China party accused of ideological drift

Times Staff Writer

A rare open letter signed by 17 former top officials and conservative Marxist scholars ahead of a key party meeting accuses China’s top leaders of steering the country in the wrong direction, pandering to foreigners, betraying the workers’ revolution and jeopardizing social stability.

“We’re going down an evil road,” says the letter on the website “The whole country is at a most precarious time.”

The challenge is unusual because of the importance of its signatories and its timing before this fall’s party congress, an event held every five years and a key date on the political calendar.


Most public dissent in China generally comes from the beleaguered ranks of human rights activists and minority religious groups seeking to reduce the Communist Party’s power. By contrast, those who affixed their names to this document included former government ministers, a former ambassador to Russia, ex-army officers and academics from elite universities and think tanks. And their emphasis was on restoring party control of an economy that has moved rapidly toward capitalist practices in recent years.

The letter provides an unusual public view of ideological differences within the party, which generally tries to present a unified front.

“This is probably the first time so many high-ranking people have spoken out like this,” said He Husheng, a professor of party history at People’s University. “The Central Committee is surely not happy at their behavior.”

The policies advocated by those signing the letter include reversing a law passed this year that allows private ownership of property, abandoning rules that allow entrepreneurs to join the Communist Party, imposing sharp restrictions on foreign investment, putting an end to privatization of state assets and placing a renewed emphasis on Marxist campaigns and education.

The party’s focus on economic liberalization has led to a dangerous mix of widespread corruption, unemployment, a growing wealth gap and potential social unrest, the letter’s authors argue.

If China continues down this path, the letter says, the country will soon “have its own Boris Yeltsin” and “the demise of the party and country would loom.”

The signatories can expect a call from propaganda officials “strongly suggesting” they delete their letter, said He, the party history professor. If they don’t agree, it will be deleted for them, he added.

Indeed, by Tuesday afternoon the website appeared to be blocked, with a “Service Unavailable” notice displayed on the otherwise blank page, a fate more often reserved for websites sponsored by human rights activists than party stalwarts.

The seven-page letter appeared on the website late last week, about two weeks after a key speech by President Hu Jintao that appeared to be aimed at silencing critics within the party. The timing suggests that significant differences remain as party leaders try to unify their ranks behind Hu’s policies, which have attempted to open up China’s economy while maintaining control of the political system.

“This shows that the disagreement within the party over reform is pretty big and perhaps getting bigger,” said Wang Yukai, a professor at the National School of Administration in Beijing. “This kind of open letter will put quite some pressure on our leaders and only have negative effects on proper decisions.”

The letter, addressed to Hu and the party’s Central Committee, targets in particular capitalists and foreigners who have flourished under policies that the signatories say have eroded socialism, equality and fairness.

“Party secretaries have become capitalists, and capitalists have joined the party,” the letter says. “Foreign corporations are plundering domestic markets and crushing our national economy.” The signatories also urged competitive internal elections for central party members and the party secretary, a sign of the group’s displeasure with Hu’s leadership.

The views expressed in the letter speak to a constituency that has seen its power diminish under China’s ferocious economic growth, rapid social change and growing diversity. The China Daily reported Tuesday that almost 3 million of the party’s 72.4 million members now work in private business, up from almost none a few years ago.

In addition to facing dissent from conservatives over economic changes, Hu has come under fire from liberals who have pushed for a more open political system. Those views were aired in a cover story in the latest issue of the liberal journal Yanhuang Chunqiu, which roughly translates as History of the Chinese People. It argued that though China has reformed economically, it continues to drag its heels on important political reforms outlined by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. These include reducing the excessive power of the party and ending its overarching grip on the government.

Some analysts denied that such articles were indications of ideological differences in party ranks, arguing instead that the diversity of opinion underscored changes afoot in China.

“This is not significant at all,” said Liu Zhiguang, a professor at Peking University’s School of Marxism and Leninism. “This shows that different opinions can coexist, or maybe that our leaders are just becoming smarter.”

Officially, China has no lobbyists, nor does its monopoly political party consider lightly any outsiders who attempt to influence its decisions. The Chinese Communist Party has traditionally handed down policies fully formed, in keeping with its preferred image as an all-knowing, unified, paternalistic organization.

As China has become a more diverse society, and the Internet has made censorship harder, however, the leadership has been forced increasingly to contend with, respond to and adapt to public opinion.

Experts said the 17 signatories had sought to influence top leaders through internal party channels, but they were rebuffed and, in frustration, decided to go public.

The letter by itself is unlikely to alter party ideology, which if anything has become more rigid in recent years as a bulwark against unsettling social change, they said. But it could intensify divisions.

“These guys want to turn back the clock, but that’s impossible,” said Wang of the National School of Administration.

“I wouldn’t say they’re bad people. But we must move forward. Such outdated opinions are a leftist tumor.”

Yin Lijin in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.