One of the most difficult obstacles to overcome in understanding Chinese politics is perhaps its arbitrariness. Words from the leaders can often be interpreted in so many ways that are more than enough to confuse. Chinese premier Wen Jiabao's speech on democracy and political reform at the Royal Society in London on 27 June was no exception.
I don't know how other China observers would interpret Mr Wen's repeated call for political reform. But his speech seemed to have delivered two unsung messages.
For the sceptics, Mr Wen's pledge for political reform was little more than rhetoric, because whether his words would translate into action -- and how -- remains to be seen.
What seems more intriguing is that this was not his first call for political reform, and there has been little, if any, mention, follow-up or elaboration in the Chinese press. For example, Mr Wen's remarks on democracy and socialism were even omitted in the pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po in Hong Kong. Of course this might be a biased and poorly informed impression because I do not have the leisure of time and effort to monitor every single piece of news in the Mainland. But given what I have read, this is a general impression that keeps being reinforced every now and then.
A natural question of this puzzling phenomenon is: Why? Why Mr Wen's well-intended words seem to have fallen to deaf ears? Why are the Chinese press reluctant to report the premier's remarks?
This is where speculation flares up because no one ever in China seems to know a credible answer, as if it ever existed. One explanation, as the China editor of the South China Morning Post writes today, is the "conflict of ideology" within the party. While I concur with this view, which seems sensible and too obvious to ignore, Mr Wen's remarks may also hint at other less explicit messages.
One of them could point to Mr Wen's frustration with the slow progress, if any, of political reform within the party. Despite the presence of universal suffrage at grassroot levels, it is far from uncommon to see allegations of bribery, blackmail or intimidation of the electorate or even individual candidates in media reports. Signs of substantial reform at municipal level or above are virtually non-existent. Words without any backup of action will never be taken seriously. This is especially true if Mr Wen's role were to present to the rest of the world a more desirable image of China as being credible and responsible.
More importantly, what Mr Wen meant by "min zhu" and "fa zhi" must not be taken for granted. Democracy is translated into "min zhu" in Chinese, but these words are not new creations of late imperial China. Confucian philosopher Mencius had preached in similar words respect for the people and the public will some two millennia ago. But do we know if Mr Wen was referring to the principles of democracy, as defined in Western context as many of us here in Hong Kong wishfully assume? According to the logic of the Chinese communists, any reform or innovation must not challenge in one way or another the unrivalled supremacy of the communist rule. Even though we know Mr Wen is one of the few liberal-minded leaders in Beijing, how liberal actually is he? Do we know if his view can be seriously taken as official or little more than a personal sigh of frustration?
By the same token, "fa zhi" is ambiguous because it could mean either "rule of law" or "rule by law", at least literally. The omission of preposition in the Chinese language can make a huge difference, if contradiction, in meaning. In Hong Kong, we have taken "fa zhi" for granted to refer to the British system of "rule of law", but how can we assume or assure that our compatriots in Mainland China share the same conception? Do we know whether or not the communist leaders understand this nuance that is lost in the English-Chinese translation? How willing are they to embrace the British rather than the Chinese interpretation? Until these questions are answered can we assume Mr Wen was referring to "rule of law" instead of "rule by law" in his speech, as the South China Morning Post reported on 28 June.