The West in the past believed that marketization in Communist societies including China would subsequently lead to privatization, the rise of the middle class, intelligentsia, and finally democratization and emergence of civil society.
This belief was a key determinant besides other strategic calculations in Nixon-Kissinger’s China policy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, eventually resulting in the opening up of U.S.-China relations in 1972 followed by normalization in 1979. Nixon in 1967 had argued that opening up to China is a sensible policy as until China changes the world cannot be safe from its fantasies and hatred and that it is the responsibility of Americans to bring China into the comity of nations.
The period of normalization coincided with the beginning of Deng Xiaoping’s era of economic reforms (1978 onwards). The timing could not have been better – Deng initiating economic reforms at home and the U.S. opening up to China making its technology, market, and capital available to China. China was set on the path of an unprecedented economic growth trajectory.
The West anticipated a less aggressive and politically reformed China in the future. The 1989 Tiananmen square protest that demanded political reforms and some sort of freedom was viewed in the West as the beginning of the process. The subsequent fall of communist regimes one after another in the summer of 1990s in eastern Europe and eventually the fall of Soviet in 1991 convinced the Western scholars of liberal triumph over communism. Francis Fukuyama described the event as ‘End of history’ denoting the end of ideological struggle and predicted the ascendency of western liberal democracy. Thinkers believed that it was only a matter of time before the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) too would meet a similar end.
Partly driven by this logic, the West, led by the U.S., proposed WTO membership to a rather hesitant China hoping it would accelerate the process of democratization of China’s society as its economy becomes more integrated with the global economy.
Interestingly, China had been hesitant and suspicious on both occasions (opening with the U.S. and WTO entry). Certainly, how differently things could have played out had the U.S. not pushed so hard and China not overcome its hesitation on both the instances would make for a great debate.
Nevertheless, while China did embark upon an economic growth not witnessed before in the history of mankind, and clocked a double-digit growth rate for three continuous decades starting 1985, it belied the western hypothesis of a relatively democratized society and reformed polity.
China has shown remarkable resilience against any inside or outside attempt of any kind of political reform. It would be thus fascinating to examine what did China (or more precisely, the CCP) do differently to avoid the fate of other communist regimes and to belie the western belief that political reforms would follow economic growth.
Now, before examining the tools that aided CCP to perpetuate its undisputed rule, it is important to understand what drives CCP to cling to the communist ideology.
Commitment to Ideology?
It is widely agreed now among the observers of Chinese politics that ideology does not play a role in determining the character of today’s China. However, under Mao, commitment to communism was the single biggest factor that drove China’s anti-rightist campaign, both at the economic and political front.
Mao had just led the Chinese people to a successful revolution displacing the unpopular Kuomintang (KMT) and had established PRC and promised people to pull them out of their misery. He was the undisputed charismatic leader in who people believed. The PRC was fresh from revolution and people were ready to give Mao the time to turn their fortunes. Thus, Mao commanded unquestionable loyalty among the general people.
However, when Mao’s leftist policies such as the Great Lead Forward proved to be a complete failure leading some of his associates to criticize him, he launched an anti-rightist campaign against his critics accusing them of sabotaging his policies and conspiring against him and the CCP.
However, beginning Deng Xiaoping’s era and subsequently, since the turn of the century, the role of ideology has continuously diminished and no longer remains the primary motivator among the CCP cadre, though Marxism-Leninism-Maoism continues to be its official ideology and preached.
If ideology itself doesn’t, what else commits CCP to communist political structure? A very generic reason that may be argued is that adherence to it legitimizes CCP’s absolute supremacy & leadership.
But there is more to it than just a justifying prop. CCP appears to have found an identity for itself in ‘communism’ or more precisely ‘party-led people’s democracy’, as they like to say. China views and projects itself as the sole contender against the U.S. and the only potential contender to challenge the U.S.-led western hegemony – not just in military & economic terms but also in ideological terms.
Driven by the twin perception of ‘century of humiliation’ subjected to them by the Imperial powers and civilizational superiority vis-à-vis the rest, the Chinese appear determined to regain their rightful place in the world – the ‘middle kingdom’ status, and resistance to western hegemony – largely based on liberal democracy – is an integral part of this process. So deep is the Chinese dislike for western hegemonic ideals that they sought and carved an identity rooted in oppositionalism to it.
The manner in which Chinese state-affiliated media and social media handlers carried out a campaign during the pandemic that mocked the mismanagement and death tolls in liberal democracies, particularly in the U.S. and India while commending the efficacy with which China handled pandemic in its own country with minimal health and economic impact confirms the above argument.
China is lone standing major communist country which survived the liberal wave and the fact that it has managed to effectively challenge the U.S. dominance in almost every realm gives China the credibility it is seeking for its model as an alternative to the west. So far clinging on to this identity has paid off for China.
Though it is a bit ironic that while Communism itself emerged in the West, China has worked around it by claiming its model as Chinese communism or ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ and party-led people’s democracy. Besides, the west’s hate for communist regimes helps China to readily appropriate the ideology without any hesitation.
Liberalism – an ideological taboo
Further, liberal-right is an ideological taboo among the Chinese leadership. Even a rightist turn in the economic front was vehemently opposed by the elders in CCP during Deng’s reign. The advocates of reforms were accused of being rightists and of diluting China’s identity.
To the conservatives and leftists in the party, adoption of market reforms appeared a surrender of their identity and so even when there existed justification to undertake economic reforms, they appeared non-committal. They only agreed to it once Deng assured that economic reforms would not mean a similar reform in the political landscape & that leadership of the party would remain unquestioned. It is doubtful if reforms could have been successful if not for Deng’s influence in the party.
Emergence of State capitalism and Entrepreneurs
Since the reforms, there has been an enormous surge in the number of private enterprises and entrepreneurs alongside state enterprises. At present, China’s private sector contributes 60% of China’s GDP, and 70% of innovation, 80% of urban employment, and provide 90% of new jobs. Private wealth is also responsible for 70% of investment and 90% of exports.
Now while it is argued that capitalism and democracy are two facets of liberalism – economic and political respectively – in reality, democracy is antithetical to capitalism in its truest sense. Democracy presented itself as a dilemma to capitalism in the sense that while it promised laissez-faire allowing capitalists to continue with its inhuman & exploitative practices without state intervention, democracy also meant empowerment of the marginalized, giving them voice and representation. Cleary demands for humane working conditions, equality, fair wages, trade unions, and environmental protection emanating out of the democratization of society would hurt capitalist goals.
Thus, entrepreneurs, often called red capitalists, have a stake in the continuance of the existing system as the state guarantees them protection against worker’s rights protests. This is evident in the increasing membership of entrepreneurs in successive Central Committee of CCP.
Both the CCP and the capitalists have shared interests in the existing system as both benefit from each other – CCP with growth fueled by private enterprises and the latter with the former’s coercive power.
Having explored the driving force behind CCP’s commitment to the present political form, let us understand the means employed by it to sustain the structure.
A Social Contract
Centuries before Hobbes propounded social contract theory – terms of the contract were that while the state would pull the citizens out of the barbarity of the state of nature, citizens in return were to turn over their sovereignty & freedom to the state.
There appears to be a similar tacit contract b/w the communist party and the Chinese population. The CCP is bound by the promise of delivering economic prosperity, and people in return surrender their political rights to the CCP.
CCP has delivered on its promise by ensuring social stability and economic prosperity for nearly three decades starting in 1989 and thus people have largely remained peaceful & unmotivated to effect a regime change or reformation. History suggests that people have usually stood up against their political masters whenever dissatisfaction has pervaded their social and economic well-being. Thinkers like Kautilya, Aristotle, and Machiavelli have cautioned that economic crisis breeds grounds for unrest and eventually causes a revolution in society. For instance, the Indian National Movement attained the mass character only when leaders were able to convince the people of extractive and exploitative policies of the Raj behind their impoverishment. The independence of India on the political front was nothing more than a change of regime with a similar set of rules and regulations but it was accepted by the people because it promised to undo the ill-effects of the British Raj.
It is however ironic that the very economic prosperity that the west suspected & banked upon to lead CCP towards political reform has helped CCP strengthen its totalitarian character.
China’s BRI project, besides other strategic factors, should be viewed as an extension of this need to continuously deliver on its promise to the people especially when the Chinese economy has begun to relatively slow down since 2013-14.
Nomenklatura System of Appointment
This system is key to ensuring CCP’s control and dominance over important institutions and its people. Through this system, the party keeps a pervasive presence in all of China’s political, economic, social, and cultural institutions and organizations such as various levels of administrative govt., military, police, judiciary, media, industry, enterprises, universities, banks, and financial institutions, electricity, and energy department, etc.
The Organizations Department of the party at the central and provincial level is the nodal agency. It maintains a list of posts in the leading and influential institutions and reserves the right to approve & appoint people to these posts. In all, the Organizations Department (central and provincial) exercise this power over more than ~ 13000 leading posts in the country.
The system ensures that the appointee guards party interests and makes policies and decisions which are in conformation to the party directions. In this manner, the appointee is more loyal to the party than to his organization.
Further, to ‘full proof’ this system, CCP also has a mandatory presence of a Party Branch led by a Party Secretariat in each of these institutions giving a semblance of a parallel structure of governance. Party Secretariat exercises more power and influence in determining policies and decisions.
The CCP through its party structures penetrates down to the lowest levels of human associations, right from the national, to provinces, municipalities, county, township, administrative villages, and natural villages in rural areas and down to neighborhood committees in urban areas. In effect, CCP maintains strict vigilance on activities in each of its various levels of govt. Together with the nomenklatura system, it gives the party a pervasive presence and deep penetration into society.
Colonization of Mind
When Gramsci in the 19th century had outlined the ‘utility’ of hegemony in successfully resisting the socialist and communist challenge against capitalism, little would he have known that decades later China would get back at the liberal challenge using the same tool.
The CCP has made continuous efforts towards colonizing the minds, thoughts, and imagination of its people to make its absolute authority unquestionable. To achieve this end, it has relied mainly on ideological/patriotic training and disinformation campaigns.
Young Pioneers of China is an organization affiliated to CCP and membership consists of children in the age group of 6-14 yrs. It has a near-universal membership of children in this age group. Its goal is to inculcate loyalty and commitment towards the Communist Party’s absolute leadership. Members pledge: “We take our oath under the flag of young Pioneers: I promise to follow the lead and teachings of the CCP, to study well, to work well, to labor well—to prepare myself and sacrifice all my energy for Communism.”
Members exit the organization once they turn fourteen and may join the Chinese Communist Youth League. Its membership ranges in the age group of 14-28 yrs. This organization is primarily geared towards preparing the future echelons of CCP leaders. Although membership is not as universal as in the case of Young Pioneers.
Together, these organizations work to cultivate successive generations of loyalists determined to defend and preserve the communist party.
The second tool CCP relies on is a massive disinformation campaign. The ‘Great Chinese Firewall’ – monopoly over ‘flow of information’ within and outside its borders and state-affiliated print, broadcast, radio, and social media – allows state machinery to indulge in micro-targeting based on individual profiling & preferences which is then used to shape the perception of the general public towards the party and the outside world. The Party (not the govt.) has a dedicated Propaganda Department for this purpose. This department also overlooks the ideological and patriotic training of the masses.
Thus, in the absence of freedom of the press (including foreign media), the party can rule the national and international narrative and thus the minds and imaginations of its people with nothing left to challenge it.
The Patriotic Garb
Perhaps one thing that both the party and the people in China share is their dislike for the imperial powers of the past. And thus, anti-imperialism grounded in communism became a basis of Chinese patriotism. CCP can leverage this fact by terming any political unrest or criticism which challenges the party’s absolute leadership as unpatriotic and counter-revolutionary. Party leadership including Mao and Deng have resorted to labeling attacks on them as ‘bourgeoise liberalization’. Such labels are viewed with contempt in the Chinese mainland and it becomes easy for the authority to punish detractors both within and outside the party.
Since there is always a possibility that a minority of the population may not always be happy with the trade-off and the social contract arrangement, the party uses mass surveillance to keep a strict vigil over its citizens and detractors alike. The advancement in ICT, which in the Soviet’s case exacerbated its downfall, has enhanced the party’s capability to crack down on dissenters and critics with absolute ease. Monopoly over ICT within its border allows officials to quickly track down and eliminate dissenters and opponents either by means of threat or imprisonment.
PLA – an army of the party
There’s a popular saying in strategic parlance that while every other state has an army, in Pakistan the army has a state for itself. However, in the case of China, a political party has an army and a state to itself. PLA is an armed wing of the CCP and not the army of the state and thus its loyalty rests with the CCP. Every soldier of PLA is a CCP member and thus the army has a vested interest in maintaining the party’s hold.
The Party enforces its control over the PLA broadly through two means: Party leadership of PLA and appointment of Political Commissars. The General Secretary of the Party, who is also the President, usually heads the Central Military Commission, the top governing body of the PLA. Further, each unit of PLA has a Political Commissar appointed by the party who has a dual objective: to disseminate political education to the PLA soldiers and second, to alert the party of any conspiracy or coup against the party.
Systematic Degeneration of Society
The communist party has bereaved its population of any form of autonomous political association for nearly seven decades resulting in a lack of organizational skills and leadership among the general public which is necessary for a successful movement. As a result, prospective sparks turn off even before they can light the fire. Further, they seem to lack an appetite for prolonged movement and struggle as was evident during the Tiananmen Square protests which had already begun to show signs of exasperation within a month and quickly petered out once the authorities came down heavily. Besides, it appears that the general Chinese population favor stability and prosperity over unrest and instability. They are convinced, and the party’s propaganda arm has a role in it, that political instability would hinder progress and prosperity.
Thus, a combination of the above factors has led to the subsequent strengthening of the party and progressive weakening of Chinese society. So far, this strategy has worked for the party. However, challenges await in the form of corruption, nepotism, factionalism, and economic slowdown. It remains to be seen how the resilient CCP confronts these impending challenges.