The Vicious Political Cycle of the Party-State

Pent-up institutional contradictions are rending China’s communist system asunder
The Vicious Political Cycle of the Party-State
Chinese President Xi Jinping (Center) and other new members of the Communist Party of China's Politburo Standing Committee (L-R) Wang Huning, Han Zheng, Li Zhanshu, Li Keqiang, Wang Yang, Zhao Leji meet press in Beijing's Great Hall of the People on October 25, 2017. (WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)

Many years ago, there was a joke featuring then-Chinese regime leader Jiang Zemin and an imagined comparison of his English proficiency with that of a rival Communist Party cadre.

When Jiang asked him, “How are you?”, he gave back the literal Chinese translation: “How is it you?” Jiang then offered: “How old are you?” The official responded, again giving back the word-for-word Chinese rendition: “How is it always the same old you?”

Jiang served as CCP general secretary from 1989 to 2002, but retained behind-the-scenes influence across the Chinese regime long after stepping down from his official positions. The line “How is it always the same old you?” pokes fun at the awkward arrangements of the Jiang era.

The joke doesn’t lend itself to easy translation, but by touching upon some points in Jiang Zemin’s leadership, it makes a statement about the entire political economy of the Chinese regime’s party-state.

Crisis of Legitimacy

Authoritarian systems around the world, including the Chinese regime, are struggling to survive in the modern age. For the CCP, a major institutional challenge is how to secure smooth transitions of power in a system that is otherwise highly centralized.

Under China’s traditional form of governance, imperial power flowed relatively simply from the emperor to his son. In a democratic society, leaders are elected by their constituents. But a modern authoritarian state lacks both of these mechanisms. International power struggles are an enduring feature in the CCP leadership.

By its very structure, modern authoritarian rule requires leaders who wield power unchallenged by the people or bureaucracy. Power can’t be delegated or bestowed via meritocracy. Unlike the emperor, who is endowed with authority from birth, or a democratically selected statesman, in whom is vested the people’s choice, authority doesn’t exist intrinsically in an authoritarian system. Rather, political resources and legitimacy must be obtained through an additional process of informal struggle.

Leaders of authoritarian regimes, especially those presiding over communist systems, are revered by their people and are assigned superhuman qualities, far beyond the average person. In North Korea, the three generations of the Kim family have enjoyed this special treatment. Their subjects are led to believe that their leaders can shoot down a plane with a rifle or score a hole-in-one in a game of golf.

The same is true in China, where the leaders are described as having not only strong administrative skills, but also competency in philosophy, poetry, military strategy, and economics. But these superhuman qualities rely on the blinders of propaganda to be effective. It functions like covering people’s eyes and then leading them to walk—they can only rely on their superhuman guides.

The leader’s legitimacy must come from external achievements, not intrinsic right. Mao Zedong’s totalitarian authority came from his successes in the Communist Party’s road to power. Deng Xiaoping’s authority came from correcting the disasters created in the latter period of Mao’s rule. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao obtained their legitimacy from the substantial improvement in economic conditions for people both in the system and outside of it.

Diminishing Authority

Even so, each succeeding generation of leadership saw its authority diminished relative to the previous generation. Deng relied on political alliances between various factions to remain in power. Jiang distributed power among local governments and in the private sector, while supporting corruption within the CCP to maintain his relationships and influence—a pernicious legacy over which Hu presided, but was ill-equipped to change.

The loss of centralized power in a system that was designed to be centralized represented a serious failure. Hu was said to be so powerless that “political orders could not leave Zhongnanhai,” the Party leadership compound in Beijing. Coupled with the lack of judicial impartiality, and the dearth of social autonomy, corruption is naturally becoming more and more serious.

As a result of weakened centralized authoritarianism, Chinese society did evince some degree of social autonomy, and civil society expanded to some extent. Demands for the independence of the legal system, free flow of information, and basic political agency—the basic elements of social change—were on the rise. Enough development of social autonomy and independent civil society would have meant a smooth transition from authoritarianism.

The Coming Failure of ‘Neo-Authoritarianism’

In recent years, the liberalizing social trends have quickly ground to a halt. Rather than being the personal decision of current Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the reversal comes as an inevitable result of the Party’s system, as it applies its political logic to restore central authority.

The Party’s logic is as follows: Restoring centralization means reclaiming political power, which is the underlying reason for the anti-corruption campaign. To rally the leadership around the cause of anti-corruption, the CCP must unite its theoreticians, propaganda, and policy. To do so, it must hearken to its founding ideological principles, that is, Marxism-Leninism and Maoism.

The far-left elements in the Communist Party can only operate successfully in an ideal ideological atmosphere. The closed political system has re-emerged, necessitating the appearance of a new political superman.

Last month, a Chinese official employed in a local propaganda office was punished for adding the title of “general secretary” to a phrase that should have been “Xi Jinping’s thoughts on socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era.”

The addition of “general secretary” changed the meaning and connotations of the phrase; more importantly, the ideological atmosphere had been kept airtight.

However, these efforts have been hardly able to recreate the same ideological fervor that once existed. For the past three years, I have been stationed in Hong Kong. During this time, I have met hundreds of Chinese from all walks of life, including corporate executives and mid-level officials. In our conversations, almost nobody showed sincere appreciation or respect for Xi and his recent policies. To the contrary, most were scornful.

In the 1980s, the political school of “neo-authoritarianism” emerged in Beijing. Its representatives said a new generation of absolute leadership would be needed to direct China’s modernization in a fashion similar to that of the Singapore model. Zhao Ziyang, who was CCP general secretary at the time, objected to this line of thinking: Authority, he said, wasn’t simply created, but forged through crisis resolution. It wasn’t something that was possible to plan.

What Zhao meant was that had the Party not undergone its struggles to survive during the Long March, there would have been no Mao Zedong. And without the economic and social ravages of the Cultural Revolution, there would have been no Deng Xiaoping.

However, neo-authoritarianism has now become the prevailing doctrine adopted by the Communist Party.

An authoritarian regime derives its legitimacy from its achievements in times of crisis. To overcome adversity, authoritarian might is needed to maintain the functions of centralized governance. But when a large-scale crisis emerges, central authorities may prove ineffective in coping with the challenges or preventing social turmoil. It was that process that led to the collapse of the communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe.

Zang Shan is an international affairs analyst specializing in U.S. and China affairs.