Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:26 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:26 | SYDNEY

China: Is party giving way to government?

5 October 2010 17:24

Geoff Miller is a former Director-General of the Office of National Assessments.

The SMH reports striking remarks by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in an interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria on 3 October (video above). He is reported as saying:

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.

These remarks follow references to political reform and restructuring in speeches he made in Shenzhen and to the UN General Assembly last month.

At one level, these references to political reform, democracy and freedom remind us that Wen was one of those accompanying Zhao Ziyang when the former Premier spoke to the students in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the stand that cost Zhao his position and liberty.

At another level, they raise a question highlighted for us when Richard McGregor spoke to the Lowy Institute recently about his book, 'The Party' (ie. the Chinese Communist Party). In his book and in person, McGregor described the way the party operates, in the shadows but always to be reckoned with, ghostly tentacles everywhere, as much a secret society as a secret government. His conclusion was that the party is so strong, established and numerous, a useful means of advancement for bright young men and women which it will retain power into the indefinite future.

But might China's dynamic changes – in education, wealth, status and international awareness and engagement, to name just a few – be challenging this apparently eminently realistic view' Premier Wen seems to be doing so, and in the process, questioning whether China can construct a system that meets its national aspirations without loosening 'excessive political control', wording he used in Shenzhen.

In his position as Premier, Wen is a very senior part of the 'overt government' of China, though he is of course a very senior member of the Communist Party. What he seems to be saying is that, if China is to meet its goal of modernisation, the overt structures of government must become the real structures, not subject to over-rule by a self-selected and self-perpetuating elite that operates in the shadows out of reach of criticism. If this interpretation is correct, he is saying something very radical indeed.