but no significant political opening.
“There were no surprises,” says Wen Yunchao, a commentator with Sun Political Affairs Weekly in Hong Kong. “We’ve heard 99.5 percent of it before.”
Hu’s address in the cavernous Great Hall of the People to 2,268 congress delegates was a classic piece of traditional Communist Party theater. Standing at a heavy, flower-bedecked lectern in front of a giant hammer and sickle, the stage backdrop hung with red drapes, Hu spoke in his characteristically wooden style, his face unsmiling and his delivery flat. Every now and again, the assembled delegates would break into short bursts of dutiful applause.
The most dramatic moment came when he raised his voice to warn that growing public anger at official corruption “could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state.” He urged “unremitting efforts to combat corruption,” which has poisoned almost every level of official Chinese life.
More of the same?
Critics doubt, however, whether his words will mean much in practice, not least because Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has made similar comments on many occasions, to little effect.
“I have no confidence in his anticorruption comments because he said nothing about institutional reform, nor about opening up the media and allowing freedom of speech” that might help unveil corruption, says Mr. Wen, the commentator based in Hong Kong.
“The elites know that anticorruption drives cannot be enforced unless there is political reform, and since they do not expect that, they know that anticorruption is just a slogan,” adds Yao Bo, writer of one of China’s most popular political blogs.
Though Hu called on the party to “make both active and prudent efforts to carry out reform of the political structure,” the language he used was similar to earlier exhortations that have come to naught, says Qian Gang, director of the China Media Project at Hong Kong University, who closely analyzes the texts of official speeches.
“People who have been expecting political reform in China will be disappointed by this speech,” says Mr. Qian. “There was nothing new, and there seem to be a lot of obstacles to reform” thrown up by powerful conservative factions within the Communist Party.
Hu clearly signaled that the party is not ready for any serious experiments in democracy, declaring that although “we do not follow the old rigid and closed path, nor do we take the evil way of changing flags and banners.”
“We will never copy a Western political system,” he added later.
China's ambitious economic goals
On the economic front, Hu set the ambitious goal of doubling China's per capita income by 2020, and reiterated the government’s intention of reorienting China’s growth policy away from reliance on exports and investment in giant projects, and toward household consumption.
He also repeated official calls for deeper reform of the financial system and of state-owned enterprises – reforms that foreign and domestic economists have been recommending for some time but which have yet to occur. In a hint that the government is prepared to make changes, Hu urged that “we should follow more closely the rules of the market and better play the role of the government.”
Most of the goals he set were vague, such as “continue to release and develop the productive forces,” or “safeguard social fairness and justice.”
Shortcomings of the party
But Hu was more precise when he acknowledged shortcomings in the party’s stewardship, warning that “unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable development remains a big problem.” He also admitted that “social problems have increased markedly” in recent years, pointing to education, health care, housing, food safety, and the administration of justice as flash points, along with “a lack of ethics and integrity in some fields of endeavor.”
He had strong words, too, for party officials who set themselves above the law. In what seemed to be a swipe at Bo Xilai, the former top party official who is now facing trial on charges of corruption, obstruction of justice and possibly involvement in the murder of a British businessman, Hu insisted that “no organization or individual has the privilege of overstepping the Constitution and the law.”
None of this impressed Zhang Lifan, a prominent historian and independent political commentator in Beijing. “There were a lot of empty promises in what he said, but I heard nothing practical or feasible,” Mr. Zhang says.
Nevertheless “we cannot conclude from this report that China will not move forward,” argues Mr. Yao. “This was Hu saying goodbye; a new generation is taking over, and Hu does not control the future.”
“We will have to wait and see how Xi Jinping behaves,” agrees Zhang, referring to the man almost certain to take over from Hu at the head of the Communist Party next week. “But if he acts along the lines of this speech, I think a lot of people will give up their last hopes in the Communist Party as an institution.”