With the recent tightening of controls in China, this might seem like an odd time to discuss political reform in the country. Given that I don’t expect any political reform in the short run, though, this doesn’t really change much, and this first post about the subject (“why and what”) will only discuss the options on the table. In an upcoming post (“when and what”) I will elaborate on why I believe reform will happen, and when.
Political reform is a thorny issue because it invariably involves the role of China’s Communist Party, the organization that has ruled the country for 60 years. While reform does not necessarily mean a multi-party system, it will in one way or another devolve the authority of the current ruling class, and is therefore prone to meet resistance. At the same time, reform has been acknowledged as necessary by many officials for economic reasons. There are a lot of internal discussions as to whether a more highly developed economy can be accommodated within the present framework. This conflict between vested interests and requirement for economic development in the future fuels an ongoing struggle within the CCP.
Since political reform involves changing the role of the CCP, the most common option is a multi-party system. This idea is popular in Western countries and has some limited support among local intellectuals. Many arguments have been put forth in favor of such a system – it reduces corruption and produces a better economy. But first and foremost, it is held up as the most moral system. Any other system, that restricts potential contenders to the current government, is bad.
For a number of reasons, the idea that democracies generally produce better economy has come under fire, mostly because of China’s strong performance during the economic crisis, but also by comparisons with democratic countries that are poorer (like India). Many have even proposed the idea that democracy is bad for developing countries like China. That would make democracy mostly a moral argument, and some indeed frame it that way. However, most ideas of reform are gradual rather than suggesting a sudden change to a multi-party system.
One of these ideas is that of constitutionalism, where the party is being put under a framework it has to follow. It will still keep its leadership role and continue to rule the country, but the National People’s Congress (NPC), currently mostly a rubber-stamp parliament, will put a check on its power. This idea has been put forward by a group of party officials in the book “Storming the fortress,” a blueprint for political reform written in 2006 . This book also proposes a larger role for NGO:s and creating more structures for consultation with such groups (see further down). Strangely absent from the proposal is any serious reform of the legal system.
Another potential reform is that of increased intra-party competition for leadership positions. This idea has been proposed, among others, by political scholars Zheng Yongnian  and Cheng Li . While there are no clear descriptions exactly on how this would work, it takes the evolution of other political parties as an example. Zheng Yongnian points out that the ruling party in Singapore, PAP, has vibrant internal debates despite their authoritarian grip on the country . A prerequisite for such a change would be more transparency, something that has never been a strength of the CCP.
The third type of proposal is some form of consultative system. A well-known proponent in this area is sociologist Sun Liping . Apart from liberalizing the control on NGO:s, which currently have to register in very bureaucratic processes, and often face many restrictions (*), it would also include opening up more channels for people to communicate directly with the government. This change would require both more transparency and less controls on the news media.
Some people, like Lang Xianping , have proposed the idea of rule of law within a system dominated by the CCP. They argue that the problem is not authoritarianism as much as the failure to build good legal institutions, and point to Hong Kong and Singapore as working examples. In order for this kind of reform to work, the party will have to accept independent watchdog organizations as well as a legal system that it outside the frameworks of the party. It is questionable whether such a change is possible in a one-party state. Hong Kong and Singapore, while not democracies in the strict sense, are not constitutional one-party systems either. In the Chinese constitution the role of the CCP is enshrined and its system works very very differently from those of Hong Kong or Singapore, despite some superficial similarities.
Most reform proposals of gradual development include several of the above proposals in varying degrees. It should be noted, however, that there is also a group that does not want any reform, despite paying lip service to the concept. Nobody publicly claims to be against it, but anyone who opposes “universal values” or “blindly copying the Western model” tends to be within this group.
Ideas are one thing, and practice another. Does this mean that there will indeed be reform in China, or will the CCP “muddle along” permanently without changing its role? If there is a change in the political system, when and why will it happen? That is the subject of a coming post.
 Zhou Yongtian et. al. 2007. Gongjian – Zhongguo zhengzhi tizhi gaige yanjiu baogao, Xinjiang Shengchan Jianshe Bingtuan Chubanshe
. Zheng Yongnian is currently professor and director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore. He has written extensively on the development of the Chinese political system.
 Cheng Li is director of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and director of research at the John L. Thornton China Center.
 Zheng Yongnian. 2010. Zhongguo moshi – jingyan yu kunju, Zhejiang Renmin Chubanshe, pp. 222-238
 Sun Liping is professor of sociology at Qinghua University.
 Lang Xianping is chair professor of finance at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.