BY WILLA FREJ:
This is a momentous time for China, as it marks the much anticipated, once in a decade leadership transition. In a matter of days, China is poised to install Xi Jinping as its new president.
In anticipation, Chinese scholars, journalists and activists have submitted an open letter to the new leadership slate. For the second time in three months, they are urging for political reforms. Specifically, these include the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), calling for basic civil and political rights. Signatories include, among others, economist Mao Yushi, legal scholar He Weifang, and political activist Dai Qing.
A preliminary letter released last year demanded an independent judiciary, warning that a failure to address certain democratic elements would be a harbinger for the “turbulence and chaos of violent revolution.” This threat may be an accurate one considering the growing numbers of protests around the country.
The tone of the most recent letter is more conciliatory. It acknowledges the challenges faced by the CCP in implementing sweeping reforms, thereby justifying its request for the ratification of the ICCPR as feasible and within bounds.
Interestingly, mention of the letter has disappeared from many Chinese websites. This may be reflective of the reality that radical change may not yet be on the horizon. Proper implementation of what Chinese intellectuals demand in their open letters would translate into major initiatives that run the risk of undermining the strength of the CCP as is. Relinquishing control on the internet, allowing for peaceful demonstrations, an independent judiciary, and non-party sponsored candidates introduced into legislative elections are but a few examples of what the people demand but what the leadership will likely deign to provide.
Since Xi Jinping became party secretary in November, he has paradoxically proclaimed a willingness to combat corruption while also dignifying the monopoly of the party. This falls coincidentally in line with efforts from within the party to display a more conciliatory and open-minded view for the future. Mr. Xi began his tenure with a visit to Shenzhen in December followed by a Xinhua profile of him as a family man.
There is still a sliver of hope. For the first time, the signatories of the two open letters have publicly included their names. This represents a courageous display of faith in the party, especially in light of past outcomes for similar activities; in 2008, at least 300 Chinese individuals were jailed for having submitted open letters to the government. Furthermore, many of the signatories are much closer to the party mainstream than has been the case in the past, which may signal a newfound mode of connection between government and populace.
How the party leadership plans to utilize this precious resource remains to be seen. All we know that is that according to Mr. Xi, “stability is the prerequisite for reform.”
Willa Frej ’13 is in Pierson College. She writes about China’s foreign policy as she works on her senior essay discussing the topic. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.