China would never copy a ‘Western political system’

The outgoing General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, Hu Jintao, opened the party’s leadership transition congress in Beijing on Thursday lauding the country’s achievements over the past decade, but also warning the next generation of leaders of the dangers of corruption in the party and unbalanced growth.

“If we fail to handle the corruption issue well,” Mr. Hu said, “it could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state.”

While Mr. Hu has delivered similar warnings in recent speeches — most notably in July at a preparatory meeting for the congress — the language used by the head of the party was much stronger on Thursday. Officials said it underscored the importance of the issue ahead of the leadership change, with the CPC in recent months grappling with the fallout of the purge of former Polit Bureau member Bo Xilai which highlighted the rampant corruption even in the party’s highest ranks.

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The recent investigation by the New York Times that detailed the riches of the relatives of outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao was another embarrassment to the leadership in the lead-up to the transition. Mr. Hu, in his speech, said “leading officials should both exercise strict self-discipline an d strengthen education and supervision over the family and staff, and they should never seek any privileges”.

The 18th National Congress, which will usher in the fifth generation of the party’s leadership when it concludes on November 14, 2012 opened in Beijing at the Great Hall of the People under a blanket of tight security, with armed police deployed on Tiananmen Square and police cars stationed every few yards on Changan Avenue, the main road that runs through the heart of the Chinese capital.

Mr. Hu, who will step down as the head of the party next week but will continue serving as President until March, was accompanied by his predecessor Jiang Zemin as he greeted the 2,268 delegates of the congress, who will over the next week choose the party's next Central Committee.

Mr. Jiang was seated next to Mr. Hu, in a reflection of his continuing influence over the party. Both leaders are pushing for their allies to secure prominent positions as the party appoints a new leadership next week. A group of 40 leaders, including Vice-President Xi Jinping, who is expected to succeed Mr. Hu next week, members of the Polit Bureau and former leaders such as Li Peng and Zhu Rongji, were seated behind Mr. Hu as he delivered his address.

Political reforms

Ahead of the congress, the party has faced renewed calls to push forward political and economic reforms to tackle the problems of corruption and rising inequality, seen by officials as the biggest threats to its legitimacy.

Delivering the work report, which looked back on the past decade, Mr. Hu said the party “must continue to make both active and prudent efforts to carry out the reform of the political structure, and make people's democracy more extensive, fuller in scope and sounder in practice”.

“The reform of the political structure,” he said, “is an important part of China's overall reform.” “However,” he added, “we will never copy a Western political system.”

He said the party would increase the proportion of community-level representatives, giving priority to intellectuals, farmers and workers, and reduce the number of party delegates in people’s congresses, which are political advisory bodies. Long-debated moves to introduce direct elections to local congresses, which have stalled in recent years, were not mentioned by Mr. Hu.

Cai Mingzhao, a spokesperson for the party congress, underscored to reporters the limits of political reform the party was willing to consider, stressing that any measures would maintain its firm leadership. Reforms, he said, would combine “centralism and democracy, discipline and freedom, and unity of will and peace of mind”.

Economic challenges

Mr. Hu hailed China’s rapid economic growth over the past decade, which saw the country grow from the sixth-biggest world economy to the second-largest. On Thursday, he said, the country faced both unprecedented opportunities and great risks.

He warned of the challenge of “unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable development” and stressed the need to “speed up the creation of a new growth model and ensure that development is based on improved quality and performance”.

With a continuing slowdown in China’s export-led economy on account of the troubles in the West, Mr. Hu said China would push forward reforms to spur domestic demand as a driver of growth. He said China should target doubling its 2010 Gross Domestic Product and per capita incomes for urban and rural residents by 2020 – a target which suggested China would look to maintain an annual growth rate of 7.5 per cent in the next decade.

Mr. Hu particularly underscored the importance of building China’s Information Technology industry. “We should develop next-generation information infrastructure and a modern IT industry”, he said, adding that the “current capacity for scientific and technological innovation is weak”.

He also detailed China’s plans to accelerate the modernisation of its military. The CPC General Secretary is expected by many analysts to continue serving as the head of the Central Military Commission, which is the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) top authority, for some time after the congress – his predecessor, Mr. Jiang, held on to the post for two years.

China would complete military mechanisation and “full IT application” in its armed forces by 2020, Mr. Hu said, describing the military’s most important task as its ability “to win local wars in an information age”.

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