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Robin Munro has long been a thorn in the side of China's leaders. He's the research director of China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based organization which works to promote labor rights in China and receives funding from trade unions from the West, including the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, known as the Solidarity Center. With many hopeful that China's new leaders, President Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, might be willing to push for some political liberalization (see BW, 10/27/03, "Hu Jintao: China's Gorbachev?"), I spoke with Munro to see if he thinks there's cause for optimism. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:
Q: Do you see any reason to be upbeat with the new leadership?
A: I'm very skeptical. We have seen so many false Beijing springs announced over the past 15 years, and it's hard to see what happened to them. There was Clinton's meeting in 1998 with Jiang Zemin, when they spoke at Beijing University. But then the China Democracy Party was ruthlessly smashed and everyone went to prison.
Q: Hu is pushing for some changes that lean toward a more representative government, though, no?
A: The Politburo is going to submit its work report to the plenary session. That's a welcome sign in the direction of making the Politburo -- the people who really run China -- nominally accountable to the Party itself. The hope is that Party organizations at lower levels will do the same thing. But to be seeing that as the first harbinger of possibly a much larger wave of democracy would be a stretch.
Q: What would be a better sign that real change is happening?
A: Something much more concrete and relevant to the grass roots of society, which is where all the cutting-edge problems in reform are. What about extending the village-level elections to township or county level? Or small-scale cities? If the Party leadership wants to give a sign that it is engaged in a process of political democratization at long last, that would be of much impact and significance.
Q: What are the chances of that happening?
A: It's a long way off. The authorities, as far as I know, have rebuffed suggestions that they do this. It has always been rejected as "much too premature."
Q: Many Beijing critics here in Hong Kong have a more upbeat assessment about the new leaders than you do.
A: We just don't know what goes on in the new leadership's mind. The world wants to assume that they are broad-minded, more forward-looking people than the appalling Jiang Zemin and his gang.
Q: Often, it's hard to see change until after the fact. No?
A: Looking back at the Prague Spring, [Czechoslovak Communist leader Alexander] Dubcek talked about "socialism with a human face." China doesn't have a Prague Spring...[but] the top leaders do strike one as people with a positive, constructive agenda for the future that involves taking care of ordinary people more than in the past.
It has been quite striking how Wen in particular has been going to the grass roots and choosing occasions like national festivals [to speak]. Previous leaderships used to commemorate with local military, Wen has been meeting peasant families and listening to them. They don't have striking initiatives from the party leadership. But the new leadership does have a different agenda for China than the Jiang Zemin people.
Q: So if they want to change, how would it happen?
A: Progress will be extremely slow. It's like what happened in the summer of 1985 and 1986, which was the most impressive era of political reform. The debates were quite extraordinary: People were talking about having a two-tier congress, having independent unions, these were all on the discussion agenda.
The problem is that the general public overreacted. The students came out on the streets. Auguries of reform lead to public perception that a Beijing Spring is on the way, and that emboldens people to start asking for more. It very quickly reaches a critical level, and the conservatives begin to say, "Look, see where your half-baked notions of so-called political reform are leading the country? It's producing chaos. Let's crack down and have a purge." Any leadership that wants to undertake political reform [in China] is almost starting with its hands tied.
Q: But a lot has changed in China since the 1980s, with the economy now so much stronger and so many people wealthier. Doesn't that make a difference?
A: The sort of independent sphere of politics is, I think, being displaced by a realization that "It's the economy, stupid" -- that the business of government is practical, running the economy well. The other side, though, is the equation at the grass roots.
As economic-reform spreads, there's an increasingly large number of people losing out. There's a new militancy at the grass roots. People are no longer as afraid. Twenty, ten years ago, only the boldest of the bold would stick their heads above the parapets. Now they're coming out in tens, hundreds, sometimes thousands.
A: They're desperate. Entire communities have been devastated by the reorganization of state-owned enterprises. The social-security net is extremely undeveloped. Even when it is functioning, the factories have been taking pension payments for years, then the workers discover that the money wasn't paid into the pension funds. So they have no pensions. The workers see that the corruption is leaving them destitute, and they have nothing to lose. They really are talking about survival. It's extremely volatile.
Q: Some people say the 2008 Olympics in Beijing will help.
A: The Olympics is a difficult one for them. At least it means that they can't invade Taiwan until 2008 is over. The Olympics factor acts as a brake, a restraint on the more repressive impulses of the Chinese leadership. I'm not sure that it provides a spur to political opening-up. When the Chinese leadership itself talks about political reform, it's quite unjustified to assume that they have anything in mind that the West wants in China. Einhorn covers technology from Hong Kong for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Online Asia column, only on BusinessWeek Online