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China will taste democracy by 2020, says official

A PROMINENT Communist official has predicted that China will have a form of democracy by 2020, in a sign that political reform may be back on the agenda after being sidelined this year by the Government’s iron-fisted response to the Tibetan riots and the Olympics.

Zhou Tianyong, the deputy head of research at the powerful Central Party School, told London’s Daily Telegraph that a 12-year plan to establish democratic reforms, including “public democratic involvement at all government levels” and “extensive public participation” in policymaking and drafting of legislation, was on track.

Professor Zhou, 50, an eminent economist, is noted within the party for his liberal views.

He said the Government was determined to make changes despite setbacks caused by bureaucratic “infighting”. A transition to democracy was also “essential for relations with Taiwan and a possible peaceful reunification” – topical given China’s outrage at US arms sales to the island democracy.

Professor Zhou predicts an increased role for civil society as represented by non-government organisations, charities, business and religious groups.

He was one of the key authors of the Party School’s Storming The Fortress report, released in February, which warned that China faced social and economic instability if the Communist Party did not reform, curb corruption and heed the public’s desire for greater democracy. It called for systematic liberalisation, including greater media and religious freedom by 2020.

The report was finished after the 17th Party Congress late last year at which the President, Hu Jintao, promised more extensive democratic and human rights, including more elections for positions within the party.

But the report’s impact was quickly overtaken by events including the Tibetan riots, the Sichuan earthquake and the Xinjiang terrorist attacks.

Professor Zhou’s decision to speak out – albeit to the Western media – could, analysts say, be a testing of the waters after the Tibetan unrest’s chilling effect on debate. Hardline rhetoric re-emerged in the resulting climate of fear; China’s head of security, Zhou Yongkang, vowed to use the police, army and courts to defeat enemies of the state.

A Beijing-based political scientist, Russell Leigh Moses, said the party was vigorously debating “whether or not it is possible to have a democratic system in China at this time … whether it is possible at any time”.

“What we might be seeing is an opening in the post-Olympic atmosphere but that doesn’t mean it’s a tidal wave,” he said.

“What politics will look like here is not predetermined in any way and that’s to the credit, I think, of powerful forces within the Communist Party.

“There are many paths to holding onto power … so in one sense it’s no tremendous surprise that these views are being aired because they have the sponsorship of certain people within the party who want to see alternatives being exploring.

“[But] democracy continues to be seen, even by these forces, as a means to an end. The end being maintaining power, but being more efficient and effective in ruling.”

Dr Moses said the significance of Professor Zhou’s comments would depend on whether his ideas were redistributed in the Chinese-language media.