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June 18, 2004 - "China's Domestic Political Situation" with Dr. Paul Heer: Lecture IV of the Policymakers Seminar Series

On 18 June, Dr. Paul Heer, Senior China Analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency, spoke to the 2004 Policymakers Seminar participants about recent trends in Chinese domestic politics. Dr. Heer first briefly outlined the institutional structure of Chinese politics and then discussed the Chinese government’s efforts to rebuild popular support in the wake of the Cultural Revolution and the 1989 Democracy Movement suppression. He emphasized that the Communist Party’s effort to strengthen and preserve its legitimacy has become the dominating political theme because it is essential for regime survival. Whereas the 1978 reforms served to re-legitimize the Party after the chaos it caused during the Cultural Revolution, the 1989 crackdown eroded much of Deng’s progress. Most of the Party’s efforts from 1990 to the present have been aimed at again reclaiming its lost legitimacy.

Beginning with a brief outline of China’s institutional structure, Dr. Heer explained the Chinese government as a function of three overlapping institutions: Party, state and military. The Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) is composed of a core group of the nine most powerful leaders elected by the Politburo Central Committee and is the most powerful leadership organ. In theory however, all political power in China derives from the democratically elected National people’s Congress (NPC). While this leading organ of state was largely a rubber-stamp for Party policies from 1949-1978, in the wake of Deng’s reforms the NPC has acquired a limited amount of policy-making authority and now serves a complimentary role to the Politburo Central Committee.

The military is historically the most vital part of the Chinese government. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) led the Party to victory in the Chinese civil war and established the People’s Republic of China. The PLA preserved the Party during the Cultural Revolution, and later removed the radical Gang of Four and supported Deng Xiaoping’s return to power. Dr. Heer emphasized that while the military is certainly an important player in the Chinese policy-making process, the United States should not exaggerate its importance. He argued that the army is firmly under the control of the Party. He argued that Beijing often directs the army to take a stronger stand on foreign policy issues in order to increase China’s bargaining power.

Dr. Heer next addressed the Party’s ongoing efforts to de-personalize Chinese politics. He stated that while Deng’s reforms sought to increase the role of institutions and procedure in Party decision making, the recent incomplete transfer of power from the third to the fourth generation of leaders reveals the difficulty of institutionalizing procedures at the highest levels of the bureaucracy. China’s new leaders Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao are currently pressuring for former president Jiang Zemin to give up his last remaining official position as Chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission (CMC) according to the precedent established by Deng Xiaoping himself. According to Dr. Heer, Jiang is a major obstacle to China’s successful institutionalization.

In closing, Heer noted that economic reform has been the core issue since 1978. To retain its credibility the Party must respond to a growing number of popular demands, yet responding to these demands leads to even greater pressure for political and cultural reform. Since taking power in late 2002, Hu and Wen have advocated more populist policies based on openness and transparency. Many people in the bureaucracy however, including semi-retired former President Jiang Zemin believe that the Party must never admit its fallibility. Whatever the outcome of this inner-party disagreement, Dr. Heer pointed out that even the reformers are CCP members. They want a rejuvenated Party leading a powerful and internationally-respected China. They are not democrats and do not support any political reform that would endanger the one-party status quo.

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