Comments at CSIS Event “Chinese Public Opinion and the Durability of Chinese Communist Party Rule”

On Wednesday, October 26th, I particpated as a commentator in a Center for Strategic and International Studies panel discussion with Scott Kennedy, Dr. Tang Wenfang, author of Populist Authoritarianism: Chinese Political Culture and Regime Stability, and Dr. Bruce Dickson, author of The Dictator’s Dilemma: The Chinese Communist Party’s Strategy For Survival.

A video of the event is available here, and below are my prepared comments.

Good Afternoon,

Thank you CSIS, Chris Johnson and Scott Kennedy for hosting this event, and giving me the honor of making a few comments. And thanks of course to Dr. Tang and Dr. Dickson for their very important work.

As has already been discussed, both scholars attempt to explain something that has befuddled many foreign academics, policymakers and observers of China for more than two decades. Why has the Chinese Communist Party been able to remain in power in spite of the regular predictions of its coming collapse or crackup, and in the face of various iterations of modernization theory that would have us believe that a richer, better educated, more cosmopolitan, sophisticated and Internet-connected population would prefer some variant of liberal democracy to one party authoritarian rule?

Both books improve our understanding of the methods and levers the Chinese Communist Party uses to manage society and forestall the oft-predicted collapse. I know that some have questions about the feasibility of doing accurate survey work in a restricted environment like the PRC, but the authors take pains to address those issues, and as Dr. Dickson says more than once about the respondents “if they are lying they are lying in ways that social science theory predicts”. I will say that the conclusions broadly match my own experiences when discussing support for the Party-State while living in Beijing for a decade from 2005-2015, and I am certainly in the camp that believes the Party is likely to maintain a monopoly hold on power for many years to come.

As many of you know, the Communist Party is very concerned with public opinion and does a lot of its own polling and survey work. Much of that work never sees the light of day, but I remember in early 2104 when I participated in a panel at the Brookings-Tsinghua Center in Beijing we were given a presentation of public opinion survey results by Mr. Lu Mai 卢迈 of the China Development Research Foundation. According to his data the support for the Party-State was high across many dimensions. Now maybe they were and are kidding themselves about popular support, but I don’t think so. I think the Communist Party has a very good idea of what is working, what is not working, and where the likely stress points are. And the Internet, far from “setting China free” as some of the cyber-utopians once predicted, has, after many years of experimentation with softer AND harder controls, actually turned out to be a very powerful tool for the the Party to mine, guide, manage and at times control public opinion.

The ongoing corruption crackdown can be seen in the context of regime sustainability and survival. Of course there is a political element to some of the corruption investigations, but I think we should believe Xi and others at the top of the Party when they say, as they have repeatedly, that corruption poses a mortal threat to the Party. Corruption had become perhaps the biggest barrier to the continued provision of public goods demanded by PRC citizens, and when you look at the causes of some of the issues about which the populace is most concerned—including but not limited to health care, education, food safety, environmental pollution, a level economic playing field—corruption and official malfeasance are at or near the core of those problems. The risk of arresting too many national-level “tigers” is of course that more citizens lose confidence in the central government, when as Dr. Dickson argues the “local legitimacy deficit”, the blaming of the local government but not the central government, can often work to the advantage of the Party Center.  The “flies” at the local level are in many ways the bigger problem for the Party in terms of keeping citizens happy and achieving policy goals set in Beijing, and it looks like the focus of the current corruption crackdown has shifted more to catching those “flies”.

When you look past the headline corruption cases to some of the new rules and regulations the Central Commission for Discipline and Inspection has rolled out in the last year, from the updated Party Discipline Regulations in late 2015 to the cadre accountability rules introduced this summer, to what the 6th Plenum is expected to announce this week about the “comprehensive and strict management of the Party”, you see a more systematic attempt to address some of the root causes of the corruption and official malfeasance, and to improve government responsiveness, within of course the parameters of a single party system with no free press or independent oversight.

Both authors mention the use of the “mass line” as a way to connect the citizens with the Party-State and help absorb and manage problems and sources of dissatisfaction. After the 2012 18th Party Congress the Party, under Xi, launched a new mass line education campaign, but interestingly it appears to be very much intra-party focused with very little direct contact with the masses, so almost like a mass line without the masses. For example, multiple Internet channels have been established for the masses to submit complaints and accusations over the Internet, but the Party now aggressively blocks mass citizen participation in the corruption crackdown outside of very structured channels managed by the CCDI, after cracking down on Sina Weibo in 2013 and dramatically reducing the use of Weibo and the Internet in general as a channel for individuals to out misbehaving officials.

The authors both cite nationalism, much of it justified considering what the PRC has achieved, as a key element in maintaining support for the Party. I wholeheartedly agree and will add that the nationalism, dare I say sometimes bordering on jingoism, has at times gotten quite scary and is what at the end of my decade there worried me the most about living in Beijing as an American with small children.

As for the idea, common in the West, that Liberal Democracy is superior and of course most Chinese, and especially those who have lived abroad, must yearn for it, I will say, as upsetting as this may be to some, myself included, that the US has done the democracy brand no favors in the last decade plus between the Iraq disaster, the Arab spring, and now Donald Trump. The CCP propaganda railing against the dangers of democracy is almost fact-based and writes itself these days, and the chaos especially in parts of the Middle East as a result of democracy promotion efforts really does help the Communist Party position itself as the guarantor of stability against chaos, something that resonates deeply in the People’s Republic of China.

But, if the CCP has such popular support, and as Xi regularly says should have confidence in itself, why then have we seen such an increase in repressive policies since 2008 and especially since Xi become General Secretary in 2012? If the CCP is on the right path, why does it need to arrest so many lawyers, dramatically restrict the scope of activities for NGOs, tighten censorship across all media, enhance controls on history through campaigns against “historical nihilism”, and crackdown on religion and on anyone who demonstrates the slightest hint of organizing outside of Party control? Why are we seeing a return of the Party into seemingly all aspects of life in the PRC? Are these things happening because the Party has had paranoia and control in its DNA since its founding, and the advancement of technology, big data and the proliferation of digital surveillance has allowed the security services to have an almost panopticon view of society so they are discovering more real and perceived threats in near real-time? Or is the Party seeing things beyond the polls and surveys that indicate its hold on power is tenuous? And are increased capital outflows, emigration and the growing numbers of Chinese going overseas to study, at younger and younger ages, signs of dissatisfaction with the current environment?

Predicting the direction of the PRC usually ends badly for the forecaster. The scenario to which today I would ascribe the highest expected outcome is not collapse or crackup but a march towards a much harsher authoritarianism. One wonders what it will take for the Party to maintain real popular support in that scenario, and what that might mean for the PRC economy, its citizens and the rest of the world. 

Thank you