A series of changes in policy, and in political language, since the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) has done little to alter the basic nature of China's political system, according to Bao Tong, in the fifth part of an essay series marking the 30th anniversary of economic reforms:
Part 5. Is China Out of the Dead End?
Prosperity should be celebrated. It is better to have a few people get rich before everybody else than for everyone to stay dirt poor. It is better for our economy to approach the world ranking that it had during the time of the Northern Warlords than it is for it to lag behind even that benchmark. This is common sense. But it is also normal for people to be worried that per capita GDP is falling; to be aggrieved that our labor is sold so cheaply; and to be full of resentment that officials seem to be getting more and more corrupt.
Some people are using the anniversary of reforms as an excuse to sing songs of praise for their feudal rulers, and for the four principles. Obviously, they have a need and a desire to do this. But reforms have been cut down in their tracks, as the events of Tiananmen Square bear witness. In a political climate that clings so firmly to the four principles, can China truly be said to have got out of its dead end?
What is socialism?
In today's China, many new things are emerging: We have the market, and yet it is plain to see that is controlled by those in power. Economic resources and interests are being divided up according to Party strategy and Party direction. Political power and wealth rise in direct proportion to each other. The pyramids are being built from the flesh and blood of powerless peasants and migrant workers. Those who get rich are able to consume tens of thousands of times more than China's rural families. This rising China is showing off its wealth and happiness to the whole world.
This is an almighty juggernaut of a system that has remained fundamentally unchanged for decades."
Some people are saying that socialism no longer exists in China. Others counter this by saying that the fact that most people see only the pyramids, and not the dark vaults beneath them, is testament to the power of socialism with Chinese characteristics. So what is this socialism anyway? It means that power resides with the Communist Party. I am not qualified to engage in, neither am I interested in, word-games. The problem I have always had with all of this is, and remains: Can socialism with Chinese characteristics get us out of this dead-end street?
Cultural Revolution not dead yet
The Cultural Revolution was supposed to be a thing of the past, but the  Tiananmen crackdown was just a new version of it.
"There is no prosperity without suppression," rang the new song of praise to the skies [in a parody of "There is no new China without the Communist Party."]
And its singing ensures that we will see endless repeats of the so-called "Lesser Tiananmen Square incident." The tools of dictatorship being used to stamp out the legitimate desires of a peaceful population. Violent authoritarianism has become a blatant part of the daily life of our harmonious society, a typical sight on our Chinese landscape.
Old slogans such as "The guiding principles of grain and steel" are long dead now, and shiny new ones such as "the hard reasoning behind development" spring to people's lips. Even more fashionable is: "Representing the most advanced productivity." The new slogans are just like the old: They rely on the sheer brute force of the State to push their agenda forward.
How can agricultural land, homes, and village enterprises, hope to be more "advanced" than power stations, airports, and theme parks?
Natural principles such as human rights have no chance in the face of "the hard reasoning behind development."
There has been a sudden and universal deterioration in the quality of our environment and in our natural resources. The air and water have been spoiled. Forests, grasslands, and farmland have been laid waste by the mining industry. If someone were to say to me now that in a brief decade we could surpass the work of the past 1,000 years, I'd believe them!
Looking at it dispassionately, we could say that it didn't all go wrong with a saying of Mao Zedong's, or a slogan from [Jiang Zemin's] Three Represents, or because of something Deng said.
These people are citizens too, and they have the right to speak. I'm sure they have uttered countless pearls of wisdom, even if they were carried away by passion at the time. They are no more eccentric or ridiculous than things other people might say.
It's not that hard to alter policy, in fact.
What's terrifying is the momentum that is self-perpetuating within the system itself. It's the lack of checks and balances. Something that starts out as a fairly small error that should be easy to correct, as soon as it is let loose, becomes very hard to put right, and frequently turns into a huge mistake. This is an almighty juggernaut of a system that has remained fundamentally unchanged for decades.The four principles has enshrined Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and [Jiang Zemin's] Three Represents in the Constitution, which surprisingly no one found disturbing at the time.
It was done in a big hurry, and not only did they manage to get them enshrined in law, but they also set them up as an altar at which bureaucrats must worship, and as a religion ordinary citizens are forced to follow.
What civilized country would allow such a thing to happen? This could happen only in China. China, resolutely upholding the four principles, has embalmed its former, unelected leaders, one after another, in law. What is this? This is pathological, the pathology that comes of enforcing a single line of ideology. It is pathological because it's so weak that it has to go begging cap in hand to the State for support.
We shouldn't underestimate this pathology. It is just one part of a whole syndrome of sickness that comes along with the four principles, with their coercive nature, their ability to numb people's minds and bind them hand and foot until they are left unable to cling to their own lives.
Next, if you will permit me, I want to look at the differences between Deng's four principles [also expressed as the "Four Upholds"] and the "Six Criteria" of Mao Zedong.
Original essay in Chinese by Bao Tong, broadcast on RFA's Mandarin service. Director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.