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Fresh approach from Hu-Wen team

By By Willy Wo-Lap Lam
CNN Senior China Analyst

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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- New ideas are urgently needed as President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao begin the second year of their administration.

While the Hu-Wen team has yet to display reformist visions as grand as those of late patriarch Deng Xiaoping, the Fourth Generation supremos have impressed observers with a plethora of xinsiwei, or "fresh approaches to doing things."

This is most obvious in the international arena. The pro-active stance that Hu's foreign policy team has taken in helping resolve the North Korean crisis represents a departure from past practices.

Firstly, Hu has broken with the "never take the lead" diplomatic dictum laid down by Deng.

Secondly, the new leadership has put what Wen recently called "national interests and economic fundamentals" above traditional concerns for solidarity with the Stalinist Kim Jong-Il regime.

There are even signs of xinsiwei in Sino-Japanese relations, one of the most intractable areas in Chinese diplomacy.

A number of liberal diplomats and scholars have argued that while Tokyo is wrong not to make a full apology over wartime atrocities, ties with Japan in fields ranging from trade to security should be based on national interest calculations -- and not be held back by the emotional historical issue.

Former Chinese ambassador to Tokyo Yang Zhenya caused a stir last month when he urged Chinese intellectuals, particularly the hothead patrons of Internet chat rooms, to refrain from "unhealthy nationalistic sentiments."

Particularly in the wake of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine on New Year's Day, however, advocates of xinsiwei toward Japan will have a hard time gaining converts.

Xinsiwei diplomacy has also manifested itself in ties with other traditional enemies such as India, with whose navy the Chinese forces held a joint exercise recently.

Domestically, Hu and Wen have proven adept at prescribing novel solutions to old problems.

Firstly, the Fourth Generation leadership has ceased to pretend that ugly phenomena such as AIDS do not exist.

Last October, the authorities for the first time admitted that there were close to 1 million HIV-AIDS carriers in the country, and that the central government must provide them with affordable medicines.

After absorbing the lessons of SARS and AIDS, as well as social malaise emanating from abject rural poverty, the leadership has come up with the yiren weiben slogan, or "administration for the sake of the people."

This xinsiwei is behind the now-famous theory of "balanced and coordinated development" devised by Hu and Wen: while seeking GDP growth, Beijing must also devote enough resources to social development, particularly boosting the education and health infrastructure of poor regions.

This new thinking is most obvious in the countryside, home to about 70 percent of the populace. While offering to improve irrigation works or to lower taxes, past administrations tended to regard rural residents as second-class citizens.

Yet as People's Daily commentator Xie Weiqun indicated last week, "fresh ways and means are needed to tackle problems on the farm."

'Changing the mind-set'

Xie argued that Beijing's new policy of the "coordinated development of cities and villages" -- including allowing million upon million of peasants to settle in the cities -- would end the decades-old segregation between industry and agriculture and between cities and the countryside.

It is also true, however, that reform-minded cadres such as Hu and Wen have a long way to go in what Deng called "changing the mind-set."

For example, many exploits of Premier Wen smack of the centuries-old practice of a benign despot coming to the rescue of the downtrodden.

Take for instance his now-famous campaign to help migrant laborers get back salaries owed them by unscrupulous employers.

While Wen was doing inspection work in the outskirts of Chongqing last October, Xiong Deming, wife of a migrant worker, told the premier that her husband's boss had held up 2,300 yuan worth of his salary.

Wen ordered that top priority be given to the case -- and Xiong's husband was reimbursed within six hours.

"Certainly Hu and Wen deserve credit for their close-to-the-masses crusade," said a Beijing-based social science professor.

"However, they are in many ways only following the so-called 'virtuous emperor model'."

The Hu-Wen team has refused to heed the argument that only through empowering the people -- and promoting democratic institutions -- can ills such as social injustice be fundamentally cured.

Instead, the leadership has chosen to hide behind dubious defenses such as Wen's recent argument that Chinese lack the requisite suzhi, or "qualifications," for universal-suffrage elections.

Forward-looking cadres and scholars have contended that while it is unrealistic to expect Beijing to introduce Western-style democracy now, small steps such as allowing workers and farmers to form labor unions will work wonders in defusing socio-political contradictions.

And how about xinsiwei concerning the pace of democracy in Hong Kong, whose 7 million people obviously possess the economic and educational suzhi for one person, one vote.

While discussing this issue, however, Hu has stuck to the safe formula that democratization in Hong Kong must adhere to a "realistic and gradualist" path.

Time, however, is not on the side of laggards. As the difficulties pile up, bolder and riskier solutions are needed.

And the costs -- in terms of both social stability and the Communist party's privileges and prerogatives -- will be much less if those Gordian knots are cut sooner rather than later.

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