Today's date:
Fall 2012

China’s New Political Discourse

Zhang Weiwei, who teaches at Fudan University in Shanghai and is a senior fellow at the Chunqiu Institute, was Deng Xiaoping’s favorite English interpreter. This passage is excerpted from his book, “The China Wave: Rise of A Civilizational State,” just published by World Century (2012).

SHANGHAI—The Chinese experience since 1978 is often described in the Western media as “economic reform without political reform.” Yet any significant change of the soviet-type system, as has been the case with China, inevitably entails a considerable reform of its political and administrative system. In this context, ­the Chinese experience may better be described as “great economic reform with lesser political reform.”

The significance of China’s economic reform not only lies in the rapidly expanding economy and greatly improved living standards of most of the Chinese, but also in its profound implications for China’s social and political life. Institutions underpinning the rigid state control prior to 1978 have either disappeared or been substantially weakened: with the rising prosperity, the rationing system for consumer goods disappeared, and old rationing coupons are now collector’s items; with growing social mobility, the household registration (hukou) and personal dossier (dang-an) systems have drastically loosened up; and most people are no longer dependent for their livelihoods on the state or work units (danwei), as most of the wealth and jobs in China today are generated outside the state sector. China’s economic reform has not only brought about greater prosperity for the country, but also created unprecedented opportunities for the Chinese to pursue their own interests and shape their own destinies. The average Chinese today has far more freedom of personal choice than anytime since 1949. Individuals can make their own choice regarding jobs, housing, education, marriage and leisure, and can move freely within the country or travel abroad for leisure, study or work. This marks a monumental change from the old era of a shortage economy and extremely tight political control, and all these changes are inseparable for many “lesser political reforms” adopted since 1978, which include the following:

First, mass ideological campaigns based on the radical doctrine of class struggle were repudiated so that people could pursue normal lives and material interests.

Second, virtually all political victims from the preceding periods, numbering tens of millions, were rehabilitated, including many professionals whose skills were indispensable for China’s modernization.

Third, across China’s vast countryside, the people’s commune was abolished, thus ending this rigid system of political, economic and administrative control that had impoverished Chinese peasants.

Fourth, village-level elections have been carried out in the Chinese countryside, as a massive political reform experiment to introduce rudimentary democracy. This practice is now being introduced into some cities as pilot projects for neighborhood-level elections.

Fifth, there are other political reform experiments, such as the cadre rotation system to break guanxi (personal connection) networks as well as the practice of a “small government and big society,” which downsizes bureaucracy and forsakes its many functions that can be better performed by society, and therefore urges governments to facilitate, not micromanage, the operation of a market economy.

Sixth, the mandatory retirement system has been introduced throughout the bureaucratic structure from the top leadership down to the grassroots workplace. China’s top leadership serves a maximum of two terms for a total of ten years.

Seventh, think tanks have popped up across the country to provide advice to decision-makers, especially at the national and provincial levels.

Eighth, an extensive experiment and practice of “selection” plus some form of “election” are introduced into the appointment and promotion of cadres at all levels.

Ninth, in the broad context of political reform, various initiatives have facilitated unprecedented social mobility, more diversified values, more elastic ideological standards, many steps to curb the administrative power of the state over the economy and the society, more laws and legal institutions, the energizing of people’s congresses, and the drastic relaxing of cultural restrictions.

China’s political reforms are essentially attempts at political rationalization, not Western-style democratization, aimed at facilitating rapid economic and social development and improving the efficiency of the existing political system and people’s living standards. In contrast to the radical model of democratization, which involves an uncompromising break with the past, Chinese reformers have carried out those “lesser political reforms” by working through existing political institutions.

The Chinese approach to political reform has produced generally positive results. In particular, China has ensured sustained political stability for its economic development and vastly improved living standards for its people for over three decades. Furthermore, this cautious approach has enabled the country to avert the possible economic and social upheavals which could have resulted from rushing too fast into a radically different economic and political system, as witnessed in the former Soviet Union and ex-Yugoslavia, where radical political change led to economic meltdown and political breakup.

China’s priority of economic reform has in fact determined the scope of China’s political reform, i.e. removing immediate political obstacles to China’s economic and social progress. This approach is on the whole responsive to the pressing needs of most Chinese for developing the economy and improving their living standards. This approach is a disappointment for many pro-West intellectuals in China, but it has indeed provided ordinary people with unprecedented freedoms and contributed to China’s fast re-emergence in the world.

Chinese reformers have shown their ability to ensure long-term policy coherence and macro political and economic stability through a combination of administrative and market methods. A significant portion of the party/state structure has developed its competence and expertise in shaping and implementing various reform initiatives. For instance, a dense web of local compliance mechanisms has been established to facilitate the execution of reform policies, ranging from attracting foreign investment to setting up development zones. Policy enforcement for common goals has been on the whole effective, as shown in the reform of the state-owned enterprise and Chinese banking sector, in the high absorptive capacity for foreign direct investments, in the state’s capacity to build a first-rate infrastructure and in the fight against the financial crisis in 2008.

China is still going through its own industrial and technological revolutions, and continued political shifts and social dislocations are inevitable. The increasing gap between regions, unemployment, corruption, massive internal migration, and the gap between rich and poor are all issues calling for more economic, social and political reforms.

A number of new measures have been adopted by China’s top leadership over the past few years: emphasis on promoting the rule of law and staying close to the masses; the Political Bureau reporting annually to the regions and vulnerable social groups; revision of the Constitution by including clauses for protecting human rights and private property; greater room for the media and the Internet to reflect public opinion; the idea of a “political civilization” with more emphasis on procedures; a system of independent commissioners to supervise provincial cadres; and more comprehensive accountability at various levels of government to people and people’s congresses.

The transformation of the Chinese state will continue, driven by China’s economic reform, social change and integration with the outside world. But China’s political transition is likely to continue its present cautious approach and its top-down and gradual process. The party’s “zone of indifference” will further expand in the years to come, while tolerance for radical dissent may remain limited. And China’s successful economic reform may well set a pattern for China’s political reform. The political consensus in China today is still a syncretic approach, drawing on whatever is good from the outside while gradually reforming China’s political system. Most Chinese reformers believe that political reform should be a gradual, pragmatic and experimental process much like the experience of economic reform, and that a strong state remains a crucial prerequisite for ensuring macroeconomic and political stability amidst the multiplying economic and social challenges.

The Russian experience suggests that it is by no means easy to create a viable political system in place of the old regime in a large country with no tradition of Western-style democracy and adversarial politics. Furthermore, as far as China is concerned, after more than a century of devastating wars and chaotic revolutions, and after three decades of successful economic reform, most Chinese seem to be more willing to embrace gradual reform than radical revolution.

My own counsel on China’s political reform is essentially to follow three principles: First, it should continue to be a gradual reform. It is unrealistic to design a perfect master plan, and political romanticism is highly dangerous for a civilizational state like China characterized by “hundreds of states in one.” Beijing should take into consideration the actual conditions of the country, proceed step by step, conduct experiments and encourage people to make innovations. As long as China pursues this approach based on the idea of “crossing the river by feeling for stepping stones,” China, as with its successful economic reform, will always find the right stones and finally cross the river, meaning that China will eventually shape a new type of democratic system.

Like with its economic reform, while China does not have a roadmap, it has a “compass.” The orientation of the compass: toward a new type of democracy in China is to establish (1) a first-rate mechanism for selecting the right talent at all levels of the Chinese state; (2) a first-rate mechanism for exercising democratic supervision; and (3) a first-rate mechanism for carrying out extensive and intensive social consultations. With this broad orientation, China could encourage each region to carry out bold explorations and experiments and eventually shape a new democracy that is in line with China’s own history and conditions and performs better than Western democracy in really serving the interests of the people.

Second, reform should be demand-driven. The reform should proceed by meeting China’s real domestic demand, rather than demands from other countries, and only the reform driven by effective domestic demand can be really useful and effective to the Chinese people. Effective domestic demand means the genuine demands originating from China’s reality. Presently, China’s greatest domestic demands are perhaps the development of an effective anti-corruption regime, an intra-Party democratic system, and a service-oriented government.

The third principle is primacy of people’s livelihood. To my mind, China’s political reform should still serve the purpose of improving people’s livelihood in a more meaningful and comprehensive way, including providing more and better services to the people and ensuring a higher quality of life and greater dignity for them. A key reason for the failures of Western-style democratization in developing countries is democratization for the sake of democratization, and political reform for the sake of political reform, often on terms dictated by the West. This has, not infrequently, resulted in endless domestic political wrangling, ethnic and religious clashes and even wars, rather than better lives for the people. As a country with a population four times larger than the US and more than the total population of the West, China’s experiments and success in its political reform may eventually mark a paradigm shift and redefine what constitutes democracy and good governance. China’s experimentation in this regard is bound to have lasting global implications.