According to the Confucian ideal of the relationship between government and the governed, political leaders must rule with benevolence to guarantee the people’s subservience.
In post-Mao China, a modern version of this Confucian grand bargain has united the Chinese people and their communist party: Complaisance in the face of authoritarian rule in exchange for relative prosperity and personal freedom.
Both sides have largely kept their respective end of the deal.
Ever since the Tiananmen Square protest was crushed in June 1989, China has not experienced anything approaching broad-based Arab Spring-style democratic movements. And despite systemic corruption and flagrant maladministration, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has presided over a period of supercharged economic growth and an unprecedented expansion of individual liberties.
China’s enduring authoritarianism seems out of place at a time of explosive protest movements in Turkey, Brazil, Egypt and elsewhere in the developing world. Indeed, these waves of grassroots democratic activism pose a stark question: Is China next?
Will the compact between party and people collapse as annual economic growth rates fall to around 2 per cent to 4 per cent by the 2020s, and the ranks of a newly assertive middle-class swell to nearly 1.3 billion by 2050? And will Beijing’s CCP rulers be swept from power amid popular demands for political rights and freedoms?
The consensus among policymakers, academics, bureaucrats, and elites in politics and business is that the rise of a wealthy, middle-class China will eventually force the one-party state to democratise or die.
It is admittedly tempting to assume that the average Chinese wants the same political rights and freedoms we cherish, and that the strain of authoritarianism’s inherent flaws will precipitate regime change in China, as it did in Eastern Europe in 1989 and North Africa and the Middle East in 2011.
However, these assumptions misjudge the attitudes and aspirations of the Chinese people and the CCP’s internal workings.
The CCP’s uncompromising monopoly on political power—secured with the barrel of a gun, in characteristically Maoist fashion—certainly contributes to China’s authoritarian stability. But CCP control of the judiciary, Internet censorship, incarceration of political activists, and draconian limits on free speech are only part of the formula for authoritarian political stasis.
The democratic indifference of the Chinese people and the party’s emerging model of ‘accountable authoritarianism’ will also be crucial contributors to the CCP’s political longevity: Not only do the Chinese people have little hunger for regime change or democratic rights and freedoms, but the CCP is pursuing a robust reform agenda to respond to popular discontent before this restlessness morphs into large-scale democratic movements.
As many as 75 per cent of middle-class Chinese say they do not need to participate in government decision-making, and only 25 per cent say multiple parties should be able to contest elections. Furthermore, 86 per cent of China’s middle-class respect their country’s political system, 83 per cent say the CCP represents their interests, and only 24 per cent and 23 per cent respectively support the formation of citizens’ non-governmental organisations or ‘disruptive’ demonstrations.
Clearly, China’s democratic deficit causes little disquiet among the majority of the more than 400 million middle-class Chinese.
Added to this, the Chinese population-at-large is not in the mood to rebel against the political status quo.
Satisfaction with social and economic position and support for democracy are negatively correlated in China’s general population, making widespread demands for democracy a remote prospect.
The Chinese are more likely than any public in the 2012 Pew Global Attitudes Survey to have an optimistic view of the future and say they are better off than their parents: 72 per cent of Chinese say they are satisfied with national conditions, and 76 per cent expect to improve their position in society over the next five years.
However, the CCP is not content to premise its political survival on the public’s lukewarm interest in multiparty democracy.
Beijing is intent on pre-empting calls for regime change by pursuing an ambitious reform agenda to tackle China’s mounting social, political and environmental challenges.
Acknowledging that corruption poses a ‘severe challenge’ to CCP rule and must be combatted for ‘the party and the country,’ President Xi Jinping’s administration launched an Internet-based platform earlier this year for ‘netizens’ to report cases of graft. Although selective and at least partly motivated by internal jockeying for political power, the CCP has also pursued a series of high-profile corruption investigations against senior officials, including former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai and former railways minister Liu Zhijun.
With forced land seizures causing as much as two-thirds of China’s 90,000 annual ‘mass incidents’—a euphemism for social unrest and protest—authorities are equally committed to making local government more transparent. This year, a revised land management law stipulated that farmers be paid fair market value for their land to minimise exploitation by officials who acquire farmland cheaply and sell it at a massive mark-up to businesses.
The CCP also plans to confront China’s chronic pollution problem, which accounted for 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010, and is so severe in northern industrial centres that residents of China’s south live at least five years longer than their northern counterparts. The CCP’s 2011–15 five-year plan includes spending commitments worth more than US$350 billion to reduce pollution by limiting coal consumption, cleaning up contaminated waterways, and restricting the use of high-polluting vehicles.
There are even tentative signs that the CCP is addressing the yawning gap between rich and poor, which 48 per cent of Chinese think is a ‘very big problem,’ according to Pew polling. The latest data reveals that China’s GINI coefficient of income inequality has dropped from 0.51 in 2010 to 0.49 in 2012, while the share of income of the top 10 per cent of households declined from 26 times the share of the bottom 10 per cent in 2007 to 20.9 times the share of the bottom 10 per cent in 2011.
Clean government, land management, and environmental and social policy reforms will face stiff resistance from vested interests and leftist hardliners in the Xi administration. Nevertheless, the CCP leadership knows that a strong reform agenda is essential for quelling popular discontent and keeping the Chinese indifferent about democracy.
Despite stalling the transition to genuine democracy, China’s emerging model of accountable authoritarianism should not dishearten those hoping for more sensitive and responsive governance from Beijing.
The imperative of securing its long-term political survival will force the CCP to constantly adapt and reform public policy to attend to popular demands. This pragmatic reformism will not make China a democracy, but it will at least ensure the CCP remains faithful to the ancient Confucian dictum that good government means winning the allegiance of the people through benevolence.
Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based Policy Analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies and author of Accountable Authoritarianism: Why China’s Democratic Deficit Will Last.