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Print Edition> Nation
UPDATED: April 14, 2008 NO.16 APR.17, 2008
Political Reform at Watershed
The recent publication of the first book systematically illustrating the overall plan of the reform of China's political institutions. Many people believe that the book represents the official standpoint

How to promote the reform of political institutions is one of the thorny issues facing China. The recent publication of the first book systematically illustrating the overall plan of the reform of China's political institutions, Storming the Fortress: A Research Report on the Reform of China's Political Institutions After the 17th Party Congress (abbreviated as Storming the Fortress) has attracted a lot of public attention. Besides the sensitive topic, the identities of the authors also contribute to the book's bestselling. Most authors of the book are from the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), an important think tank of the CPC. Because of this many people believe that the book represents the official standpoint. Beijing Review reporter Feng Jianhua conducted an interview with Professor Zhou Tianyong, Chief Compiler of the book and Deputy Director of the Research Office of the Party School of the CPC Central Committee.

Beijing Review: Your book has aroused enormous public attention. Is this beyond your expectations?

Zhou Tianyong: The big impact of this book is indeed beyond our expectations. As far as I am concerned, there are three reasons. First, people have been talking about the reform China's political institutions for many years. Yet there was no overall plan on the methods and contents of the reform. The publication of Storming the Fortress just met this demand. Second, China's economic restructuring has met many barriers at the current stage, which can mostly be reflected in the political institutions. Without further reform, it is hard for the economy to grow in a sustainable way. That is to say, we have no other choice but to push the reform of political institutions forward. Third, Chinese state leaders have stated on many occasions that China cannot achieve modernization without democracy and China should build a socialist democratic political system.

A popular assumption is that Storming the Fortress is a book authorized by the authorities. It this true?

This book records the result of academic research and has no official background. One thing noteworthy is that the Party School of the CPC Central Committee enjoys a lot of special advantages in doing research in the field of the reform of political institutions. In other words, if any other research institute does research on the topic, the fairness and objectivity of the research might be sacrificed as department interests get in the way. Another difficulty is that this topic is so sensitive and complicated that regular research institutes might not be able to or dare to tackle it due to lack of real understanding of the actual operations of China's political institutions.

Is the reform of political institutions very urgent in China?

China has come to a watershed in terms of the reform of political institutions. To deepen the reform is the only choice. In my opinion, it is pressure about China's future that pushes the reform forward. This pressure can be seen in three areas. The first is China's current development model that is built on energy-intensive industries, large companies, huge amounts of capital and big projects with an underdeveloped services sector. This development model has already placed enormous stress on resource supplies and the environment. The second is how, in the process of urbanization, China with a population of 1.3 billion is going to deal with a huge population of farmers who are moving to cities for jobs and the increasing pressure on employment in urban residents. Third, and most importantly, the whole of society lacks innovative vigor and the major reason is that the government keeps tight control on certain issues, such as too many red tapes, registration and issuing fine bills, which generates corruption, pushes up trade costs and dampens business entrepreneurship.

The reform of political institutions has been slow in practice. What is the major resistance to it?

The Central Government has realized the necessity the reform and has the determination to carry it through. For the time being, the major resistance comes from the conflicts of interest of some powerful departments.

The reform of political institutions is a difficult process, but it is bound to go forward. What do you think could be the first breakthrough?

The key issue of the reform is the reform of government institutions while the key to government institutions reform is reform of the budget. I believe budget reform should be the first breakthrough in the reform.

How should budget reform be conducted?

China can carry out budget reform in following aspects. First, all the revenue should go to the Ministry of Finance rather than being kept in some departments. The government should know all its revenue sources or how much money has been collected by government departments. Second, a budget administration office should be set up under the State Council, which will work with the Ministry of Finance to draft the budget. This measure is to separate revenue management from expense management so that the Ministry of Finance will only take care of revenue management. Now the Ministry of Finance controls both revenues and expenses. Third, the budget should be handed over to deputies of the National People's Congress (NPC) half a year or nine months before the annual session so that they have time to deliberate it. Currently, deputies are given the budget at the annual session. Fourth, a budget committee should be set up under the NPC, which is in charge of examining the budget and summarizing their suggestions for NPC deputies. Fifth, NPC deputies should be able to query the Ministry of Finance and the budget-drafting agency based on information they have received. The two sides should be able to debate and even hold public hearings on issues of controversy when necessary. Then the NPC can vote on the budget plan.

According to the book Storming the Fortress, the goal of the reform of China's political institutions is to become a democratic country under the rule of law by 2020. What are the concrete meanings of this goal?

There are three levels of meanings. First, on the level of the ruling party, the CPC must promote and guarantee law-based administration. Second, the framework of checks and balances between the NPC, the executive and judicial bodies must be realized. One thing that should be emphasized is that the parliamentary system is essentially a debate system, but there are nearly 3,000 NPC deputies, which makes it impossible to have a debate scheme due to time and cost limitations. Therefore, China should greatly downsize the NPC. Third, non-governmental organizations should be thoroughly developed and the people's awareness of democracy and rule of law substantially improved.

The book also says that by 2040 China should be a moderately developed modern country with mature democracy and under the rule of law. Some media has said that this goal is too far away. What is your comment?

The focus of this book is to analyze the plan of the reform of political institutions before 2020. Thus the part on the reform between 2020 and 2040 is not an essential part of the book. Some people said it is impossible to draft a timetable for the reform. I don't agree with this opinion. Any reform should have a timetable and be carried out step by step. The results are decided by the actual development.

From another point of view, if China could realize the reform goal designed by Storming the Fortress by 2020, it would be a great achievement. I believe it is of great difficulty. As for the long-term goal for 2040, I think a new research report will come out after 2020.

On the topic of the reform of political institutions, you emphasized many times the necessity to maintain a certain degree of political centralism and social stability. What is your basis for this?

The reform of political institutions should be conducted under powerful control, which can avoid major social unrest and ensure progress of the reform. No reform should take the disintegration of the country as its cost, which is also the bottom line of the reform.

No matter what models are adopted, China must stick to promoting its reform for democracy and rule of law. In this aspect, China finds no existing model it can borrow and has to create a path that suits itself. The ultimate goal of the reform of political institutions is to build a democratic, wealthy and stable country, which is also the international community's expectation of China.

Core Contents of Storming the Fortress

The book put forward a three-step plan of the reform of China's political institutions.

The first step was from 1979 to 2001, when the planned economy switched to a market economy and a socialist market economy basically took shape.

The second step is to basically build political institutions with modern democracy and the rule of law. This stage can be divided into three small stages. The first stage, between 2002 and 2010, focuses on reforming the administrative system, finance and taxation systems and adjusting the relationship between the Central Government and local governments; some reforms of judicial organs, the system of people's congress, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and the judicial system should also be conducted.

The second stage, between 2011 and 2016, focuses on nurturing the modern framework of checks and balances. The third stage, between 2017 and 2020, is to nurture a modern civil society.

The third step, between 2021 and 2040, is to build a moderately developed modern country with mature democracy and under the rule of law.

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