The common narrative about the Communist Party of China (CPC) is that even though it has been successful in eradicating extreme poverty, it has done so by exerting overwhelming control over the Chinese society. The Party has no doubt been praised for ushering in economic development, however, it has also drawn criticism for ruthlessly penalising any dissent shown against exercising such control. Many point out to certain sections of the elite speaking out against the tightening political control under the Chinese President Xi Jinping.1 It raises the question whether the Party is indeed failing if it can no longer elicit loyalty among its own members.
The communist politics in China is authoritarian, which might lead to an understanding that the Party exerts far-reaching ideological control over the society to maintain its legitimacy, and it uses propaganda (to promote its political ideology) to achieve it. However, one of the important reasons why Deng Xiaoping introduced market reforms was that ideological control alone proved insufficient to govern China. The post-reform Chinese society, i.e., the repudiation of the Maoist path to economic development, was the counter to it. As a result of economic decentralisation, information is getting disseminated rapidly, leading to significant assertion of public opinion.
The Party does not control every aspect of Chinese life though. In fact, it struggles to determine as to what aspects to control, which explains why measures of control are mostly arbitrary and temporary. In the post-reform society, the party officials have been apprehensive about how the Chinese society responds to their policies. A case of local governance in Beijing is worth mentioning here. In 2013, the Beijing Subway was losing money and was unable to pay salaries to its employees through its revenues.2 It had a fixed rate of 2 yuan for travelling any distance in Beijing. In fact, it was one of the defining features of Beijing Subway, which was quite different from Shanghai where rates are varied and distance-based. The Beijing Subway is the city’s lifeline, facilitating commuters of different economic backgrounds thereby encouraging a wide range of economic activity. The authorities wanted to increase the fare to 4 yuan, however, public opposition to the rate hike was quite vocal.3 It generated heated debates and for an entire year, the authorities delayed the decision. Though the experts and authorities considered the low fares to be unsustainable,4 the authorities tasked governmental agencies to gauge public response, invited the media and political advisors, and conducted public hearings to weigh in on the decision to hike the rates.5 After a year of deliberations, the authorities raised it to 3 yuan instead of 4 yuan as the starting fare, and continued its promise to subsidise 50 per cent of the subway operation.6
This example highlights the uncertainty among party officials to gauge public perception—which means constantly juggling between welfare policies and economic logic. . The decentralisation of the economy has led to problems of coordination between the central and the local authorities. The central authorities are finding it difficult to assess the way in which policies are being implemented by the local authorities.7 Therefore, if the party wants to retain its legitimacy, then it has to reform its governance model in such a way that is best suited to accurately define public interest without being swayed either by public consensus or by a majority opinion as they may not necessarily represent public interest.
If propaganda is not meant to be a measure of sole legitimation strategy over the society, why does it play an important role? While the correlation between the two may be factually true, the public sometimes is the unintended audience of majority of Party’s propaganda.8 The message is for the party secretaries and government officials9 who have to be compelled with the long arm of the central leadership to make them accountable. To do so, the Party believes that it has to strengthen its supervisory capacity in provincial and local organisations. The daily lives of the Chinese are influenced much more by local authorities than by the central leadership. The local authorities often side-step legal protections and find innovative ways to deny compensations or benefits to ordinary people.
In democratic societies, poor governance is penalised through loss of political power for the ruling party or grievance redressal by an independent legal system. In China, officials had to be educated, repeatedly, through ideological education and core thoughts of leaders, as many tend to exploit the central policies to serve vested interests that might end up hurting public interest. This makes many believe that the Party does not conform to its own ideals. But one should not confuse corruption and risk-averse behaviour with systemic decay.
It is important to focus on elite cohesion rather than the Party’s control and propaganda measures as a sign of regime stability. The adaptive nature of the authoritarian regime in China has been well-documented.10 Yet, the Chinese elite are divided over the kind of political model that could transform its economy into a developed one.11 While some argue for Neo-Authoritarian model, whereby a strong leadership is needed to implement reforms and shape the conditions necessary for it,12 the liberals in China on the other hand argue that only democratic policies will help modernise the economy and politics.
The popularity of theory of authoritarian model (late 1980s) coincided with Deng Xiaoping’s push for expanding economic reforms, which culminated in the southern tour of 1992. Moreover, authoritarian model was useful to stem the tide of rising leftist turn in post-Tiananmen politics in China, and to appease the sceptics within the party. Those who support the theory by addressing transitory authoritarian model as a necessity before democratisation,13 there are plenty among liberals and party officials, who reject this theory to be inadequate in addressing the problems in today’s China.14
In Xi Jinping’s China, the popular perception is that a new phase in communist politics has begun where the authoritarian model is practised with an emphasis on recentralisation of political power. But the evidence shows that the communist rule encourages the leadership to provide ideological correction whenever differences emerge among different interest groups. For instance, Deng Xiaoping was far more autocratic than popularly believed,15 and he quite often exercised overwhelming control to carry out his vision of economic reforms. Therefore, even before Xi Jinping, there had been an emphasis on establishing leadership authority in China to prevent disruption of the reforms process. It is therefore not surprising that party leadership is considered crucial as long as there is a need for broad-range reforms in the Chinese society. No wonder, leadership authority continues to be a major force in Xi Jinping’s governance model.16
For the most part, the Party has accommodated and tolerated tensions between the liberals’ desire for democratic reforms and the discontent of the leftists (新左派) against capitalist expansion. Xi Jinping’s leadership is generally seen as a compromise between the two. Since Mao Zedong, the party has been achieving elite cohesion either through power-sharing or by coercion. Even though an eclectic mix of ideological forces are part of the communist system, they share power, enabled by the leadership’s ability to successfully implement policies in developing the country.17
However, once policy decisions are taken, the party leaders are generally expected to support the overall party line. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang gave an alternative suggestion to boost the ailing economy. He advocated “stall economy”, where street vendors could be given orderly space to boost employment.18 Many perceived its quiet death as a conflict between Xi and Li. However, stall economy was seen as incompatible with China’s plans for its first-tier cities such as Beijing–Tianjin–Hebei Integrated Development Plan (2014) that seeks to integrate the urban spaces to boost high-tech economy.19 In other words, the national strategy is to use high-tech innovation and ecological conservation as a way to ease income inequality and raise safety rather than pursuing short-term solutions such as stall economy.20
Now the caveat seems to be that economic development alone cannot be the source of legitimacy. There is an acknowledgement among the party leadership that the demands of the Chinese society have moved away from raising income levels (economic development) to addressing the issues of income inequality and providing a better quality of life. Xi Jinping therefore is in charge of course correction as the uneven economic progress was reducing political trust with the central leadership.21 For the current leadership, the short answer seems to be to modernise its governance system under “Xi Jinping Thought”. For instance, the “Peaceful China Initiative” (平安中国建设) attempts to modernise the governance model (with an emphasis on rule of law and public participation) to address people’s concerns better.22
China faces an uphill task. Getting rich was easy compared to adopting a mode of governance to maintain domestic peace and distribute the wealth it has accrued.
The article first appeared on the website of IDSA and views are of author.