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Can China's Communist party stay in the driving seat?

HONG KONG, China -- Now that communism and socialism are virtually dead, how can the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) maintain its relevance and one-party dominance?

The CCP leadership has come up with interesting, if ultimately unconvincing, attempts to answer this question during the past couple of months.


Premier Zhu Rongji deserves credit for a rather frank admission of the obsolescence, if not irrelevance, of socialism as practiced by the party since the 1950s.

Much of his report on the 10th Five Year Plan (2001 to 2005) delivered to the National People's Congress (NPC) last week argued for less and less government meddling.

"The functions of government need to be transformed to reduce administrative oversight and approval," said Zhu, in what is considered a manifesto for the wholesale retreat of the state.

On China's accession to the World Trade Organization, Zhu pledged to "change the methods of government administration and enhance the competitiveness of Chinese enterprises."

How else can this be done save by shrinking Beijing's role?

Equally important, Zhu, President Jiang Zemin and other senior cadres have made it clear that the focus of the party and state -- and the criterion for gauging the CCP's performance -- is none other than upgrading the masses' economic standards.

State media have characterized the five-year plan as a "put-the-people-first blueprint."

In his report, Zhu vowed to "make the improvement of people's living standards the basic starting point."

Or as Jiang indicated at the NPC: "Handling well the issue of the people's livelihood is the fundamental task of the party and government."

While talking to parliamentarians, Politburo members ranging from the conservative Li Peng to the moderate Li Ruihuan have expressed concern for disadvantaged sectors such as jobless workers and overtaxed peasants.

As Li put it in an NPC session: "We should do more concrete, necessary things [for the people] and give less empty and useless speeches."

This non-ideological, economics-first approach is laudatory. But it is probably not enough to prolong the CCP's mandate of heaven for that long.

After all, around the world political parties are making the same promise of filling the masses' rice bowls -- and enabling them to get rich.

The mere ability to satisfy the population's material needs will not justify the pompous claims that Jiang will make for the party when it celebrates its 80th birthday on July 1.

The 10th Five-Year Plan allows companies, particularly those with mixed ownership that are listed on the stock market, to offer employees competitive salaries and stock options.

As a result, more and more Chinese will be getting their paychecks, bonuses and welfare from non-state and even foreign firms.

And after China's WTO accession, a large number of urban residents will also be securing their insurance and pension benefits from multinationals.

More importantly, being a party that is world-famous for its ideological gyrations -- witness the Cultural Revolution -- even the apparatchik-turned-bureaucrats should know that there is more to existence than filling one's stomach.

The rise of the Falun Gong quasi-Buddhist sect, not to mention the growing popularity of Christianity and other religions, has convinced Jiang and company that they need to fill the vacuum in people's minds.

Jiang has come up with various ways to revive the image of the CCP as a vital force that has something to offer in what his publicists call "spiritual civilization."

Firstly, the president has kicked off a quasi-Confucianist movement under the slogan of "running the country according to moral principles," or rule by virtue.

According to the vice chief of the party's publicity department, Liu Peng, the CCP must "build up an ideological and moral system that fits the socialist market economy."

Or as Beijing University philosophy Professor Zhu Liangzhi put it, traditional morality should be revived to tackle what he called the danger of "the loosening of bonds among social groupings."

While Jiang and his aides have not spelled out what the desired virtues should be, a source close to the president's camp said he wanted a resuscitation of values dear to Confucius such as benevolence, respect for elders, and contentment with one's station in life.

"Jiang is impressed by how traditional virtues have been a stabilizing factor in Asian countries influenced by Confucius such as Japan, South Korea, and in particular, Singapore," the source said.

Secondly, Jiang, Zhu and other top aides want to convince party members and the people that the CCP is a forward-looking organization capable of political as well as economic reform.

So far, cadres including Vice President Hu Jintao, alternate or second-tier member of the Politburo Zeng Qinghong, and Vice-Minister at the Office for Restructuring the Economy Pan Yue have released papers or talks on the controversial subject.

While the leadership has not promised political reform in the western sense of the word, it has pledged a kind of "broad-based elitism." This means allowing people from disparate backgrounds to participate in the decision-making process -- or to give advice to the Politburo.

At the very least, party members and cadres should have a bigger say in policymaking and in picking CCP leaders. This was the gist of a talk on "expanding inner-party democracy" recently given by Zeng.

The leadership has begun the experiment of opening up more senior party and government posts for recruitment via public examinations. Premier Zhu has indicated that Beijing will approach Hong Kong and overseas Chinese for top jobs in State Council units.

And after appointing Hong Kong lawyer Laura Cha as a vice-head of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, Zhu said last week he was looking for a Hong Kong professional to fill the position of vice-governor of the People's Bank of China, another vice ministerial-level position.

Both Hu and Pan have given hints the party should borrow elements of European social democratic parties, so that the CCP can base its rule on a broader foundation that includes members of the nascent middle and professional classes.

At last week's NPC session, Hu told parliamentarians the party "should be able to tolerate criticism."

"The CCP should listen to advice [from non-party elements], including advice that it does not like," the Vice President said.

He added Beijing should do its best to "diffuse contradictions among the people and straighten out their [negative] feelings."

But what happens if, in spite of all these pledges, what Hu characterizes as a crisis of confidence facing the party was to continue.

Jiang is relying on the time-tested "tools of the dictatorship of the proletariat" -- meaning the police and soldiers -- to maintain control.

Part of the message behind the whopping 17.7 per cent budget boost recently granted to the People's Liberation Army is aimed at the CCP's domestic enemies. As Zhu put it, the defense forces were "an important guarantee for the security of the state."

Senior generals have the over the past fortnight revived Chairman Mao's precept that the PLA is "an armed group to implement the party's revolutionary, political tasks."

As Defense Minister General Chi Haotian indicated during an NPC meeting, the PLA would do its utmost to smash internal foes such as the Falun Gong so as to "ensure the impregnability of the administration."

However, the readiness with which Jiang and his generals are willing to use strong-armed tactics to impose thought control and snuff out dissent seems to call into question the leadership's real devotion to either Confucianist benevolence or political liberalization.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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