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Explaining regime strength in China.

Using survey data to analyse the strength of the Chinese regime, it is argued that economic development has generated substantial public satisfaction. The public also recognises that the Chinese Communist Party is reforming the Government. The public's satisfaction with Government performance in both the economic and political arenas translates into a high level of public trust in the regime. At the same time, the Party effectively halts any open challenges to its political power. It will therefore likely hold on to power for some time to come. Western nations can assist democracy in China by encouraging the democratic and curbing the authoritarian elements within the regime.


How well is the Chinese regime holding on to power? Some argue that it is facing daunting challenges to its governance, to the extent that a "collapse of China" is possible. (1) The frequent peasant protests in recent months seem to vindicate this. Others, on the contrary, believe the Chinese Communist regime is able to renew and reform itself, and will stay relevant for years to come. In this article, newly available public opinion survey data is used to analyse the strength of the Chinese regime. It is argued that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) still has some breathing space. As the Party has continued to deliver socioeconomic goods, it has generated substantial public satisfaction. Meanwhile, the Government has also made serious efforts to reform itself in the face of the growing governance crises. The Government's performance, in terms of both economic development and political reform, has been well received by the public. Such public satisfaction translates into a high level of public trust in the regime. At the same time, it has cracked down on potentially destabilising factors, thereby checking open challenges to its political power. As a result, the CCP regime will likely hold on to power for some time to come. Based on this, the author puts forward some policy implications for practitioners dealing with the Chinese regime.

The Regime Question

With China's growing economic power and rising global influence, understanding the Chinese regime is both difficult and critical. Observers of the viability of the Beijing regime fall into several groups. Most notably, some argue that the CCP regime is on the verge of collapse, while others argue that it is renewing its ability to hold on to power. Those predicting the regime's demise, point first of all, to the daunting obstacles it faces: social inequality, corruption and power abuse, labour discontent, social dislocation, poor public health systems ... the list goes on. Secondly, even on the economic front, despite national economic growth being enviably high, structural problems are epidemic--characterised by dying state firms, crippled banks, wasteful production, predatory government, slack technology and energy shortages. Lastly, the regime itself is dead. Externally, it has lost its ideological appeal and relies only on the delivery of economic performance to keep the public complacent. Internally, it has lost ideological coherence and organisational strength and relies only on a system of patronage to keep it from falling apart. "The Party is over", some have claimed, so Chinese society should prepare for the coming collapse of the regime. (2)

Other people argue the contrary. Unprecedented economic growth has rapidly modernised society and elevated living standards, thus boosting public confidence in, and support for, the regime. No less importantly, the regime has also gone through tremendous transformations itself. It is now more adapted to internal and international realities. The institutionalisation of a meritocracy, expansion in political participation and consultation, and co-optation of social and economic elites have enhanced its governing capacity. True, the challenges it faces seem almost overwhelming, but the regime is determined to confront them, and in doing so, it is fair to say it has thus far proved its ability. Looking to the future, the optimists believe that the regime's newly acquired resilience will enable it to hold on to power in the years to come. (3)

Besides these two more notable lines of thinking, there is a third that argues there is a direct need for the regime. True, problems are crying for solutions. However, it is because of these staggering problems that the viability and strength of the regime is critical. Both China and the world have a pressing interest in seeing the regime survive, because it is only the regime which can tackle these problems. Take for example, the banking system. No doubt it is failing. If it does fail, it will be a disaster for the Chinese economy. A disaster for China's economy will also be a disaster for the economy of East Asia and the whole world. Fortunately, the regime is committed to an overhaul of the financial sector. Largely due to the strength of the regime, the likelihood of success for such an overhaul is more than minimal. (4) This puts the reform state in Beijing in contrast to the Japanese Government, whose attempts to launch financial reform have never made any tangible progress. Other examples only further illustrate the need for this regime to be strong. Does China want the spread of the HIV epidemic to become unstoppable? Does it want the number of people living below the poverty line to return to 300 million? Or does the Government want to lose control so that tens of millions of refugees flood Hong Kong, Taiwan, Southeast Asia and the US? In short, if the regime is kept in place, there is hope that these problems will be solved, while the collapse of the regime could see the problems regressing into full-blown disasters. (5)

Public Support for the Chinese Regime

Regardless of their differences, these three lines of thinking do not take into account the amount of legitimacy the regime is enjoying among its public. Talking about a regime's strength without knowing how much the citizenry supports it is "like climbing a tree to look for fish". American media are prone to reporting civil discontent, which, although visible to someone watching from outside, is easily absorbed within China's vastness. People often rely more on their instincts: the regime is oppressive, hence the public must denounce it.

Only well-sampled public opinion surveys can tell us how Chinese citizens view their Government. In the past, survey researchers have found that public support for the Chinese regime is relatively high. In a survey conducted in 1993, 94 per cent of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: "We should trust and obey the Government, for in the last analysis it serves our interests." (6) The same survey found that high proportions of citizens agreed or strongly agree with statements such as "You can generally trust the people who run our Government to do what is right"; "You can generally trust decisions made by the Central Government"; or "The Government can be trusted to do what is right without our having constantly to check on them." Surveys conducted in Beijing in 1995, 1997 and 1999 repeatedly found similarly high levels of public support for the CCP regime. (7)

An academic concept used to measure public support for a regime is political trust. In survey research, this means the public's expressed trust in various political institutions such as the parliament, presidency, cabinet and court. To examine the current political trust in China, the author relied on the two most recent surveys available, the World Values Survey (WVS) and the East Asia Barometer (EAB). Both are cross-national attitudinal and behavioural research projects that cover China. The most recent implementation of the two surveys were conducted in 2001 (WVS) and 2002 (EAB), respectively. Both use rigorous methodology in terms of sampling and field work. (8) In both, the respondents were asked about their confidence or trust in various government institutions. The most interesting institutions for the purpose of this article are those relating to national government institutions, such as the CCP, National Government, National People's Congress and army. This article focuses on two institutions: the Party and the National Government. The findings are presented in Table 1.

The data shows that around 2001-2, the Chinese public had rather high levels of confidence in the Government institutions. For the National Government, the 2001 WVS survey found that close to 97 per cent of the respondents said they had "quite a lot" or "a great deal" of confidence in it, while the 2002 EAB survey found a similar ratio (98 per cent). For the CCP, the 2001 WVS survey found that 92 per cent of the respondents had "quite a lot" or "a great deal" of confidence in it, while the 2002 EAB survey found an even higher ratio (98 per cent). In addition, although the confidence level was already high in both surveys, the 2002 EAB survey found a larger proportion held "a great deal" of confidence for the National Government (63 per cent in the EAB survey as compared to 39 per cent in the WVS) and for the Party (71 per cent in the EAB compared to 30 per cent in the WVS). As the 2002 EAB survey had a much larger sample size and employed a stricter random sampling procedure, its measurement of trust level is probably more accurate. (9) That is, public confidence in these two Government institutions should be closer to the level measured by the EAB data.

The two surveys, WVS and EAB, are based on national representative samples. For rural residents, the level of support is similarly high. A survey of 1,600 villagers in four counties in three provinces between October 1999 and July 2001 found that more than 80 per cent of the respondents said they have "relatively high" or "very high" confidence in the Central Government. Only less than four per cent said they had "relatively low" or "very low" confidence, while another 16 per cent said their confidence was "so-so". (10)

Explaining Public Support for the Chinese Regime

Such a high level of pubic trust in government is surprising at first sight. While about 40 per cent in the all-China WVS, 60 per cent in the all-China EAB survey, and 53.5 per cent in the rural China survey said their confidence in the Central Government was "very high" or "a great deal", the proportion of American citizens who expressed "a great deal" of confidence in their executive branch decreased from 42 per cent in 1966 to only 14 per cent in 2000; and for Congress, from 42 to 13 per cent. (11) Why is it that people in China show high trust in an authoritarian government? Several factors can be examined: political fear, state propaganda and government performance.

Political Fear and Propaganda?

It is easy to discard these public opinion findings as invalid. Could it not be that citizens were intimidated, and felt they could not express their genuine attitudes in these surveys? True, in Iraq's last election before the fall of Saddam, almost a hundred per cent of the voters supported his rule. Today's China, however, is not Saddam's Iraq. In fact, even before 1978, China was considered more open and less oppressive than Saddam's Iraq. Since Mao's death, China has evolved from a totalitarian to an authoritarian and even, as some point out, to a semi- or soft authoritarian regime. The decline of the Party state and growth in civil society have resulted in increased liberties and reduced political fear. Indeed, in the 1993 survey mentioned above, only about 40 per cent said they were "concerned" that criticising the Government could cause them to be "reported". By the time of the 1999-2001 village survey, the equivalent figure had decreased to less than 30 per cent. (12) In fact, Chinese citizens can discuss politics today and express their political attitudes with a considerable degree of freedom. Indeed, interviewees comment on or criticise government officials, agencies and policies freely and sometime passionately.13 Hence, fear is probably not a major cause for the high level of confidence that the public expresses in the Government.

Even if there is a certain level of lingering political fear, the high level of political trust does not seem to be a result of such fear. If citizens say they trust the Government because they feel intimidated, there should be a high correlation between political fear and trust in Government. That is, the higher the political fear, the higher the expressed confidence in the Government. In 1993, however, it was found that this linkage does not exist: The level of fear, low already as it is, contributed to only 4-14 per cent of the expressed confidence in the Government. (14) According to a more recent systematic study, the correlation between political fear and expressed support for the Government is even weaker. It found that in several surveys conducted in Beijing (in 1995, 1997 and 1999), about 50-52 per cent of the respondents surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that "I would not criticise the Government and/or leaders because I may potentially receive some political trouble due to my criticism." Hence, the fear of political persecution is still tangible, but such political fear only explains one per cent of the expressed support for the Government. Plus, the correlation between political fear and support for the Government is not statistically significant in most cases. (15) This probably says two things. First, political fear more likely occurs when one thinks about "criticising" the Government (indeed, there are well-publicised cases in which open criticism of the Government led to political persecution), while general discussion of political affairs should not incur serious fears. Second, even though there may be some political fear, as people may refrain from openly criticising the Government, the high level of trust in the Government is not a result of such fears.

Then how about propaganda? Some people believe that because citizens are immersed in the information generated, managed and distributed by the state, their perception of the state must be biased. Scholars have found state propaganda failing, however. Based on the 1993 survey mentioned above, a study found that exposure to the media actually had a negative effect on citizens' trust in the Government, i.e., the more a citizen follows government-produced news, the less he/she trusts the Government. Furthermore, state monopoly of media has largely decreased in recent years. Media now covers a large sphere, basically free of state intervention, such as entertainment and leisure. In addition, it also has more autonomy now when covering issues related to local governance, including Government scandals, albeit only those that the Government chooses to openly persecute. Take for example, the media coverage of the anti-corruption campaign of the Central Disciplinary Committee of the Party. Xinhua News Agency has devoted a web page to reportage of all the high-level officials that were persecuted in recent years. In 2003 alone, it reported about 596 corrupt officials who were persecuted, including several minister level officials and provincial governors. This is to say that mass media in China today contains both negative and positive information about the Government. (16) It is difficult to argue that the high level of public support for the Government is directly a result of indoctrination.

Performance Counts

A more reasonable explanation is that citizens are indeed satisfied with the Government's performance. For more than two decades, China has sustained remarkable economic growth. The majority of the populace has benefited from it. This is easily illustrated by the endless news reports in Chinese media about the increase in household savings, consumption of luxury goods, etc. Such familiar information does not need to be repeated here. But survey data can provide a new angle to this story. In the EAB 2002 survey, respondents were asked to assess the condition of the national economy and the economic situation of his/her own household. These questions were asked in all the groups covered by the study. Figure 1 compares public assessment of the national as well as household economic well-being with that of several other societies in East Asia.


Using a 1-5 scale, among the five East Asian societies for which there is data, Chinese citizens gave the highest rating to their national as well household economic situation. This is even more impressive when taking into account the fact that the other four societies are all in fact much wealthier than Mainland Chinese society. That is, despite the fact that China's level of wealth is the lowest within Northeast Asia (save North Korea), Chinese citizens actually rate the performance of both the national economy and their household economic situations, highest.

In China, the CCP Government has long believed that by delivering economic well-being and improving living standards, it will win continuing support. Such a high level of economic satisfaction on the part of Chinese citizens should naturally lead to satisfaction with the Government's performance. In the 2001 WVS, to the question "how satisfied are you with the way the people now in National Government are handling the country's affairs?", about 70 per cent said they were fairly satisfied and another six per cent said they were very satisfied. When asked to rate the current Government compared to the Government ten years ago, the average rating was seven on a 1-10 scale, and nearly 90 per cent rated it higher than 5. Hence, the data indisputably shows that Chinese citizens were satisfied with Government performance.

Using the WVS dataset, one study employed statistical modelling to show that citizens' increased financial well-being and living standards had made Chinese citizens satisfied with Government performance. It also showed that this high level of satisfaction indeed led to a high level of confidence in the regime. (17) Hence, we have a perfect case supporting the CCP's belief in winning public support by delivering economic growth: increased individual livelihood leads to satisfaction with Government performance, and this in turn leads to a high level of trust in the regime. This finding, however, should not be surprising. History has shown that economic development normally has a legitimatising function. High economic growth was believed to produce high support for the German, Japanese, American, and other Western Governments during the post-war period, and in Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea in the 1960s-70s.

Performance, What Performance?

Economic development alone, however, neither fully accounts for the high level of satisfaction with Government performance, nor does it fully explain the high level of public trust in the regime. In fact, economic development is a double-edged sword. It can enhance a regime's legitimacy, but it can also undermine it. Modernisation theorists argue that with economic modernisation, citizens come to demand democratisation. Following several decades of economic growth, countries such as South Korea consequently saw an increase in such public demands, and have also made the transition to democratic government. In China, if economic development is also leading the public to demand democracy, support for the current regime should be decreasing. It is puzzling, then, to find that the support for this allegedly authoritarian regime is still high.

One possibility is that China's economic and societal modernisations have not resulted in demands for democratic reform. This is clearly not the case, however. Analyses show that more educated people, those working in the knowledge sector, and those who grew up during the period of economic and societal modernisation all place more emphasis on political rights and civil liberty. This means that the demand for democracy in China is growing, and will continue to grow along with socioeconomic modernisation and spread of education and information. (18) Nevertheless, such demands for democratic reform have, until the present, not translated into large-scale political discontent. One possible explanation is that citizens accept a trade-off between economic gains and political rights, apparently believing expansion of democratic rights may lead to a slowing-down in economic development. In some people's minds, democracy can wait. An earlier study found that the majority of Beijing residents see economic prosperity as the top priority for China, and democracy or individual freedom as secondary. (19)

Another reason may be that there is a genuine fear that radical political changes will cause instability. Many Chinese citizens deem the consequences of the rapid changes that took place in post-1989 Eastern Europe as disastrous. The tragedies from which the East European and post-Soviet countries are yet to emerge translate into a general belief that premature attempts to reach full-scale democratisation will result in economic failure, societal disintegration, loss of public order, ethnic conflicts and much more--in a word, a nightmare--loss of personal and national safety and dignity. Public opinion surveys show large numbers of the respondents agreeing with statements such as "Democracy is not good at maintaining stability", "Too many parties in this country will bring chaos", "More democracy will affect stability" and "Democracy is indecisive and involves too much quibbling". In the 2001 WVS survey for example, there was also a large majority agreeing or strongly agreeing that democracy is indecisive and involves too much quibbling. It may be true that the regime purposefully generates such negative perceptions of democracy or democratisation by depicting the Post-Communist Europe and Russian experiences as horrifying. But nevertheless, it is fairly clear that such negative perceptions of rapid democratisation have led to acceptance of the Chinese regime. Citizens have come to accept that democracy must be achieved with the Party providing social order on the one hand, and leadership on the other. In a 1993 survey, for example, a large majority agreed that democratic reform in China should be guided by the Party. (20) The Party is not over yet.

From Revolution to Reform

Meanwhile, the Party has introduced many meaningful changes since the mid-1990s. However much some Western observers dislike it, the CCP appears capable of bringing itself up to date and retaining relevance. Having discarded the revolutionary Maoism, it has emerged from the ideological confusion characterising the decade that ended with the Tiananmen crisis (1989). Its search for new ideological clarity has seen important gains. Without major disruptions, it has achieved an ideological reconfiguration in the course of about ten years, roughly following the 14th Party Congress in late 1992. The now well-known "Three Represents Theory" was first articulated in early 2000, and two years later was officially adopted into the Party Constitution. The Party, hence, is able to release itself from the apparently irreconcilable contradiction that had haunted it for so long: how can a communist party justify its rule in an increasingly capitalist society? It now obtains legitimacy as the leading force for Chinese modernisation and national dignity. When Hu Jintao took over as Party Secretary in late 2002, he added an important dimension to this ideological change. On a trip to a revolutionary base in December 2002, he articulated a "New Three Principles of People" which aimed at assuring the public that the Party's "power must be used for the sake of the people; cadres' sentiments must be tied to those of the people; and material benefits must be sought in the interest of the people". (21) The Government under Hu's leadership, furthermore, was quick to introduce policies that sought to address the needs of the country's small-folk. At a time when inequality is ever worsening, such a populist stance wins the support of both the haves and have-nots. In a word, recent envisioning and imaging of the Party has harvested positive results. It has served the Party's control of power, however precarious.

Organisationally, the regime demonstrates impressive learning abilities. The keyword here is co-optation. Business and intellectual elites are generally co-opted into the establishment, in effect forming an alliance among the political, economic and intellectual elites. The consequences are significant. Firstly, as elites are co-opted, discontented sections within the society find no resources and leadership for collective actions. Secondly, leaders of public opinion tend to favour the regime. Some argue that such evolution of the Party-State-Society relationship has resulted in a super-stable power structure in China. (22) Seen from another perspective, such changes allow more political participation, at least for the politically active and politically competent. Major social groups can find ways and channels to express their voices and make their voices heard by policy makers. This means that public interests are more broadly represented. Some scholars argue accordingly that a pattern of consultative politics is in the making. (23) The regime, furthermore, is trying to ease tensions at the grassroots levels by other changes, such as introducing village elections, holding public testimony sessions on significant policy issues and allowing petitions to the Government through formal channels such as letters and office visits across the country. (24)

Such changes in the political sphere, though minimal or incremental in the view of some Western observers, seem successful in the Chinese context. At the least, they generate an image of a state willing to expand political participation and improve accountability and transparency. Survey data show that the public seems to accept such a gradualist approach to building democracy. When asked "how satisfied are you with the way democracy is developing (or working) in this country?" many respondents said they were "quite satisfied".

As shown in Figure 2, in the 2001 WVS, almost 80 per cent of the respondents said they were "quite satisfied" with the way democracy was developing in the country. Another 8.5 per cent even said they were "very satisfied". Adding these two categories together, the overall satisfaction level was about 88 to 89 per cent. Only about 11 per cent said they were "not very satisfied" and less than one per cent said they were "not at all satisfied". In the 2002 EAB Survey, the question was about the respondent's satisfaction with how democracy was "working" instead of "developing", but the answer was similar. As shown in Figure 2, about 55 per cent said they were "fairly satisfied" and another 12 per cent said they were "very satisfied". Adding these two categories together, the overall satisfaction level was about 67 per cent.


If the different wordings in these two surveys are considered, the satisfaction rate with how democracy "works" in China was 67 per cent, while the satisfaction rate with how democracy "is developing" in China was about 88 per cent. It appears that although overall satisfaction with the political system in China was not extremely high, many more people were satisfied with the trend of political development. Apparently, more felt that China's political system was becoming more democratic. In any case, the Party has won the support of the public not only because of its good economic performance, but also because of recent developments in the political sphere. The citizens' satisfaction in these two spheres has, in turn, led to the high level of confidence in the regime. (25)

Regime Survivability in China

Granted, many factors are causing dissatisfaction in China. Co-optation of the elites divides the civil society and prevents large-scale collective action from forming. But it also means that social inequality is becoming worse every day. Chinese society is now among the most unequal in the world. The gap between the haves and have-nots is becoming worrisome. For example, the income of the wealthiest one-fifth of the population is now ten times that of the poorest one-fifth, resulting in an income gap that is among the largest in the world. Social unrest is rampant, with the number of protests and other "public order disturbances" steadily increasing from 10,000 in 1994, to 58,000 in 2003 and 87,000 in 2005. (26) More important, corruption is endemic, and abuses of human rights have resulted in many major scandals. Nonetheless, discontent is normally directed towards specific government agencies or officials, mostly local. Citizens still see the regime as represented by the Central Government and the Party as benevolent and legitimate. (27) Survey data show that citizens' confidence in local government, government officials and the police is indeed much lower compared to that in the Central Government or the Party. (28) Researchers have found that villagers view local officials as selfish, abusive and incompetent; on the other hand, they believe the upper-level governments are trustworthy. (29)

Furthermore, the regime's ability to manage crises is impressive. Should any protest threaten to get out of control, the arms of the Government can move quickly to deal with it. The Government usually offers compensation and punishes the officials or agencies directly responsible. As a result, such protests are resolved locally, and any impact is effectively contained in the localities involved. As the larger society is generally satisfied or busy acquiring and spending, such an approach is still relatively effective. In any case, the Government makes sure its coercive prowess does not stay idle. It contains any discontent at the smallest possible scale and eradicates social disruption or collective action at the earliest possible stage. Finally, the regime tirelessly watches out for the formation of opposition movements, or indeed any organisations with mobilising potential, for example, its all-out war against the Falun Gong cult or any organisation with a political agenda. According to theorists of democratisation, a critical factor for democratic transition is the existence of some form of alternative to the authoritarian regime that is in power. For China, the Government tirelessly watches any groups or individuals that have the potential to develop into alternatives to itself. The successful repression or removal of any kind of "preferable alternative" to the current regime will ensure the survival of the current regime. (30)

Chinese society today can be described in a few sentences: the majority is pre-occupied with getting and spending, social and economic elites are generally pro-regime, social discontent is quickly addressed or silenced and opposition movements face tremendous difficulties in growing. In a word, the society lacks any independent power. By contrast, the regime ruling this society still commands vigorous strength. Some had wished the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) crisis in 2003 would become the regime's Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which expedited the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In the end, however, the regime emerged from the crisis with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao's new government more consolidated. (31) Looking ahead, the regime has put a number of major items on the national agenda, such as the 2008 Olympic Games, and the 2010 World Fair. These will boost nationalism and unite the society behind the regime. Thus, barring any major crises, the regime is going to remain in power. In the words of a political scientist who studies China, the regime still "has some breathing space". (32)

The key is, as long as the largest majority sees economic development, national power and social stability as top priorities, the current political arrangement still works. Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore explained this situation as: "[In China,] the people's ambition at present is not to achieve political rights or representative government. They just want to arrive as a developed nation." (33) Public surveys have repeatedly found citizens ranking economic development and social and political stability as top priorities. (34) In the 2001 WVS, from a set of four options, 40 per cent chose economic development as the top national priority and another 39 per cent chose strong national defence. Only slightly more than five per cent chose "seeing people have more say" in their work or community. From another set of four options, 57 per cent chose "maintaining order" as the top priority and another 26 per cent chose "fighting rising prices". Only 12 per cent chose "seeing people have more say in government" and about 5 per cent chose "protecting freedom of speech" (see Table 2).

The public's preferences, however, will likely change. Economic development will bring two consequences. First, if it continues long enough, citizens will take prosperity for granted. Economic growth will cease to be a priority for the public. As a result, good economic performance will lose the legitimatising effect and the Government will need to win credibility in other ways. More importantly, economic development fosters demand for democracy. Scholars of "global value change" studies find that economic and social modernisation changes people's basic values: they become more pro-liberty and individual rights. Such changes in values mean that citizens will come to demand liberty, freedom, civil rights and competitive elections. (35) This, for example, is what happened over the last two decades in places such as South Korea and Taiwan. Indeed, history has shown that any authoritarian system cannot remain for long with a modernised, complex economy and a pluralist society.

Hence, the strategy of maintaining legitimacy by delivering economic growth is, indeed, self-defeating. Based on his comprehensive study of democratisation around the world from the late 1970s through the 1980s, Samuel Huntington concluded: "The legitimacy of an authoritarian regime was also undermined if it did deliver on its promises. By achieving its purpose, it lost its purpose." (36) In the case of China, it is not wrong to expect that economic development will usher in democracy. It must, however, take enough time before it happens. Political scientists find that the transition from authoritarian to democratic regimes often takes place when GDP per capita reaches the $3,000-$5,000 zone. (37) China's GDP per capita will pass the $3,000 threshold in about 10-15 years. (As impressive as China's recent growth rate is, its GDP per capita was only $1,000 by 2003.) By 2020, China's economy and society will be as modernised as Taiwan's and South Korea's in the mid-1980s. By then, with a high level of demand for democracy, some kind of political changes will have to follow.

Conclusion: Dealing with the Chinese Regime

Two conclusions can be made. First, the regime is still viable. It is still delivering public goods benefiting society, and, in any case, still enjoys legitimacy. Hence, any attempt to undermine or contain it will be counter-productive: it will very likely fail. This is even more so now, since the regime is trying very hard to prevent Western forces from undertaking any regime-changing activities in China, and is wary of all possible threats of "colour revolution". (38) Even if such an attempt was successful in bringing down the regime, it would certainly cause societal disruption and crisis. As some argue, undermining the regime is tantamount to bringing on the collapse of China, not the collapse of the regime. (39) This echoes the third school of thinking, that is, there is a need for the regime. Second, liberalisation and democratisation are developing, with or without the regime's self-conscious planning. (40) In the long run, the Party's two goals will prove incompatible: maintaining one party rule while introducing democracy.

For the moment, maintaining social and political stability while introducing incremental changes appears to be the most workable way. How should Western countries, for example in Europe, the US, Canada, Australia, etc. deal with this regime, then? First, they should provide assistance to the regime as it tackles the daunting difficulties it faces in developing the economy, fighting inequality and poverty, providing health care and education, protecting the environment, building market institutions, fighting corruption, improving transparency and building the rule of law. The support in these areas is humanitarian in nature and also in the interest of building global peace and prosperity. Helping in these areas is an effective way to work with the regime.

Second, while civil groups that oppose or challenge the regime have poor prospects, they are important to the support and growth of civil society. There is wide scholarly agreement that a vibrant civil society facilitates the consolidation of democracy which follows or accompanies political transition. (41) Even if political engineering can lead to the fall of a regime, it is very difficult to build democracy if civil society is weak. In many cases the fall of an authoritarian regime is followed not by democracy, but by chaos or a reversion to authoritarian rule. To avoid such an outcome in China, it is necessary that a vibrant civil society is in place when political transition takes place. It is important, therefore, to build civil society while the political system is liberalising. Such efforts, though, should be carefully designed and managed to avoid triggering the regime's fear of civil challenges, hence leading to a crackdown or tightening of controls. Such efforts should appear to be regime-friendly, and should be carried out with its consent, and indeed, cooperation.

Third, Western nations can assist democracy by encouraging the democratic and curbing the authoritarian elements within the regime. Since promoting opposition movements in China will not work at the moment, policy choices should focus on promoting democracy through the regime. Although the regime realises the need to democratise and introduce political reform, its authoritarian nature means it is likely to fall short of the task of reducing its own power. In this regard, Western nations have very important roles to play. First of all, they should combat the Chinese regime's tendency to limit civil rights and neglect human rights and civil liberties. This is an obvious task and one for which Europe and the US have already been working on. Second, Washington, London, Berlin and Paris can give clear messages concerning which of Beijing's reforms are welcomed by the international community.

Finally, unity among China's ruling elite is likely to erode in the coming decades. At present, among the few hundred top leaders, that is, policy makers and bureaucrats of vice-ministerial level and above, a consensus of sorts regarding policy priorities and direction is still shared. But China's economy and society are becoming very complex. Differences are already visible within the current leadership, such as over whether to focus on developing the coastal or inland regions, and to support modern, post-industrial sectors (e.g., finance) or traditional ones (agriculture and the peasantry). In the coming years, competition in setting the policy focus will intensify. The Party elites will have to negotiate mechanisms to institutionalise such competition. Under such conditions, competition for political power will become more open. The US and other Western countries have the option of supporting pro-reform groups within the elite and the institutionalisation of intra-party differences. Such developments will help China become a fully democratic country.

The author would like to thank Professor Zheng Yongnian and two anonymous CIJ reviewers for their helpful comments, and Dr. Elspeth Thomson for her clarifications and editing.

(1) The term "regime" here refers to government in power. Hence, "Chinese regime" denotes the Beijing Government that is under Chinese CCP rule. As it is still a one-party government or a party-state, sometimes "the Party", "the CCP", "the CCP regime", or "the CCP Government" is used. Unless otherwise specified, "Chinese Government" refers to the Central (National) Government.

(2) For this line of argument, see a well-known article by Minxin Pei, "China's Governance Crisis", Foreign Affairs 81, no. 5 (2002): 96-119. He sums up the CCP with the line, "The Party Is Over". See also his new book, China's Trapped Transition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).

(3) For a debate between regime demise and regime renewal, see a symposium on China put forward in Journal of Democracy 14, no. 1 (2003). For two recent studies on the Chinese regime's efforts to revamp the Government and confront governance challenges, see Dali Yang, Remaking the Chinese Leviathan: Market Transition and the Politics of Governance in China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), and Yongnian Zheng, Globalisation and State Transformation in China (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

(4) China scholars such as Kenneth Lieberthal of the University of Michigan continually make such arguments in seminars and public lectures. For a serious discussion, see Kishore Mahbubani, "Understanding China", Foreign Affairs 84, no. 5 (2005): 49-61.

(5) A New York Times column asked people to pray for the Chinese Government so that it may succeed in tackling all the mounting problems it faces. See Thomas L. Friedman, "Let Us Pray", New York Times, 2 May 2004.

(6) This study is published in Xueyi Chen and Tianjian Shi, "Media Effects on Political Confidence and Trust in the People's Republic of China in the Post-Tiananmen Period", East Asia 19, no. 3 (2001): 84-118.

(7) Jie Chen, Popular Political Support in Urban China (Washington, DC/Stanford, CA: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; Stanford University Press, 2004), Jie Chen, Yang Zhong and Jan Hillard, "The Level and Sources of Popular Support for China's Current Political Regime", Communist and Post-Communist Studies 30 (1997): 45-64.

(8) For the design, planning and execution of the two surveys, see their official websites: WVS: <> and EAB: <> [22 Feb. 2006].

(9) The WVS uses a stratified random sampling by first selecting a few provinces in China, while the EAB survey selects a random sampling of about 1,000 within each of three regions in China: coastal, central and west.

(10) Lianjiang Li, "Political Trust in Rural China", Modern China 30, no. 2 (2004): 228-58.

(11) For an example of studies of political trust in the US, see Russell J. Dalton, Democratic Challenges, Democratic Choices: The Erosion of Political Support in Advanced Industrial Democracies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

(12) Li, "Political Trust in Rural China".

(13) For field research on public critical of Government policies, see Jianrong Yu, Yuecun zhengzhi (Politics in Yuecun Village) (Beijing: Shangwu Yinshuguan, 2002).

(14) Chen and Shi, "Media Effects".

(15) Chen, Popular Political Support in Urban China, pp. 34-6.

(16) A quote from a journalist is illustrative. Talking about investigating the Government, he commented to a scholar: "The job of a journalist is to process the news for the people and to scrutinise the government; yes, the government must be scrutinised." Quote in Hugo de Burgh, "Kings without Crowns? The Re-Emergence of Investigative Journalism in China", Media, Culture and Society 25 (2003): 801-20.

(17) These analyses are found in Zhengxu Wang, "Before the Emergence of Critical Citizens: Economic Development and Political Trust in China", International Review of Sociology 15, no. 1 (2005): 155-71. Similar discussions abound, though most lack empirical evidence. Exceptions can be found in a recent volume: Chen, Popular Political Support in Urban China.

(18) For a comprehensive study, see Zhengxu Wang, "Changing Social Values and Democratization in China and East Asia: The Self-Expression Phenomenon and Citizen Politics in Six Confucian Societies, 1981-2001", unpublished PhD dissertation (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 2005).

(19) Daniel V. Dowd, Allen Carlson and Mingming Shen, "The Prospects of Democratization in China: Evidence from the 1995 Beijing Area Study", Journal of Contemporary China 8, no. 22 (1999): 365-80.

(20) Data courtesy of Shi Tianjian, Department of Political Science, Duke University.

(21) "Quanmian luoshi dang shiliuda jingshen, Hu Jintao dao Xibaipo xuexi kaocha" (To Comprehensively Implement the Sprits of the 16th Party Congress, Hu Jintao Makes Study Trip to Xibaipo) Xinhua News, 7 Dec. 2002.

(22) For this argument, see Xiaoguan Kang, "Weilai 3-5 nian Zhongguo dalu zhengzhi wentingxing fenxi" (Analysing China's Political Stability in the Three to Five Years Ahead) Zhanlue yu guanli (Strategies and Management), no. 3 (2002): 1-15.

(23) To use a political science term, the "interest aggregation" process has been greatly expanded to include the various social groups. For the argument of "consultative politics", see Xiaoguan Kang, "Zailun 'Xinzheng xina zhengzhi': 90 niandai Zhongguo dalu zhengzhi fazhan yu zhengzhi wending yanjiu" (A Second Examination of 'Administration Absorbing Politics': Studying the Political Development and Political Stability of China in the 1990s) Ershiyi shiji (Twenty-First Century), no. 72 (2002): 33-47.

(24) For recent reforms and changes in China's Government and political systems that involve advancements in transparency, accountability, openness, efficiency, clean government and rule of law, see Dingjian Cai, "The Development of Constitutionalism in the Transition of Chinese Society", Journal of Asian Law, no. 1/2 (2006), Yang, Remaking the Chinese Leviathan: Market Transition and the Politics of Governance in China; Yongnian Zheng, Zhengxu Wang and Liangfook Lye, China Political Review 2005: Promoting a Harmonious Society to Cope with a Crisis of Governance (Nottingham, UK: China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, 2006).

(25) The study cited earlier also proves this with statistical models: Zhengxu Wang, "Before the Emergence".

(26) "Qunian raoluan gonggong zhixu fanzui anjian tongbi shangsheng 6.6%" (Crimes Disturbing Public Order Increased by 6.6% Last Year) Xinhua News, 19 Jan. 2006.

(27) For a comprehensive discussion of social problems and how the Government contains social discontent at the local level, see Zheng Yongnian, Wang Zhengxu and Lye Liangfook, China Political Review 2005: Promoting a Harmonious Society to Cope with a Crisis of Governance.

(28) Zhengxu Wang, "Political Trust in China: Forms and Causes", in Legitimacy: Ambiguities of Political Success or Failure in East and Southeast Asia, ed. Lynn White (Singapore: World Scientific, 2005), pp. 113-40.

(29) Liangjiang Li, "Political Trust in Rural China".

(30) See the discussion of "preferable alternative" in Adam Przeworski, "Some Problems in the Study of the Transition to Democracy", in Transitions from Authoritarian Rule, ed. Guillermo O'Donnell, Philippe C. Schmitter and Laurence Whitehead (Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp. 51-2.

(31) John Wong and Yongnian Zheng (eds.), The SARS Epidemic: Challenges to China's Crisis Management (Singapore and River Edge, NJ: World Scientific Publishing, 2004).

(32) Li, "Political Trust in Rural China".

(33) Lee's interview is reported in Joshua Cooper Ramo, The Beijing Consensus (London: The Foreign Policy Centre, 2004).

(34) For example, in a 1995 Beijing survey, the majority of respondents believed "national peace and prosperity" was the most important value for them. See Dowd, Carlson and Shen, "The Prospects of Democratization".

(35) Inglehart has published widely on this topic. For a concise piece, see: Ronald Inglehart, "How Solid Is Mass Support for Democracy--and How Can We Measure It?", PS: Political Science and Politics (2003): 51-7; or his book Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic and Political Change in 43 Societies (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997).

(36) Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991).

(37) Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi, "Modernization: Theories and Facts", World Politics 49, no. 2 (1997): 155-83.

(38) "Colour revolution" refers to the recent regime changes in several Post-Soviet countries such as Belarus. They were caused by political opposition supported by Western countries. See two reports: "Zhizhengdang fubai shi daozhi 'yanshe geming' de zhongyao yuanying" (The Important Reason behind 'Colour Revolution' Lies in Existing Ruling Parties which are Corrupt), Renmingwang, 7 Dec. 2005 at < 49150/49152/3921640.html> [8 Apr. 2006] and "Beijing Concerned about 'Colour Revolution'", Financial Times, 18 Nov. 2005. See also "CCP Studies 'Colour Revolutions'", EIU ViewsWire, 20 Sept. 2005.

(39) Ramo, The Beijing Consensus.

(40) In its first white paper on "Building Political Democracy" released in October 2005, the Government states it would build its own "socialist democratic political system", but this will be done under the Party leadership and in a gradualist way.

(41) See for example, Larry Jay Diamond, Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).

Zhengxu Wang ( is a Visiting Research Fellow at the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore. He earned his PhD in Political Science and Education from the University of Michigan. His main research interests are democratisation, political attitudes and behaviours, and China's political changes.
Table 1. Confidence in National Political Institutions in China,
2001 and 2002

Please tell me how much confidence you have in the following

 Government (%) The Party (%)

 2001 2002 2001 2002
 (WVS) (EAB) (WVS) (EAB)

A great deal of confidence 39.0 63.0 30.0 71.0
Quite a lot of confidence 58.0 35.0 63.0 27.0
Not very much confidence 3.0 1.0 7.0 2.0
No confidence at all 0.2 0.2 0.5 0.2
Valid N 1,476 3,031 1,392 3,097

Note: Figures do not add up to 100 as they are rounded. For the
EAB 2002 figures, less than one per cent of the respondents
reported "not sure".

Source: China Portion of World Values Survey (2001) and East Asia
Barometer (2002).

Table 2. National Priority

Which among the following do you regard the most important for
our country?

 Group One %

A high level of economic growth 40
Making sure this country has strong defence forces 39
Seeing people have more say about how things are done at 5
 their jobs and in their communities
Trying to make our cities and countryside more beautiful 16

 Group Two %

Maintaning order in the nation 57
Giving people more say in important government decisions 12
Fighting rising prices 26
Protecting freedom of speech 5

Source: China Portion of World Values Survey (2001).
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Title Annotation:economic development
Author:Wang, Zhengxu
Publication:China: An International Journal
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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