David Lampton in a piece for Foreign Affairs asks if China is becoming harder and harder to govern. He begins, “China had three revolutions in the twentieth century. The first was the 1911 collapse of the Qing dynasty, and with it, the country’s traditional system of governance. After a protracted period of strife came the second revolution, in 1949, when Mao Zedong and his Communist Party won the Chinese Civil War and inaugurated the People’s Republic of China; Mao’s violent and erratic exercise of power ended only with his death, in 1976. The third revolution is ongoing, and so far, its results have been much more positive. It began in mid-1977 with the ascension of Deng Xiaoping, who kicked off a decades-long era of unprecedented reform that transformed China’s hived-off economy into a global pacesetter, lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty and unleashing a massive migration to cities. This revolution has continued through the tenures of Deng’s successors, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping. Of course, the revolution that began with Deng has not been revolutionary in one important sense: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has maintained its monopoly on political power”.
He argues that political reform has taken place in China but quietly, “The fact is that China’s central government operates today in an environment fundamentally different, in three key ways, from the one that existed at the beginning of Deng’s tenure. First, individual Chinese leaders have become progressively weaker in relation to both one another and the rest of society. Second, Chinese society, as well as the economy and the bureaucracy, has fractured, multiplying the number of constituencies China’s leaders must respond to, or at least manage. Third, China’s leadership must now confront a population with more resources, in terms of money, talent, and information, than ever before”.
These are the key three reasons that has made running China a far more difficult proposition than it was even twenty years ago. He argues that “Beijing has reacted to these shifts by incorporating public opinion into its policymaking, while still keeping the basic political structures in place. Chinese leaders are mistaken, however, if they think that they can maintain political and social stability indefinitely without dramatically reforming the country’s system of governance. A China characterized by a weaker state and a stronger civil society requires a considerably different political structure. It demands a far stronger commitment to the rule of law, with more reliable mechanisms — such as courts and legislatures — for resolving conflicts, accommodating various interests, and distributing resources. It also needs better government regulation, transparency, and accountability. Absent such developments, China will be in for more political turmoil in the future than it has experienced in the last four-plus decades”.
As has been mentioned here before this danger has been present in CHina for decades, even hundreds of years, but there is less and less room for the leadership of the CCP to demand what it wants. If it there is one thing that China’s leaders fear more than anything else it is domestic instability leading to revolution or collapse of the regime.
He makes the valid point that “Reform is like riding a bicycle: either you keep moving forward or you fall off”. He goes on in the piece to note that “According to the German sociologist Max Weber, governments can derive their authority from three sources: tradition, the qualities and charisma of an individual leader, and constitutional and legal norms. China, over the reform period, has shifted away from the first two types of legitimacy and toward something like the third. Like Mao, Deng enjoyed a mix of traditional and charismatic authority. But the leaders who followed him earned their legitimacy in different ways. Jiang (who ruled from 1989 to 2002) and Hu (ruling from 2002 to 2012) to various extents were both designated as leaders by Deng himself, and Xi’s elevation to the top position, in 2012, was the product of a collective political process within the CCP”.
He notes “China, in other words, has gone from being ruled by strongmen with personal credibility to leaders who are constrained by collective decision-making, term limits and other norms, public opinion, and their own technocratic characters.”
Interestingly he make the valid argument that “China’s rulers have strayed from Mao and Deng in another important respect: they have come to see their purpose less as generating enormous change and more as maintaining the system and enhancing its performance. Deng’s goals were transformational. Deng sought to move China up the economic ladder and the global power hierarchy, and he did. He opened China up to foreign knowledge, encouraged China’s young people to go abroad (an attitude influenced by his own formative years in France and the Soviet Union), and let comparative advantage, trade, and education work their magic”.
Lampton writes that “Hu enacted virtually no political or economic reforms; his most notable achievement was enhancing relations with Taiwan. The charitable interpretation of Hu’s years in office is that he digested the sweeping changes Deng and Jiang had initiated. Following his promotion to top party leader in November 2012, Xi impressively consolidated his authority in 2013, allowing a vigorous debate on reform to emerge, even as he has tightened restrictions on freedom of expression. The core of the debate concerns how to reinvigorate economic growth and the degree to which political change is a precondition for further economic progress. After the Central Committee meeting of November 2013 (the Third Plenum), the Xi administration stated its intention to “comprehensively deepen reform” and has created a group to do so. The need for such a body signals that many policy disputes remain and that the central government intends to stay focused on change until at least 2020”.
He goes on to discuss the divisons in Chinese society, “These changes in individual leadership style have coincided with another tectonic shift: the pluralisation of China’s society, economy, and bureaucracy. During the Mao era, leaders asserted that they served only one interest — that of the Chinese masses. The job of the government was to repress recalcitrant forces and educate the people about their true interests. Governance was not about reconciling differences. It was about eliminating them. Since Mao, however, China’s society and bureaucracy have fragmented, making it harder for Beijing to make decisions and implement policies. To deal with the challenge, the Chinese government, particularly since Deng, has developed an authoritarian yet responsive system that explicitly balances major geographic, functional, factional, and policy interests through representation at the highest levels of the CCP. Although the pathways for political self-expression remain limited, and elite decision-making opaque, China’s rulers now try to resolve, rather than crush, conflicts among competing interests, suppressing such conflicts only when they perceive them to be especially big threats. They have attempted to co-opt the rank and file of various constituencies while cracking down on the ringleaders of antigovernment movements”.
He mentions that “the state-owned sector, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, or CNOOC, is supporting policies that favor more assertiveness in the South China Sea, where significant hydrocarbon deposits are thought to lie, and it has found common ground with the Chinese navy, which wants a bigger budget and a modernized fleet. On issues both foreign and domestic, interest groups have become increasingly vocal participants in the policy process. China’s bureaucracy has adapted to the proliferation of interests by becoming more pluralised itself”.
Not suprisingly Lampto notes “Mao almost never allowed public opinion to restrain his policies; the popular will was something he himself defined. Deng, in turn, did adopt reforms, because he feared that the CCP was close to losing its legitimacy, yet he only followed public opinion when it comported with his own analysis. Today, in contrast, almost all Chinese leaders openly speak about the importance of public opinion, with the goal being to preempt problems. In August 2013, for instance, the state-run newspaper China Daily reminded readers that the National Development and Reform Commission had issued regulations requiring local officials to conduct risk assessments to determine the likelihood of popular disturbances in reaction to major construction projects and stated that such undertakings should be shut down temporarily if they generated “medium-level” opposition among citizens. China has built a large apparatus aimed at measuring people’s views — in 2008, the most recent year for which data are available, some 51,000 firms, many with government contracts, conducted polling — and Beijing has even begun using survey data to help assess whether CCP officials deserve promotion”.
He adds later that “Public opinion may even lie behind the uptick in Beijing’s regional assertiveness in 2009 and 2010. Niu Xinchun, a Chinese scholar, has argued that Beijing adopted a tougher posture in maritime disputes and other foreign issues during this period as a direct response to public anger over Western criticism of China’s human rights record, especially in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games, when some Western leaders suggested that they might not attend”. However the fallacy with this for the CCP is that as soon as they start citing opinion polls and popular support for policies people should question why their leaders are not accountable electorally, to say nothing of the possibility of referenda.
He writes “Beijing’s greater responsiveness stems in large part from its recognition that as local governments, nonstate organizations, and individuals all grow more powerful, the central government is progressively losing its monopoly on money, human talent, and information. Take the question of capital. Ever since the Deng era, more and more of it has accumulated in coffers outside the central government. From 1980 to 2010, the portion of total state revenues spent at the local level rose from 46 percent to 82 percent. Meanwhile, the share of total industrial output produced by the state-owned sector dropped from 78 percent in 1978 to 11 percent in 2009. Of course, the state still holds firm control over strategic sectors such as those relating to defense, energy, finance, and large-scale public infrastructure, and ordinary Chinese still do not enjoy anything close to unlimited economic freedom. The change has also benefited corrupt local officials, military leaders, crime syndicates, and rogue entrepreneurs, all of whom can work against citizens’ interests”.
He re-inforces his point noting, “The combination of more densely packed urban populations, rapidly rising aspirations, the spread of knowledge, and the greater ease of coordinating social action means that China’s leaders will find it progressively more challenging to govern. They already are. In December 2011, for example, The Guardian reported that Zheng Yanxiong, a local party secretary in Guangdong Province who had been confronted by peasants angry about the seizure of their land, said in exasperation”.
He ends the piece “China’s reformist revolution has reached a point that Deng and his compatriots could never have anticipated. China’s top leaders are struggling to govern collectively, let alone manage an increasingly complex bureaucracy and diffuse society. Their job is made all the more difficult by the lack of institutions that would articulate various interests, impartially adjudicate conflicts among them, and ensure the responsible and just implementation of policy. In other words, although China may possess a vigorous economy and a powerful military, its system of governance has turned brittle. These pressures could lead China down one of several possible paths. One option is that China’s leaders will try to reestablish a more centralised and authoritarian system, but that would ultimately fail to meet the needs of the country’s rapidly transforming society. A second possibility is that in the face of disorder and decay, a charismatic, more transformational leader will come to the fore and establish a new order — perhaps more democratic but just as likely more authoritarian. A third scenario is much more dangerous: China continues to pluralize but fails to build the institutions and norms required for responsible and just governance at home and constructive behavior abroad. That path could lead to chaos”.
He concludes positing a “fourth scenario, in which China’s leaders propel the country forward, establishing the rule of law and regulatory structures that better reflect the country’s diverse interests. Beijing would also have to expand its sources of legitimacy beyond growth, materialism, and global status, by building institutions anchored in genuine popular support. This would not necessarily mean transitioning to a full democracy, but it would mean adopting its features: local political participation, official transparency, more independent judicial and anticorruption bodies, an engaged civil society, institutional checks on executive power, and legislative and civil institutions to channel the country’s diverse interests. Only after all these steps have been taken might the Chinese government begin to experiment with giving the people a say in selecting its top leaders”.
He ends, “Preliminary indications suggest that proponents of economic reform have gained strength under his rule, and the important policies adopted by the Third Plenum will intensify the pressure for political reform. But Xi’s era has only just begun, and it is still too early to say whether his time in the military and experience serving in China’s most modernized, cosmopolitan, and globally interdependent areas — Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai — have endowed the leader with the necessary authority and vision to push the country in the direction of history”.
He finishes, “The dangers of standing still outweigh those of forging ahead, and China can only hope that its leaders recognize this truth and push forward, even without knowing where exactly they are headed. Should Xi and his cohort fail to do so, the consequences will be severe: the government will have forgone economic growth, squandered human potential, and perhaps even undermined social stability. If, however, China’s new leaders manage to chart a path to a more humane, participatory, and rules-based system of governance — while maintaining vigorous economic growth and stability — then they will have revitalized the nation, the goal of patriots and reformers for over a century and a half”.