'All We Can Do Is Change Course'

By Bao Tong
2013-11-25
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Workers sew in a clothing factory in Bozhou, in east China's Anhui province, Nov. 16, 2013.
Workers sew in a clothing factory in Bozhou, in east China's Anhui province, Nov. 16, 2013.
AFP

I have no doubt that the all-out implementation of the market reforms announced in the decision document of the Third Plenum can help the Chinese economy out of its trouble and difficulties.

It's hard for us to continue down this path of being mostly dependent on foreign markets, and relying on the government's monopoly on investment to drive the economy will do more harm than good.

Our destruction of the natural resources we inherited from our ancestors has mortgaged the environmental future of our descendants, and is [also] a total dead end.

We can't go any further down any of these three roads now. All we can do is change course.

Don't listen to any of that rubbish about the evils of capitalism; it's perfectly possible to live on a growth rate of two percent. It's only "socialism with Chinese characteristics" that is done for if the growth rate drops below seven percent.

This is the secret of a system that eschews "universal values" on the one hand, while turning to the free market as a cure-all on the other.

A market that is mostly characterized by freedom isn't necessarily the best sort of market. But compared to an economy controlled by a unified leadership, it is alive, creative, and has endless capacity for regeneration.

Free market aim

It is right that economic reforms should take the free market as their aim. And this direction isn't anything new. Twenty-five years ago, China Academy of Social Sciences deputy director ... Ma Hong asked [then] general secretary Zhao Ziyang: "What is the difference between a commodity economy and a market economy?" To which the general secretary replied: "There is no difference. If the market economy works, then we'll use it. We only used the term 'commodity economy' because some people don't like the phrase 'market economy.'"

Jiang Zemin wasn't in central government at that time, so perhaps he doesn't know this. Back then, those on the [Politburo] standing committee, including Li Peng and Yao Yilin, will probably remember that they expressed no opposition [to this].

A lot of people have passed on since then, but it went through all the relevant departments at the time, and I'm sure many famous economists and economic actors have heard it, directly or indirectly.

The only problem was that [then supreme leader] Deng Xiaoping had two basic lines. One was reform and opening up, which included the development of a market economy, and the other was the four cardinal principles.

Zhao Ziyang worked this out when he was researching Deng, and these two points weren't Zhao's own, but Deng's. But Zhao had to implement them, and while he was doing that, he tended to do everything he could to make the reform and opening up a reality, and to allow the four cardinal principles to mean very little in practice.

In the end, however, the four cardinal principles triumphed over reform and opening up, and of course they triumphed over the market.

[These two ideas] can't exist in the same world. That is the most serious lesson we have learned from the past three decades.

If we ignore that lesson, then we may as well have lived through the past 30 years in China with our eyes and ears shut.

'Deepening reform'

Reading through the decision document of the Third Plenum, I found myself puzzled by its title.

Its correct name should be "comprehensively strengthen rights protection," not "comprehensively deepen reform."

In the domain of the market, there is indeed some content that refers to deepening reform, but in the broader areas of social governance like politics, the military, anti-corruption, ideology, culture and the Internet, the document stays very close to the principles of strengthening single-party rule and concentrating power [in the hands of the elite].

In the hands of the newly established "State Security Council," this principle will probably serve to propagate a fighting spirit among those who lead us, with a devastating effect on the initiative and creativity of a billion [Chinese] people.

How can unity be compatible with the market? Human civilization has been unable to solve this problem since the 17th century, and many a hero has come to grief trying.

It has taken generation upon generation of ordinary people to find a more harmonious solution by mixing diversity with market economics, [rather than unity].

We can't be entirely sure that the natural enemy of market reform isn't actually lurking inside the Third Plenum's decision.

They want to boost GDP, but at the same time they tighten the screws of authoritarian repression. Can they really get the balance right, so that they achieve their aim of total stability?

I don't know, so I won't comment.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

Bao Tong, political aide to the late ousted premier Zhao Ziyang, is currently under house arrest at his home in Beijing.

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