Is Wen Jiabao really for Chinese 'democracy'?

By Nicholas Consonery

We all know that Beijing is dedicated to managing the flow of sensitive information in China. Whole websites are dedicated to discerning the government's propaganda strategies and to uncovering the specific stories that Beijing is trying to control.

But it isn't often that China's own leaders are censored these days--which is exactly what happened to Premier Wen Jiabao last week.

On Oct. 3, Premier Wen granted an extensive interview to CNN's Fareed Zakaria. During the dialogue (well-worth the half-hour), Wen raised eyebrows by arguing that the Chinese people's "wishes for and needs for democracy and freedom are irresistible." Wen promised that, in pursuing these wishes, "I will not fall in spite of a strong wind and harsh rain, and I will not yield till the last day of my life."

Wen's comments were covered widely in the Western press. But in China, such coverage was stifled in the days following his remarks. On Oct. 7, the Wall Street Journal reported that there had been "an official news blackout" of the interview.

Since then, abbreviated versions of it have been popping up in sanctioned Chinese media. The coverage captures the gist of Wen's comments, especially focusing on his four uncontroversial tenets of political reform: "To let everyone lead a happy life with dignity. To let everyone feel safe and secure. To let the society be one with equity and justice. And to let everyone have confidence in the future."

Contrary to popular perceptions, China's leaders are not outright opposed to political change. Small-scale local elections were initiated in the early 1980s and still happen today, anti-corruption campaigns are unending, and in recent years, party elders have talked publicly and at great length about the importance of intra-party democracy. In other words, more transparent, responsive policymaking and career mobility within the existing Communist party structure are already on the table. In the past year alone, the government has been working to convey a greater responsiveness in handling long-standing grievances like forced housing relocations and is moving toward mandatory public disclosure of the salaries and assets of government officials.

Wen's comments don't look so controversial in this light. So why would the Party's propaganda mechanism instinctively suppress them?

One argument I've heard recently is that Chinese government officials are deft at conveying different messages to domestic and foreign audiences. In other words, maybe Wen was telling us just what we wanted to hear. "If Wen wanted his comments covered," a good friend in the U.S. government argued yesterday, "I think it's safe to say they would have been." This seems plausible. All politicians try to tailor their words to fit their respective audiences. But that does not explain why Wen has already spoken publicly, in China, about continued political reforms several times this year.

Another popular theory is that there is an elite power struggle going on in Beijing, and that Premier Wen is personally working to drive political reform in the face of mighty opposition as he approaches the end of his term in 2012. By this line of thinking, Wen's opponents would have stifled his comments so that the Chinese public wouldn't expect any rapid changes. "Fire's real beauty," as Ray Bradbury wrote in Fahrenheit 451, "is that it destroys responsibility and consequences."

Perhaps. But it seems more plausible that the immediate stifling and subsequent careful management of Wen's comments simply reflect the transitory political environment in China right now. Keep in mind that Beijing is moving toward an unprecedented leadership transition in 2012. Seven of the top nine members of the Chinese Communist Party will be replaced along with hundreds of lower level Party and government officials.

We assume that the top leadership beyond 2012 has been generally agreed on (with some exceptions). But there's no question that most officials have strong incentives to avoid controversy in the lead-up to this transition. Any black mark could undermine their chances to get top spots in the next administration, and any perceived weakness could be exploited by rival factions for their own gain. Meanwhile, it will be getting gradually more difficult for the current leadership to mobilize support as different groups in the Party, government, and military coalesce behind their preferred candidates for the top spots in 2012.

In this tenuous environment, it's no wonder that Beijing's innate response to any talk of difficult political reform is to freeze up. Many in the Chinese government, perhaps including Premier Wen himself, likely do support the idea of political reform in spirit. But many others do not. And the Chinese policy environment does not seem conducive to much compromise between these groups right now. I wouldn't expect much boldness on political reform until we're well past this transitory period.

Nicholas Consonery is a China analyst at Eurasia Group.

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