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Journal of Democracy 14.1 (2003) 60-65

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The Rise of the Technocrats

Gongqin Xiao

Since reform began in the early 1980s, China has had opposing political camps of reformists and leftists. The reformists were democratically inclined students, intellectuals, and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members who wanted to promote political participation, human rights, and freedom, including economic freedom. The reformists' ideas resonated favorably with the Chinese public, seemed in line with the larger global trend toward democracy known as the "third wave," and by the late 1980s were stirring intense activism among college students.

The mainstays of the leftist 1 camp were CCP bureaucrats who insisted on adherence to traditional communist ideology. Leftists took as their ideal the bureaucratic system of Maoist China in the 1950s, and demanded preservation of the CCP's power, privileges, and strong grip on social life.

For two decades or so, these camps engaged in a struggle in which the future of the world's largest country was seemingly at stake. Among the leftists' most powerful weapons was their authority to interpret the official ideology. They also tended to have substantial political experience, effective networks, and skill at elite-level bureaucratic politics. Some of them were patronized by Deng Xiaoping, to whom they portrayed themselves as defenders of the CCP's interests. Reformists competed with leftists for Deng's favor, arguing that the latter in fact opposed many of Deng's own policies. The story of the fight between these two factions has in many ways been the story of Chinese politics since 1978.

Where has it led? The possible outcomes are as follows:

1) Reformists sweep the board and eventually bring about the total [End Page 60] collapse of the old totalitarian system. The chain of events that Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms started in the former Soviet Union is an example.

2) Leftists win decisively and stop or even reverse the reform process.

3) The two opposing camps battle to a draw and become opposing parties in a budding pluralistic society.

4) Both camps get pushed aside by a third force of market-friendly, authoritarian technocrats who determine the future of China.

The fourth possibility is the one that actually seems to be happening. The reformists can date their marginalization to the Tiananmen Square massacre of 4 June 1989 and the crackdown that followed it. The leftists' influence began to wane three years later, when Deng used an inspection tour of Southern China as an occasion to denounce them for opposing his reforms. Since the end of the 1990s, State President Jiang Zemin and the technocratic authoritarianism that he represents have dominated the political scene and carried China into a "postpolarization" era in which reformists and leftists alike find themselves relegated to the sidelines.

Marginalizing Ideology

The events of spring 1989 represented the culmination of the reformist-leftist conflict that had been brewing since the early 1980s. After the shootings in Tiananmen Square on June 4, the leftists knocked the reformists out of the political game. In time, however, the leftists would find themselves outmaneuvered by the rising technocrats under Jiang (then the CCP chief in Shanghai), who replaced Zhao Ziyang as CCP general secretary on 24 June 1989. In the tense atmosphere of China after Tiananmen, the new technocrats' air of moderation and competence made them seem like an important force for stability and greatly strengthened their hand.

The crackdown years of the early 1990s were a time of burgeoning leftist influence. The leftists aimed to restore the supremacy of traditional communist ideology and negate Deng's policy of "reform and opening." Deng neatly parried them in his "South China speech" of 1992.Deng implicitly recognized that in the wake of Tiananmen most liberal intellectuals had embraced a politically cautious and quiescent "moderation," meaning that a leftist counterweight against them was no longer needed. In his South China speech, therefore, he invoked his personal authority to call for an emphasis on "opposing the leftist ideology" and to demand an end to debate about whether his "reform and opening" policy was "capitalistic" or "socialistic," thereby silencing the leftists...