New perspectives on Chinese authoritarianism

The question of China’s political future is an important one and a difficult one. Will China evolve towards a political system that embodies real legal protections for the rights of its citizens and some version of democratic institutions of government? Or will it remain an authoritarian single-party state in which government and the party decide the limits of freedom and the course of economic and social policy?

Two recent books are worth reading in this context, and they seem to point to rather different answers. Ya-Wen Lei’s The Contentious Public Sphere: Law, Media, and Authoritarian Rule in China makes the case for a broadening sphere of public discourse and debate in China, which seems to suggest the possibility of a gradual loosening of governmental control of thought and action. Wenfang Tang’s Populist Authoritarianism: Chinese Political Culture and Regime Sustainability on the other hand makes the case for a distinctive version of populist authoritarianism in China that may have the resources it needs to retain power for a very long time. Neither scholar is dogmatic about his or her findings, but they give rather different pictures of the evolution of China’s polity in the next several decades.

The two books use rather different kinds of data. Tang relies primarily on various surveys of Chinese public opinion, whereas Lei’s research relies on a range of qualitative and observational data about the contents of China’s legal system, media, and social media. She makes use of newspaper archives, legal texts, interviews, online texts from Internet forums, and survey data (lc 466).

Tang’s book begins with several paradoxical facts. One is that the Chinese state already embodies a kind of democratic responsiveness, which he refers to as “Mass Line” politics. According to this political ideology, the Party represents the interests of the masses, and it must be responsive to the interests and demands of workers and peasants. So the CCP is sometimes responsive to demands expressed through public demonstrations and protests. Here are a few of Tang’s comments about the Mass Line ideology: “Some observers see the totalitarian nature of the Mass Line…. Other scholars, however, see the empowerment of society under the Mass Line…. Others describe the Mass Line as a democratic decision-making process” (kl 357-388). But Tang’s own view appears to be that the Party’s adherence to the ideology of the Mass Line makes for a compelling imperative towards paying attention to the attitudes and interests of ordinary peasants and workers, and towards improving their material conditions of life.

 

The other paradoxical fact in Tang’s account is that China’s government commands support from a remarkably high percentage of its citizens. Using survey research, Tang reports that there are issues of concern to the Chinese public (corruption, environment, land use policy), but that the large majority of Chinese people support the single-party government of the CCP.

The 2005–2008 5th wave of the WVS [World Values Survey] coordinated by the University of Michigan further indicated that Chinese respondents expressed the strongest support for political institutions including the military, the police, the legal system, the central government, the Communist Party, the national legislature, and the civil service. (kl 712)

But Tang also notes that surveys indicate a low level of “happiness” and satisfaction by Chinese citizens. In the WVS 2005-2008 survey “China ranked at the very bottom of this happiness index (65). Above China were eastern Germany (65.5), Slovenia and South Korea (66), India (67), Taiwan and Spain (68), Italy and Chile (69),” along with many other countries. This presents a third paradox in Chinese political realities; low citizen satisfaction is often associated with low approval of government, but this is not the case in China at present. Tang observes, “there seems to be a contradiction between the low level of happiness and the high level of regime support” (kl 774).

Here is how Tang characterizes China’s particular version of “populist authoritarianism”. China’s particular version involves …

the Mass Line ideology, strong interpersonal trust and rich social capital, individual political activism and political contention, weak political institutions and an underdeveloped civic society, an often paranoid and highly responsive government, and strong regime support. (kl 240)

What strategies and mechanisms permit an authoritarian state to maintain its stability over time, beyond the exercise of force? Tang supports the “political culture” strand of thinking about politics; he believes that the beliefs, identities, and attitudes that citizens have are crucial for the way in which politics unfolds in the country. One factor that Tang rates as particularly favorable for regime stability in China is the high degree of nationalism that Chinese people share, according to survey data. Survey data support the finding that Chinese people have a high level of identification with the value and importance of China as a nation. And, significantly, the central government makes explicit efforts to reinforce popular nationalist sentiment.

While Chinese civilization is an ancient concept, Chinese nationalism is a relatively new idea in contemporary China. It is constructed by the CCP to incorporate a multi-ethnic state that was inherited from the Qing dynasty. It has been used by the CCP to justify its resistance to liberal democracy which is often associated with Western imperialist invasion of China in the 19th and early 20th centuries. More importantly, nationalism is an inseparable component of contemporary Chinese political culture that provides the soil for the CCP to nurture its legitimacy. (kl 1364)

So Tang’s conclusion about regime stability in China is tentative, but he leaves open the possibility that the CCP and single-party government has enough resources available to it to survive as a popular and populist government in China for an extended period of time. He suggests that populist authoritarianism is potentially a stable system of government — anti-democratic in the traditional western sense, but responsive enough to the demands and interests of ordinary citizens to permit it to maintain high levels of legitimacy and acceptance by the broad public over an extended period of time.

Now let’s look at the political dynamics described in Ya-Wen Lei’s very interesting 2018 book, The Contentious Public Sphere: Law, Media, and Authoritarian Rule in China. Lei too regards China as an authoritarian state. And yet Chinese society possesses a surprising degree of public contestation over important social issues.

Authoritarian states, by definition, undermine civil society—the basis on which the public sphere is built—thus conventional wisdom tells us that the conditions for political life and a public sphere in such contexts are likely to be quite bleak and suffocating (Habermas 1996, 369). Yet, when I looked at what was going on in China, I saw lively political discussion, contention, and engagement—in short, the emergence of a vibrant public sphere, against all apparent odds. (kl 264)

In describing this “unruly sphere capable of generating issues and agendas not set by the Chinese state” (kl 278) Lei is primarily referring to the cell-phone supported social media world in China, within which Weibo is the primary platform. And Lei takes the position that the emergence of this public sphere in the early 2000s was an unintended consequence of “authoritarian modernization”.

I argue that the rise of China’s contentious public sphere was an unintended consequence of the Chinese state’s campaign of authoritarian modernization. The government desperately needed to modernize in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. To do so, the state institutionalized the double-edged instruments of modern law, marketized media, and the Internet. It sought to utilize but also contain these instruments, recognizing the potential risk each posed of empowering professionals and citizens and destabilizing political control. Nonetheless, the state’s choices set in motion complex and interconnected processes beyond its control. Building legal and media institutions and adopting information technologies, paired with political fragmentation and marketization, increased the capabilities of citizens and professionals, encouraged the formation of multiple overlapping social networks of collaboration, engendered widespread legal and rights consciousness, and created a space for contentious politics. Through everyday practices and the production of so-called public opinion incidents (yulun shijian), media and legal professionals, public opinion leaders, activists, NGOs, and netizens translated individual grievances into collective contention—and in so doing, facilitated the rise of a contentious public sphere. (kl 290)

Lei maintains that the state was aware of this risk and has taken measures to ameliorate it; but she also believes that the forces leading to open debate and social networks that are relatively free to engage in these kinds of discussions are more numerous than authoritarian censorship can manage to control. President Xi’s current crackdown on ideological deviation is the most recent version of the state’s effort at control; but the logic of Lei’s argument suggests that these repressive measures will not succeed in eliminating the emerging public sphere. She refers to this situation as the “authoritarian dilemma of modernization”:

Yet the Chinese state’s authoritarian modernization project has encountered what I call an “authoritarian dilemma of modernization.” On the one hand, the state has to build economic, legal, and political institutions to pursue socioeconomic development. The state also needs capable professionals and citizens to make institutions work, produce economic growth, and ultimately achieve the goal of modernization. These capable agents need to be educated and have knowledge, information, and even some autonomy to participate in the tasks designated by the state. (lc 354)

New legal institutions and new forms of information technology create opportunities for increasingly well-educated people to find new ways of pursuing debates and advocating for policies that the state would prefer not to have to consider.
 
In contrast to Tang’s “populist authoritarianism”, Lei refers to a “fragmented and adaptive authoritarianism” in China. And she argues that this fragmentation (through new institutions, new legal frameworks, and new ways of communicating and disseminating divergent opinions) has led to the possibility of social changes emerging that were not intended or sanctioned by the governing elites.

In an interesting way Lei’s view of fragmented authoritarianism has some themes in common with Fligstein and McAdam’s ideas of organizations as “strategic action fields” (link); different actors within the Chinese polity are able to gain resources and leverage to pursue their own concerns. Lei’s analysis emphasizes the shifting resources available to various actors within the field of politics, including new legal institutions and new opportunities for communications and interaction through the Internet. The strategic-action-field theory does not presuppose that “governors” or “insurgents” automatically have the upper hand; instead, it posits that change within a strategic action field is highly contingent, with a variety of possible outcomes. And this indeed seems like a very good description of Chinese politics.

(Here is an earlier post on Martin Whyte’s research on public opinions about social justice in China in Myth of the Social Volcano: Perceptions of Inequality and Distributive Injustice in Contemporary China; link.)

 
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