China's Reforms Stall Again

As the 82 nd anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party approached last July, the Party's new General Secretary, Hu Jintao, seemed on the verge of announcing a whole new range of reforms. In a ceremony celebrating the promulgation of the current 1982 constitution, Hu reportedly expressed interest in strengthening constitutional protections against official intrusions in people's lives and in promoting extensive legal reform. Indeed, he was even rumored to be considering more inner-Party democratization, greater press freedom, strengthening non-Communist political parties, and permitting exiled dissidents to return home.

Such optimistic views were re-enforced when Chinese intellectuals--even some official scholars--began writing and speaking out in favor of re-evaluating controversial Party verdicts on historical incidents (such as the Tiananmen Square massacre). Similarly, there was an increase in public advocacy on behalf of rural workers (who have been migrating by the tens of millions into China's cities), as well as calls for significant constitutional changes.

For example, legal scholar Cao Siyuan began writing on, lobbying for, and organizing conferences about constitutional reform. The fact that Cao was detained after the 1989 Beijing Massacre, expelled from the Party, spent time abroad lecturing, and now runs a research consulting firm, seemed no impediment. Mr Cao was careful to stay within the bounds of moderate reformism, yet he openly called for reform within five areas of governance: the constitution, separation of powers, elections, political parties, and the culture of politics.

For their part, Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao were even reported to have authorized a top-level body, "The Leading Group On Revising the Constitution," to draft "sweeping changes" that would be considered in March 2004 when the next plenary session of the National People's Congress met. The proposed changes were reported to include an amendment that would guarantee the same rights to property for private entrepreneurs as for state-owned enterprises, the constitutional right of Party members to choose their leaders, and even some steps toward a multi-party political system.