Premier Wen: the need for democracy and freedom is “irresistible”

Premier Wen Jiabao at the 2009 World Economic Forum. Image from the World Economic Forum's Flickr photostream. Used under a Creative Commons license.

In a recent CNN interview, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao pledged that China will carry out political reform alongside economic growth. Speaking to Fareed Zakaria, the premier said,

I believe I and all the Chinese people have such conviction that China will make continuous progress and the people’s wishes and need for democracy and freedom are irresistible. I hope you will be able to gradually see the continuous progress of China.

(…)

I believe freedom of speech is indispensable for any country, a country in the course of development and in a country that has become strong.

He added that, in order for China to have a “normal order”, reforms must be “conducted within the range allowed by the constitution and the laws.”

In his first interview with a foreign journalist in two years, the remarks are Wen’s third mention of the need for such change in recent weeks. Earlier this month, the premier called for a loosening of the “excessive political control” of the CPC, and last week told the UN General Assembly that the People’s Republic would “push forward” political restructuring.

There has been increasing pressure for political change in China in recent years, much of which has been amplified by the new media revolution giving ordinary citizens a vehicle to express their views. Episodes of dissent have received much Western attention, such as the case of pro-democracy Charter 08 co-author Liu Xiaobo, who was imprisoned for 11 years last Christmas for “incitement to subvert state power.”

However, analysts have reminded us we should treat Wen’s remarks with caution, not as evidence that political reform is rising higher on the Communist Party’s agenda. Speaking to the Guardian, Columbia University professor Andrew Nation said,

It’s impossible to know exactly what Wen means by ‘political reform’ and ‘universal values’ … he probably envisions a great deal less reform and a great deal less human rights than we would think such words imply.

There is also skepticism over whether Wen, who will step down in 2012, has the time or political prowess to instigate such widespread reform. Activist and scholar Chen Yongmiao also told the Guardian,

It is pie in the sky. He only has two years left in office; even if he really sincerely wants it to happen, he cannot make it. For political reform to take place we need a really powerful leader to face the bureaucracy that’s constituted by so many people, to challenge it and to defeat it. Only Mao or Deng has had that kind of power.

Political reform, both at government and grassroots levels, have long been resisted by the CPC for fear of conceding its monopoly on power, and therefore its legitimacy as an authority. Wen has, however, made far greater mention of the need for political reform than President Hu Jintao. Hu instead prefers to err on the side of orthodoxy, emphasising the need for a ‘harmonious society’, often at the expense of addressing the root of China’s pressing social issues.

The social underbelly of China’s school killings

Image from China News Service

This spring has witnessed a series of horrific attacks on Chinese schoolchildren that have killed 15 and injured around 60 others. The discussion over the patterns and motives of the killings has been rampant, with Stan Abrams helpfully summarising much of the conversation here and here. One theme is undeniable: that the attacks are underscored by the growing severity of China’s complex social problems. Fundamentally, they typify the dark side of the China’s glittering economic growth: that it has not come with deeper social and political reforms that must be delivered in order to sustainably manage the country’s growing contentions.

The events appear to have been copycat incidents, with middle-aged men attacking defenceless children. The most recent occurred in Linchang, Shaanxi Province, on Wednesday, when Wu Huanming, a well-liked 48-year-old local man, slaughtered seven kindergarten pupils and two adults. It has since been found that a property dispute between Wu and the school’s administrator, Wu Hongying, triggered his deadly actions.

On the surface, the row was perhaps a trivial one: Wu Huanming had rented a house next to the kindergarten and wanted it to be vacated when the lease expired in April, while Wu Hongying wanted to stay until the summer. Yet, the details of the other attacks – a jobless man allegedly angry over a series of personal and professional setbacks who then slaughtered 29 children and three adults at a Taixing kindergarten, and a 33-year-old teacher on sick leave due to ‘mental problems’ who injured 15 students at a Guangdong primary school – point to a darker, more serious root of social frustrations leading to vindictive actions.

In spite of Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms that have lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty in the past thirty years and created a socially mobile, urbanised middle class, a sizeable pool of disenfranchised citizens has been deepening. Measures such as the hukou (household registration) system continue to limit China’s 200 million migrant workers’ access to basic services in cities, and the urban-rural divide is ever increasing, exacerbated by poor medical service provisions in rural areas and China’s widest wealth gap for thirty years.

The debate has also rippled to a wider discussion on mental health issues in China. Talking to AP, Renmin University’s Zhou Xiaozheng said,

The perpetrators have contracted a ‘social psychological infectious disease’ that shows itself in a desire to take revenge on society. (…) They pick children as targets because they are the weakest and most vulnerable.

The provision of adequate mental health care has long been neglected in the PRC. According to the National Centre for Mental Health, China has around 100 million mental health sufferers, with only 5% actively seeking treatment. When treatment is sought, it is largely insufficient: there are allegedly 11 hospital beds and fewer than two psychiatrists for every 100,000 people in the PRC (the world average currently sits at 43 beds and four doctors). Fundamentally, mental health remains a social stigma, with economic growth having overshadowed any psychological changes that may have come with it, as the Sydney Morning Herald reported on Friday.

This sombre melange of inequality and inadequate care has created a fertile ground for social contentions to grow. As ChinaBizGov’s Greg Anderson argues, the killings are symptomatic of the disappointment and powerlessness borne by China’s lower classes. Evan Osnos has termed this the ‘marginalisation’ suffered by those disorientated in China’s rapidly changing society.

At a policy level, such fatal contentions are beginning to chip away at the Hu-Wen trajectory of social harmony, raising questions over how such social inequalities can be tackled and what the future will hold for China’s mental health care. The government can no longer avoid dealing with such home truths. As Chatham House Senior Fellow Kerry Brown told me,

China’s more unstable than people think. Economic growth has been the great unifier, and the CCP has the objective of creating a strong, powerful country. This will continue to work in short to medium term, but beyond that, you’re hitting issues of stability, sustainability, equality and social justice. These could become killers in their own right.

It does seem as if this realisation for a more sustainable approach is taking hold. In the first public acknowledgment that Beijing is looking to the root of the problem and not merely increasing school security, Premier Wen Jiabao expressed his anguish over the attacks. He told Hong Kong’s Phoenix network,

As well as adopting vigorous safety measures, we also have to pay attention to addressing some deep-seated causes behind these problems, including dealing with some social conflicts and resolving disputes.

If there ever were a chain of events pushing a changing China closer to the crossroads of the need for deeper social reforms, it has most certainly occurred. It is only too poignant that innocent and vulnerable lives were lost in order to make the CCP realise that society is not, and cannot be, harmonious.