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China’s Chartists

The trial of a prominent dissident highlights this decade’s decisions for Beijing....

Written by Nimmi Kurian |
January 2, 2010 1:31:14 am

The Liu Xiaobo case,much to China’s consternation,is not likely to find closure anytime soon. On Christmas day,a court in Beijing sentenced the leading dissident and human rights activist to 11 years in prison on charges of “inciting subversion of state power”. Liu was accused of “serious crimes”,gravest of which was to co-author Charter 08,a document seeking political liberalisation. The document is an indictment of the Chinese government for having “stripped people of their rights,destroyed their dignity,and corrupted normal human intercourse.” But while China may have wrapped up the legal case,it may have unwittingly reopened a critical political debate.

For a Party not used to being talked back to,the Charter asked several uncomfortable questions: “where is China headed in the twenty-first century?”,“will it continue with modernisation under authoritarian rule?”,will it “end the practice of viewing words as crimes?” And with the Charter’s call for an end to one-party rule,one can see why this was going to be an inevitable conversation stopper. Such an existential challenge was bound to be a red rag to the “perennial ruling party” as the Chinese Communist Party likes to be known. Political comfort levels are at a low,given that China is preparing for a critical transition of power whose outcome will decide the next line-up of leaders in 2012. That the leadership does not relish being questioned is obvious. But what is less than obvious is whether it has answers to some of these questions.

There are three critical reasons why China’s leadership should try and find those answers. The manner in which the leadership responds to these will have long-term implications for its political legitimacy and even survival. To begin with,China runs the danger of political stasis if it risks any further erosion in the normative basis of its power. The weakening of its once-formidable ideological bulwark,combined with the lack of charismatic leadership has opened up fissures in society like never before. What should worry the leadership is its increasing reliance on coercion that is becoming evident with a tightening of controls on dissent in recent months. A nervous state has begun an aggressive hot-pursuit of harmony with a series of crackdowns on “troublemakers” for “subverting state power”. “Stability preservation officers” are being appointed to act as the eyes and ears of the government and suppress “elements that endanger stability.” If it chooses to equate control with caution,it risks throwing away innovative experiments in the ordering of social space and the state-citizen interface. This will also produce contradictions so complex that could eventually undermine the very stability that the system craves for.

Secondly,it will also have to watch out for any cracks in the political consensus on key policy issues. The overriding emphasis on elite consensus at all costs was a lesson learnt at considerable political cost during Tiananmen and is not likely to be forgotten in a hurry. This will also mean

zero-tolerance levels for any deviations from a formulaic political design. Thus,the idea of political reform as Deng said,“absolutely must not be influenced by Western parliamentarian political ideas. Let there not be even a trace of it!” Hence any calls for a multiparty system,tripartite separation of powers or a parliamentary system of government were,by association,politically incorrect. It remains to be seen whether the party will be able to maintain its almost obsessive desire to present a unified face on some of these questions.

Ultimately,the leadership will also need to figure out how to make the political system responsive,transparent and accountable to the voices,needs and concerns of its people.

Much of this will essentially turn on whether the Party is willing to be a force for change and address tensions within state-society relations. This will probably be the biggest legitimacy challenge that confronts the leadership today.

It will also mean speaking to the loss of public trust and alienation over all manner of governance deficits be it corruption,lack of public scrutiny of government,fundamental freedoms,rule of law or media freedoms. Bridging this psychological barrier in the psyche of the citizen will not be easy.

Liu Xiaobo could be a metaphor for the way this conversation shapes up.

The writer is an associate professor,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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