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.

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