China has undergone a major political and economic transformation from 1949 to the present. Mao's successors have defined their current quest in pragmatic, economic terms, rather than utopian ideological terms. It remains to be seen whether the establishment of a socialist market economy can survive without support for a more democratic, pluralist political system. China continues to have problems of market distortion, political corruption, and unequal distribution of the benefits of a market economy.
Significant historical events
Mao’s brand of communism is an interesting mix of pragmatism and Marxist/Leninist thought. Rather than an uprising of urban workers, Mao believed that the peasants would inevitably rise up and revolt against the oppressive landlords and foreigners, spearheaded by his vanguard leadership. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) became very popular during the 1940s due to its successful guerrilla warfare tactics used against the Japanese. Meanwhile, legitimacy of the ruling Guomingdung (Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek) weakened after WWII due to incompetent rule, corruption, and its close ties with foreigners and landlords. Once Mao secured political power after ousting the Nationalists, which retreated to Formosa, renaming it Taiwan in 1949, he instituted CCP control and implemented land redistribution and social reform policies.
Between 1949 and 1957, the Chinese adopted a 'lean to one side' strategy, emulating the experience of the Soviet Union with the help of Soviet advisers. Mao implemented nationalization of industries and collectivization of farmland in a fashion similar to Josef Stalin’s Five Year plans. The confidence of Mao and the CCP grew enormously, leading to the wrongheaded decision to implement the Hundred Flowers Campaign in 1957, which was meant to convert more communist followers and supporters by permitting criticisms of government policies, but resulted in harsh intellectual criticisms that threatened CCP legitimacy. As a result, Mao launched the anti-rightistscampaign to purge the “rightist” intellectuals.
Beginning in 1958, tension between the USSR and China intensified due to Khruschev’s de-Stalinization policies and Soviet reluctance to share nuclear and technological information with China. As a result, Mao felt that the CCP could and should function on its own and he began the Great Leap Forward in an attempt to support industrialization by utilizing the man-power of the peasants without (supposedly) neglecting agriculture with the creation of communes (disbanded 1982). It was assumed that people would work harder for Communist goals than monetary rewards, but the Great Leap Forward resulted in irrational policies (use of “backyard furnaces” instead of industrial plants to make steel), wasted resources, and poor management. Serious economic dislocation and a famine that cost an estimated 27 million lives forced an adjustment to the program. This program led to the Great Chinese Famine (1958-1961), which was a combination of poor weather, drought, and the CPC’s policies. After such horrible effects of both the Great Leap Forward and the Great Chinese Famine, Mao’s legitimacy and power began to deteriorate.
From 1960 to 1966, Mao was forced to withdraw from the day-to-day decision making of the CCP. Its goal was to enforce communism by disposing tradition and cultural elements, as well as the elimination of capitalist thought and imposing Maoist ideology within the CPC. During this time period, China’s other top leaders, including Deng Xiaoping, attempted to revive the economy through agricultural and market oriented reforms. Even though the reforms were successful in improving the economy, it created inequality which concerned Mao as a threat to his revolutionary goals.
In his effort to reassert political and ideological “correctness,” Mao launched the Cultural Revolutionin 1966. This period had disastrous effects on China both materially and morally. The Red Guard extremist elements were basically uncontrolled and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was eventually called in to restore order. During this period, border clashes with the USSR led to the Chinese seizure of Soviet territory by the PLA in 1968, which created a diplomatic crisis that eventually faded away without further incident, yet it cemented the Sino-Soviet split. After the death of Mao in 1976, and the failed leadership of the Gang of Four in 1978, Deng Xiaoping secured power and exerted more moderate and pragmatic leadership.
Deng’s market reforms
Under Xiaoping’s leadership, the People’s Republic of China transitioned from a command economy to a mixed economy, while the CCP introduced limited political reform, yet maintained authoritarian political control. One of Xiaoping’s most significant economic reforms was the introduction of Special Economic Zones (SEZ), which allowed foreign direct investment and private ownership of industries along the East Coast of China. The SEZ’s benefited from diaspora investment mainly from Taiwan. Other market oriented reforms included the township and village enterprises (run by local government and private entrepreneurs) and the Household Responsibility System (replaced communes and permitted individual control of farming decisions on government owned farmland). Xiaoping was also instrumental in establishing constitutional reforms that created (1) term limits, (2) mandatory retirement age for party and government leaders, and (3) competitive party and government elections at the local level. Even the National People’s Congress (a formal rubber-stamp government institution) can no longer guarantee unanimous support for CCP policies as evidenced by recent votes regarding policies and leadership positions which only received 60-70% NPC approval. The 1982 Constitution under Deng Xiaoping wanted to encourage foreign participation, making it more flexible and less ideological compared to the “self-reliant” constitutions beforehand.
China has a population of 1.2 billion concentrated in the eastern part of the country. The 85 percent of its rural population is responsible to the rural collective industries. Although 92 percent of Chinese are Han, the remaining minorities control over 60 percent of the territory. Since 9/11/01, Uighur Muslims from the Northwestern province of the Xinjiang have been the target of an intensifying government effort to crackdown on terrorist threats. In July 2011, police shot and killed 14 separatists’ rioters, the worst violence Xinjiang province has seen in two years. The Chinese government has established major limitations and infringements on Uighur identity: Uighur students are banned from fasting during Ramadan, religious teaching for children is restricted, and Uighur-language education is severely limited. A recent knifing attack at a railway station (killing 29 and injuring 130 others) in Kunming province by separatists Uighurs exemplifies Muslim resentment and extremes they are willing to take to have their interests addressed.
Furthermore, Buddhists in Tibet(where Buddhists monks protest by self-immolation), the Falun Gong (a spiritual meditation sect), and Christian religious groups not sanctioned by the government continue to face government persecution when considered a threat to CCP power. The Falun Gong has been labeled as an unlawful group that is not permitted to organize or protest in China. In an effort to marginalize the Muslims and Buddhists, the government has encouraged more Han Chinese to migrate to both Xinjiang and Tibet through the construction of railways. In recent years, interestingly, the government has sought help from government sanctioned Christian religious groups to provide housing for the elderly.
In an effort to peacefully extract natural resources from ethnic minority dominated areas, China has enacted preferential policies that apply to areas containing minorities and to individuals who are minorities. Lower level minority areas receive infrastructural subsidies from higher jurisdictions. Budgetary aid, investment in public works and the provision and training of personnel are common features of preferential policies. In exchange, minority areas are expected to make extensive efforts to support the country's construction by providing more natural resources.
An understanding of the power of the CCP as well as the political structures and socialization is critical. The relationship between government and political party is unique in the world community. Lenin (and Mao) believed that political legitimacy emanated from the party, not the people. Guardianship, hierarchy, and the 'mass line' continue to characterize the 'vanguard' position of the party. Mass mobilization campaigns have been used to mobilize support for CCP policies at the grassroots level, allowing popular influence on local decisions and local policymakers through policy experimentation and criticisms. Confucianism also greatly contributes to the legitimacy of the CCP due to the following teachings,
(1) importance of the group over the individual,
(2) deference to one’s elders and superiors, and
(3) desire for consensus to maintain social harmony.
The Mandate of Heaven is another cultural aspect of Chinese society that affects the legitimacy of Chinese rulers. According to this commonly held belief, strong and effective rulers receive support from Heaven evidenced by periods of peace, stability, and economic prosperity. Natural disasters and economic crisis, however, can be a sign that rulers have lost their approval of Heaven, thus weakening their legitimacy. Therefore, the successes in CCP projects to control flooding, eliminate corruption, and increase its Gross Domestic Product are paramount concerns for the CCP. Ironically, the Three Gorges Dam, a huge public works project to control flooding and provide electricity to rural areas, generated an environmental catastrophe by devastating the ecosystem and creating unintended flooding.
China’s Government Structures The key government structures are the National People's Congress (NPC), China’s legislature, and the State Council, which exercises executive functions. Each has a Standing Committee that does most of the actual work. The NPC is unicameral and is "the highest organization of state authority," according to the 1982 constitution; however, in practice, this is not the case.
The NPC has 3,000 delegates and extensive FORMAL powers, including amending the constitution, passing legislation, approving economic plans, and approving the appointment of political leaders. In reality, however, the NPC has traditionally held a "rubber stamp" role in confirming the Standing Committee of the Politburo's policy choices. In recent years, the NPC has been questioning the Politburo's policy choices-as evidenced by increasing debate on policies and the fact that the State Council can no longer expect unanimous approval of its policies.
The State Council is composed of the premier (prime minister) who is head of government, the cabinet, state councilors, ministers, auditor general, and secretary general. The State Council exercises much lawmaking activity; this is because the most important steps of policymaking (interagency review and drafting of implementing regulations) are completed through ministries headed by the State Council. Li Keqiang replaced Wen Jiabao as premier (prime minister) in 2013, which is considered the second peaceful transition of power after Wen replaced Zhu Rongji in 2003. Both institutions have overlapping membership and responsibility to the Communist Party.
Chinese Communist Party The structure of the CCP is also critical. The National Party Congress is too big and meets too infrequently (every 5 years) to wield much power. The elite politicos populate the Central Committee, the Politburo and its Standing Committee, and does most of the routine work of organization and policy making. Within the CCP, the Secretariatcarries out the daily functions of the party, whereas the Standing Committee of the Politburo (consisting of 7 members) finalizes important policy decisions.
Stability of succession Interestingly, Deng Xiaoping retired from his party and government leadership positions, but he was unquestionably the sovereign leader of China until his death in 1997. Jiang Zemin, held many positions, including the offices of President, Chairman of Central Military Commission (CMC), and the General Secretary of the CCP. Zemin’s anointed successor, President, Hu Jintao, was not very well known outside of China, and made numerous international trips, including a US visit, to improve his credibility among the international political community. Similarly, Xi Jinping, who replaced Hu in 2013, made a similar trip to the US to strengthen his credentials. When Zemin stepped down from power in 2003, a surprisingly smooth transition of power occurred as Hu Jintao became President while Zemin held on to control of the CMC so that Hu Jintao would be given time to earn the support of the military. In September 2004, Zemin relinquished his position on the CMC, allowing Hu to consolidate power. In 2013, a smooth transition occurred as was expected for leaders Xi (President) and LiKeqiang (Premier).
However, maintaining political control while continuing liberal economic reforms and utilizing its comparative advantage to woo multi-national corporations (MNCs) is a daunting task for the CCP. The SARS outbreak led to the firing of a Chinese government official in Beijing for underreporting the severity of the outbreak. While Hu was praised for his openness about the SARS pandemic, he was still criticized for the delay in reporting the outbreak. In fact, the reformist wing of the Communist party was alarmed when Hu commented, “the SARS epidemic should not be used by the party’s enemies to promote Western-style freedom of the press and constitutional reform.” Similarly, a bird flu outbreak took place at the beginning of Xi and Li’s reign. Whether or not China will become more democratic and transparent remains to be seen, however, its admittance into the World Trade Organization and its hosting of the 2008 Olympics seemed to force the CCP down the democratic path due to international pressure and its desire to pursue continued economic growth.
Experts on Chinese politics believe that the new leadership faces the following daunting problems
Economic inequality and social welfare spending
Population surge with a declining female population
Air, water, and food quality.
The nomenklaturasystem is the most important political recruitment mechanism by which the CCP exerts control over officials. It makes all important political decisions and ensures that party members hold nearly all government positions and oversees implementation of CCP policy. Recently, Bo Xilai, a Chongqing party chief, was expected to be appointed to the Standing Committee of the Politburo in 2012, but due to a scandal that resulted in the death of a British businessmen in Chongqing (Bo’s wife was accused and convicted), Bo was detained and suspended of all his political duties in April 2012. His opponents have argued that Mr. Bo was a populist whose spending on social projects was unsustainable, whose fight against organized crime showed contempt for the law and whose love of Mao-era songs and other red culture risked unleashing an upsurge of left-wing radicalism.
The rule of law, an established system of making, implementing, and adjudicating public policy, is a sticky concept for China. Human rights activists maintain that China needs to control corruption, have a formal criminal code, and institute rules appropriate to modern industrial development and international trade. Until this is accomplished however, patron-client networks are an important aspect of Chinese politics, which has greatly benefited the princelings (descendants of CCP leaders) to the detriment of Chinese society. In some cases, contracts to build dams, bridges, buildings, etc. were doled out to contractors with personal connections, guanxi, contributing to corruption, bribery, and haphazardly built structures (Rainbow bridge collapse).
The Shangfang system provides citizens an opportunity to appeal to a higher authority when they want to lodge complaints about corrupt government officials or a corrupt governmental process. If an individual believes that a judicial case was decided not in accordance to law or local government officials illegally violated his/her rights, he/she can complain to officials in a higher level of government to hear his/her case, re-decide it and punish the lower level officials.
President Hu Jintao emphasized strengthening the party by rooting out corruption, but at the same time, he has clamped down on dissenters by arresting a dozen dissident writers and dismissing a university faculty member for criticizing the Chinese propaganda department on the internet. Interestingly, China has allowed both Google and Yahoo to operate as internet sites, as long as they agree to filter information to prevent the spread of democratic ideas and criticisms about the government. Initially, it was believed that Hu would support policies of the reformist wing (democratic and constitutional reforms) of the Communist party, but his actions suggest that he is endorsed hard-line communist policies reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution to silence criticisms of Communist Party control. While Chinese officials have attempted to control access to the internet, they have had a more difficult time in controlling information on social media sites. Many Chinese citizens are able to spread information about protests, complaints and corruption through weibo – China’s version of twitter.
Chinese Communist Party recruitment & aggregation
Citizens of China are said to engage in interest articulation without interest aggregation. Citizens are not allowed to aggregate interests (formulate policy) as the party itself monopolizes interest aggregation (policymaking). To achieve the coveted party member status, Chinese citizens usually follow a number of steps:
first serving as an activist (ordinary citizen, not holding a full-time official position, who has acquired a special interest, initiative, or responsibility in public affairs),
then a cadre (hold a leadership position in an organization, normally as a full-time post),
and then finally a party member (carefully selected, but not necessarily from the cadre ranks).
In 2002, the CCP decided to accept private entrepreneurs as party members. CCP legitimacy has been challenged by protests over CCP intervention in rural provincial affairs and displacement of rural workers, requiring the government to call in the People’s Liberation Army to quell the violence. Political organization outside the party is still prohibited. Two important sanctioned organizations are the All-China Federation of Trade Unions and the Women's Federation.
Policymaking and implementation rely on negotiation and consensus building following the leadership of both party and government elites. This is a system of fragmented authoritarianism and is dependent on elite maintenance of lines of communication. Policy outcomes are difficult to measure because the lines of communication do not allow for independent measurements and evaluation. There is significant difficulty in monitoring or assessing responsibility.
Regardless of any other evaluation of China's policy, in the economic realm, China can now sustain itself, evidenced by an economic growth rate of almost 10 % during the 1990s and exceeding 10% in the 2000s. The major responsibility for this development is not, as commonly assumed, solely on the reinstitution of private ownership, but a complex combination of factors including local community enterprises and lifting of restrictions in various sectors. Despite its tremendous economic growth, urban China is a source of enormous inequality, based upon the hukou system of household registration meant to prevent an influx of rural migration to the cities. Other related problems include serious difficulties in distribution of the new wealth, lack of social net for the most needy, and corruption. In fact, under Hu’s leadership, the number of people who have traveled to Beijing to petition the government (Shangfang) has doubled, suggesting that the expectations of ordinary Chinese people have been raised due to Hu’s appeal to the masses.
Urbanization The family planning policies have also had mixed success. While the population growth rate has gone down, it has been achieved unevenly in regions and between rural and urban populations. In addition, pressure is mounting in urban areas as the hukou system has made it difficult for people to purchase properties in major cities. The hukou system requires proof of residency in order to qualify for home purchases or car license plates. To have full access to schools and hospitals in the cities at subsidized urban costs, you must have an urban hukou. But if you were born in a rural area then your hukou (and that of your children) is registered there—and changing that is very difficult. According to The Economist, only 36% of China's total population are urban hukou holders. This has, in the past, helped control the flow of people and kept urban labor costs down while letting the new urban middle class retain their privileges. Thus, the hukou system makes it difficult for rural people who work in the cities to be given the same social benefits as their urban counterparts. Recently, Xi’s administration is attempting to promote more official urban residency by granting full hukou to 100 million of the 250 million migrants.
One country, two systems-Hong Kong & Macau
Conflict over government control of Hong Kong increased tension and led to protests after its transfer of control from the United Kingdom. In fact, the largest anti-government protest occurred in 2003, immediately after a visit from Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.
Chinese Communist Party control over Hong Kong continues despite promises that democratic institutions would be maintained after the United Kingdom surrendered the province in 1997. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao announced that the chief executive of Hong Kong will continue to be chosen by an election committee (typically dominated by the Chinese Communist Party members/supporters). The first Hong Kong leader was the despised Tung Chee-hwa who was replaced after popular protest. When Tung was reassigned, Hong Kong’s Democratic Party leader commented, “Beijing should have changed the system, not the man.” Tung’s replacement, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, was involved in scandals due to his cozy relationship with his rich friends. In March 2012, the election committee selected C.Y. Leung as the new chief executive, despite the Standing Committee of Politburo’s endorsement of Henry Tang Ying-yen (proving how inept a candidate Tang must have been).
In the “renegade province” of Taiwan, the pro-independence (Democratic Progressive Party) president Chen Shui-bian won reelection over Nationalist (KMT) party leader Lien Chan, which raised concerns among China’s leaders because Shu-bian has at times asserted Taiwan’s independence and has threatened to seek complete sovereignty for the island. In fact, in 2005, President Hu announced the anti-secession law, authorizing the use of force in Taiwan if independence is declared. Of course, China’s official news (People’s Daily) claimed that the government was promoting peace across the straits.
In legislative elections in 2008 and 2012, the KMT won the most seats. The election for President in 2008was won by the KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou with 58% of the vote, ending eight years of Democratic Progressive Party rule and in 2012 Ma won re-election with 52% of the vote.
Dissidents in China Unfortunately, due to concerns about the 2011 democratic revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, the Chinese government detained some 30 people that were associated with the so-called “jasmine revolution”—an internet campaign to emulate in China the 2011 upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa. Weibo is the social media used in China that is equivalent to Twitter which has transformed public discourse in China. News that four years ago was easy to suppress, downplay or ignore, is now instantly transmitted across the nation. Local protests or scandals to which few would once have paid attention are now avidly discussed by weibo users.
In 2011, Human Rights Watch reported that a further 100-200 people have suffered repressive measures, from police summons to house arrest. This has been accompanied by tighter censorship of the internet, the ousting of some liberal newspaper editors, and new curbs on foreign reporters in China, some of whom have been roughed up.
One recent dissident detained by Chinese authorities was Mr. Ai Weiwei, a famous artist, with a lasting legacy for building the “bird’s nest” stadium for the 2008 Olympics, is also the son of a revolutionary poet, the Communist equivalent of minor royalty. In April 2011, he was detained at Beijing airport as he tried to board a flight to Hong Kong. Mr Ai’s celebrity seems to have afforded him no protection, and may even have rendered his liberty more precarious. The party seems intent on showing that it will allow no leeway to those dreaming of a people-power movement or democracy. The higher-profile the victim, the more forcibly that message is conveyed. Also in 2011, Liu Xianbin, an activist, was sentenced to ten years in prison for “slandering the Communist Party”.
Another dissident, Chen Guangcheng, a blind self-taught lawyer was earlier imprisoned and placed under house arrest for criticizing China’s one child policy. In 2012, Mr. Chen sought refuge in the US Embassy when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was visiting China. Later Mr. Chen requested to be returned to his family in China with the approval of Chinese authorities that his family would not be persecuted. Tension between the US and China increased when Mr. Chen spoke via cell phone to a Congressional committee requesting he be allowed to leave China and come to the US because his family was being intimidated by Chinese authorities.