Wednesday, March 11, 2009

What Kind of Country is China Today?

In previous posts I said that China still has a (somewhat weakened) totalitarian government, but no longer a communist one. A couple of readers then questioned whether China really is still a totalitarian country at all. I think this is an important issue worth further discussion. As Confucius says, "When the name is improper, what is spoken will not be reasonable. When what is spoken is unreasonable, what is acted upon will not succeed." ("名不正则言不顺言不顺则事不成。")

To start the discussion, here is the Wikipedia definition of totalitarianism:

Totalitarianism (or totalitarian rule) is a concept used to describe political systems whereby a state regulates nearly every aspect of public and private life. Totalitarian regimes or movements maintain themselves in political power by means of an official all-embracing ideology and propaganda disseminated through the state-controlled mass media, a single party that controls the state, personality cults, control over the economy, regulation and restriction of free discussion and criticism, the use of mass surveillance, and widespread use of terror tactics.

When thinking about it according to this definition, an interesting observation emerges: While China still has a political system that is built for all the above totalitarian functions, the party that operates this state apparatus is no longer exercising many of the functions. For example, the tight control over the economy is largely gone in many settings, and the old ideology (communism) is hardly mentioned in propagandas any more. Stupid restrictions on free discussion and criticism still exist, for example the internet blockage and the recent arrest of Liu Xiaobo, but there are also a huge amount of dissenting voices that can be heard on the internet. When it comes to individual life style choices, people are largely left alone. In recent years, there have emerged independent media outlets such as Caijing and the publications of the Southern Media Group. Those things certainly couldn't have happened in Mao's time.

Another thing I found very interesting during my recent trip to China is that a growing number of people choose to join other political parties such as the Zhigong Party, either for political participation or self-protection or both. The background of this is the influence and political status of those so-called democratic parties have been, bit by bit, increasing. I met a senior medical doctor in Chongqing who is a member of the Zhigong Party, and he told me a story about a businessman who was wrongly jailed. Fortunately that man was a ranking member of another one of the democratic parties. With the support and appeals from his party, the man regained his freedom. "You need an organization to back you up if you want to fight injustice. One person does not have enough strength," the doctor told me. "Years ago when I wanted to join the CCP, they didn't want me. Now they want me, but I no longer what them," he added with a smile. All together, the many legal democratic parties in China are still not strong enough to match the CCP's power. "In the local Political Consultative Conference (政协), there may be one third of us and two thirds CCP members, so when taking votes they always win," the doctor told me, but he was also quick to point out the strength of democratic parties was growing. However, it occurs to me effective political reform is needed to really give these democratic parties, and others that should be allowed to emerge, their due status.

Here is something else I found out: the CCP's power is fading at base levels of the government and society. In a public work-unit, there are usually two top officials: the administrative official and the Party official (called "the secretary"). Traditionally, the Party secretary dominated the administrative official (who could be a non-CCP member). Nowadays, this remains true at certain higher levels, for example the county level (regiment level in the military) and above. But at lower levels the administrative official now typically holds more power.

The gradual fading of "personality cults" in China is also significant. People of my generation can vividly remember how such a personality cult reached the peak during the Cultural Revolution. After Mao died, there were still strong propaganda campaigns trying to build personality cults for the succeeding leaders Hua Guofeng, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin, but each time on a reduced scale. Nowadays, you see very little of these attempts at cult building for the current leader Hu Jintao.

So, why does a one-party government that possesses the totalitarian system machine give up operating much of it? There may be many reasons but one, IMO, is due to the progressive trend of civilization world wide. This certainly includes the Chinese people's wakening to their own rights, ever since the Cultural Revolution ended over three decades ago. Globalization might have brought in many bad things but one good thing – I'll call it information globalization – has made it much harder to control people and information now than before. This is to say, running counter to the progressive civilization trend increasingly damages the legitimacy of the party's leadership. Certainly they continue to do things that seem backward, but the boat is still higher when the water is rising.

There are also signs that the central control is increasingly weakened by internal factions within the CCP as well as the effective dispersion of power to sector and local leaders. A recent example is the "empty the cage for new birds" (腾笼换鸟) case. Last October, the party boss of Guangdong Province, Wang Yang, used this term to demonstrate the idea of having new, capital-intensive industries replace the old, labor- intensive industries in Guangdong. As such he took the current economic crisis that closed many of the factories – what he called the "backward productive force" – as a good opportunity. This idea was viewed by his opponents as a selfish localism aimed at getting rid of the large number of migrant workers in Guangdong. And Wang Yang's idea is not supported by Premier Wen Jiabao, who made a number of speeches to emphasize the importance of supporting small and medium sized private enterprises that provide jobs to migrant workers.

Party factions have always existed in CCP's history, but they were either consealed from the public or publicized in a violent way. Such a conflict between Wang Yang (a local boss) and Wen Jiabao (the nation's Premier) to be made public peacefully would have been unthinkable in the old times. Lately, there is also a sign that Hu Jintao supports Wang Yang, which puts the President and the Premier in somewhat opposite positions. Rumor has it that Wang Yang belonged to Hu Jintao's Youth League faction, while Wen Jiabao is from the State Council clique, so this dispute could be a factional one. Without making a rash judgment on whose arguments make more sense, I must say so far this "cage and bird" debate has been largely rational and non-confrontational from both sides.

To point out the above changes is not to gloss over China's problems such as government corruption, social injustice, and the lack of independent judiciary. Rather, I see a hope here that a peaceful ongoing improvement in these areas might be possible. Given the significant reduction in China's totalitarian function and power, could we say that China now has progressed into a semi-totalitarian country from the Mao era of totalitarian? If this holds, and if this first half of the transformation has been made relatively (but not completely) peacefully, isn't there the possibility that the second half of the transformation, from semi-totalitarian to non-totalitarian, could also be non-violent?

For this I see the increasingly publicized factional disagreement within the CCP as a helpful, and benign, sign. When factions go public, it also points to the hope for possible voting differences within the CCP so that vote of the doctor I spoke of above might really count. That could in turn be the first step toward a more complete democracy.

Of course, there may also be more severe factional conflicts behind the scenes, between the vested interest groups of the "prince party" (太子党) and the unnamed benign force, as the rumor on the street has it. If so, political reform is needed even sooner to prevent something much worse than political backstabbing from happening.

The danger is, the totalitarian state apparatus is still lying there, even if it is semi-inactive. No one can guarantee it will never be activated again by some insane leaders if political reform is not carried out in a timely manner.

(Thanks for reading my tentative thoughts. Rational discussions on the above are welcome and much appreciated.)


Anonymous said...

最欣赏比尔盖羡在哈佛演讲中的其中一段:But humanity's greatest advances are not in its discoveries – but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity. Whether through democracy, strong public education, quality health care, or broad economic opportunity – reducing inequity is the highest human achievement.除了DEMOCRACY(好像需要时间,这个词我们国家定义跟西方不同),国家正大力通过STRONG PUBLIC EDUCATION,QUALITY HEALTH CARE,BROAD ECONOMIC OPPOERTUNITY来减少不平等。IMO,WE ARE AT THE CORRECT WAY.

Anonymous said...

真是不好意思,将BILL GATE(比尔盖茨)的名字打错,现纠正。

Xujun said...

Hi Zhou, no problem. I often have typos myself. Thanks for commenting.

alfaeco said...

Strictly speaking China is no longer a Totalitarian state.

It can still be defined as an authoritarian state though.

Or if you prefer a watered down definition, as an arbitrarian state.

What I found worrying in your post is the fragmentation of power. Combined with a lack of check and balances it should eventually lead to conflicts between power centers and greater difficulties to control them.

That dynamic make the country more and more difficult to manage

It is paradoxical, I believe the main reason for CCP to prevent the implementation of a system of check and balances (whatever it may be:elections, open media, independence judiciary, etc, tec) is to prevent its loss of power, but by doing it its power and controls capability its been eroded in this new situation.

Could it not be in the best interest of the CCP to implement those checks and balances as a way to be able to manage the new power entities born from the increasingly dispersion of power?

Xujun said...

Hi Alfonso, I agree that the dispersion of power might be worrisome, especially with corrupted local and sector powers (and there are already signs of the latter as well). On the other hand, I think open factions could help lead to the party's internal reform toward democracy. Such reform will indeed be in the CCP's best interest.

Tingkun55 said...

Hi Xujun,

I wish I were as optimistic as you! But I wish to raise the following issues:

What do you mean by "the progressive trend of civilization worldwide"? The proliferation of nuclear weapons? The ability of Wall Street capitalists to wreck the world economy? The rise of Islamic fundamentalism?

Remember that totalitarianism was regarded as a distinctly modern phenomenon. There were no totalitarian regimes before the 20th century. And totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy and the Russia were very adept at using new techologies to oppress people.

China may not have personality cults anymore, but surely the Party wants to stir up Chinese nationalist sentiment-- the Olympics, the space flights, etc. Seeing as Marxism/Maoism has more or less withered away as an ideological force, old-fashioned nationalism is the glue the Party is using to maintain its power. And doesn't China have new capitalist-heroes, as opposed to worker-heroes? Seems to me that all these Chinese Bill Gateses have their own cult. There may not be posters of them like there were for Lei Feng, but they sure get plenty of media time.


Anonymous said...

China is still a bona fide communist country, because all lands belong to the government, which is the most important feature of communism. I think this kind of regime, which uses a land based taxation system, is super-stable economically, in the sense that theoretically, the government can deal with any budget deficit by raising land utilization taxes.

As for the direction of China’s future development, I think that for the short term, China is moving toward deliberative democracy. Chinese government knows that they cannot control the internet, and nobody can. The most logical thing for the government to do is to use internet as a public forum, where public opinions and suggestions about government policies will be evaluated for improvement.

Anonymous said...

Xujun, thanks for sharing that interesting info on the Zhigong party. If you go to the official website of NPC you can see the percentage of different parties from each province and they are significant.

However, I find your post very optimistic. The semi-democratic experiments at municipality level have been going on for years now, and the feuds among factions of the CPS are not really new, look at Shanghai's major scandal in 06, for example.

Also, those political parties seem to me a mere cosmetic change, so the government can tell the people: "you see, we have a special democratic system better than the Western." To this effect, see the recent speech by NPC chairman and politburo 2nd in line Mr. Wu Bangguo. Also, see how Wen's timid attempts at some kind of political reform are quickly muted by the party. All links are in my last post here:

I am afraid that CPC will not make any fundamental change until it finds itself forced to do it. Which makes sense: why would anyone, when all is going well, give up all their power to introduce a new democratic system that has no guarantees of success and that can easily turn against them ? Come to think of it, if I were in Hu's shoes I am not sure I would go for it either...

alfaeco said...

"why would anyone, when all is going well, give up all their power to introduce a new democratic system that has no guarantees of success and that can easily turn against them ?"

Yes. But they could still promote an effective independent judiciary, reasonable free press and less stringent censorships.

They could be good tools to control local officials/government/departments and bring them some degree of accountability.

By doing that the central gov. could also use the trick of appearing as the protector of simple people. Like the king/emperor against nobles/aristocracy for the sake of its subjects well being and protections of rights. (even it is at placebo level)

Free press would be understood as a press free enough to report the doings of governments and specially officials, but never to go beyond the limit of putting the system too much in doubt.

In a similar way as in the US, some issues could be pre-nogiated between major news/journalist before making them public, and cooperation in cover ups or sugaring issues could be compensated providing enticing information for later local consumption, or relaxing restrictions in some area permanently or temporary.

Actually, by being more clever, the could present the image of a benevolent and enlighten authoritarian regime which guides with tender but firm hand to a brighter and freer future... that always remains in the future.

Status quo remains, but things would keep improving bit bit though

Not such a dim future after all... or should I call it present.

Anonymous said...

About that independent judiciary, reasonable free press, and less stringent censorship, I think that runs into the control/power issue. Although the current censorship policies could be a lot smarter. Some of the things they censor is just stupid (nothing off the top of my head at the moment but I'm sure you fine people know what I'm talking about).

Mark Anthony Jones said...

Xujun wrote: "While China still has a political system that is built for all the above totalitarian functions, the party that operates this state apparatus is no longer exercising many of the functions."

This is an interesting way of looking at China's political system, although some may might argue that the same could be said for parliamentary democracies like Australia, Britain and the United States.

I plan to write a detailed essay for my China Discourse website on what I take to be a democratising China, so I have been researching this very topic of late. I hope to publish it at the end of next month. I'm still synthasising a variety of viewpoints, so I have yet to form my own opinion.

On a different topic, will your book, "Apologies Forthcoming" be released in Australia - the Blacksmith's Hong Kong edition perhaps? I've been looking out for it in all of my local bookstores, as I'm hoping to review it for my site. Any idea then, of a possible Australian release date?

alfaeco said...

I wonder if some of the funny censorship blocking decisions are taking not because the central gov. consider it necessary to silence conflictive websites but rather by the internal dynamic of the "censorship-industrial complex".

In a way similar to the military-industrial complex, this so called censorship-industrial complex crates it own dynamic to justify its existence and consumption of money and resources.

This may be the reason why censorship in China has become so stringent. The censorship-industrial complex vested interest is to mace censorship as extensive and complex as possible, even if it goes against the interest of CH gov.

Less stringent censorship policies would go against the vested interest of this complex. It would reduce its size an amount of resources it can get.

A possible solution to the problem would be to direct the human and material resources that are now being dedicated to extensive internet blocking to profitable service areas.

For example, instead of censoring the internet, extensive surveillance of the blogshpere can be done to provide gov and institutions in CH with detailed status and dynamic of public opinion.
I think this is already, maybe that activity should be enhanced.

Other option would be to provide internet filtering as outsourced service. A promising business area that requires substantial resources an man power.

Variations to that filtering would be to provide outsourced censorship services to totalitarian, authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes. Democratic and freer regimes could be also interested, there is growing drive to censor file sharing, pornography and child abuses on the internet.

By providing growth areas to the censorship-industrial complex I think it would be easier to get a more reasonable censorship in Chinese internet.

Anonymous said...

Hello Alfonso, do you run a blog? If so, could you point to it? I find your views on China refreshing and interesting.

alfaeco said...

Sorry to say, I have no blog. I am kind of lazy and wouldn't be able to hold a blog for long time.

I prefer to use the facilities that people like Xunjun are kind enough to provide and take the bother to maintain.
I held bloggers like her in high esteem.

Also I wouldn't have much to say to give a blog a good use. Prefer to drop here and there and occasional comment when I find it interesting. Sometimes I get the post bug, but it is not strong enough to make me set up a blog.

I find CH fascinating and am an usual reader and occasional poster on a few CH blogs. This one being one of them.
You may find me under "ecodelta" identifier in other blogs

I use Google reader as an post aggregator, quite useful but dangerously addictive.

If you use Google Reader wouldn't mind to share some links.

Glad to hear you find my comments refreshing and interesting :-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks Alfonso.

Anonymous said...

haha, you are ecodelta. Why do you take a Spanish name now?

Anyway, to answer to your comment, you say:
"Yes. But they could still promote an effective independent judiciary, reasonable free press and less stringent censorships."

Of course they could. And they should. But they don't.

Because that would mean separating powers, and that is exactly what Wu Bangguo has said they will not do. They want the power "in a unified way", all for themselves.

It makes sense, because if they had a truly independent judicial power and press, quite a few of the corrupion schemes would be exposed, and the whole guanxi network that keeps the party together might collapse.

So what is being done? Superficial or purely cosmetic changes. And as long as China continues to thrive economically and the government is not seriously put under pressure by the people, I really don't see how they could do more.

I could perhaps believe in change if it depended only on one person, like Deng Xiaoping, who accumulated most of the power. One leader can have a vision and can decide to take risks for it. But a shapeless bunch of people that owe favours to each other can simply not afford to do that.

That is what we are seeing these last years, IMO, in spite of Hu and Wen's apparent good intentions.

Xujun said...

@Ben: The phenomena you point out, such as the party's use of nationalist sentiment and capitalist-heroes as means to maintain its power (or enhance the legitimacy of its ruling), are all true, but those are not the same thing as the personality cults discussed in this post. They are worth looking into in their own rights though.

@Anon (next to Ben): it is true that the government still owns the land, however the content of land ownership now is quite different from that of the Mao era. Urban residents now enjoy the property rights to 70 years , a significant increase from the 30-year rights set in 1993, which was in turn increased from the 15-year term set in the 1980s. The privatization trend is still ongoing, for example President Hu Jintao recently told the farmers that they could soon sell or transfer their land rights. It is entirely possible that the land ownership will be more completely privatized in the near future.

Xujun said...

Uln, I'm actually a pessimistic person in nature, so it's interesting that you found me being optimistic. :-) My main aim here is to explore possible scenarios as to how a relatively peaceful political reform might occur, and one of which could be through open factions within the party. Speaking of factional conflicts, the recent "cage and bird" dispute is very different in nature from the Shanghai scandal. It is less a power struggle than dispute over ideas, and it's done openly and peacefully (so far), which is why I take it as a cautiously encouraging sign.

As to the political parties, if they can get their members out of jail, if they dare to issue different voices on policy matters, those are not quite cosmetic changes, don't you think? Especially if you knew how cosmetic and helpless they were during the Mao era. Small and slow changes maybe, but there are noticeable changes.

I do think it is in the Party's own interest to reform, as Alfonso has argued. And if the Party has gone this far, it could go further. But this of course depends on the rise and ebb in power between the reformists and the vested interest groups. No one can foresee the future just yet.

By the way, I found your recent posts about the NPC very interesting and informative. Thanks for the links!

Xujun said...

Mark, I don't think my book will be released in Australia in the near future. Some publisher there has to buy the rights first, you know. Thanks for your interest though.

alfaeco said...

"haha, you are ecodelta. Why do you take a
Spanish name now?"

Because I post with a profile that pick up my name. In other blogs there is not profile selection.

And yes. Spanish people use to have Spanish names.... ;-)

I agree with most of your post, it is the pessimistic view of the future of CH than many fear.

Lets hope that CH can surprise us here once more.

Interesting point about Deng. Can changes only take place when a great leader arises above the status quo seeking nomenclature?

It is not without dangers, just remembers past history. That he has a vision, does not mean that the vision is a good one, or can be implemented without unexpected consequences.

The only thing that can be said now, is that much has improved in CH lately, but much more has to be done in the future the keep them and to enhance them.

"Here in Southeast Asia, far away from the high drama and frequent, high-pitched calls for national fervor, I am reminded that despite the jaw-dropping success of recent decades, many of China's native sons and daughters continue to leave (or flee) the country due to poverty, lack of opportunity or political persecution. Perhaps frenzied nationalism could wait for the day when the government does not leave its citizens hungry in the cold, its political dissidents helpless before authoritarian repression and its citizens opting for new life in foreign lands. Until then, this daughter of the "motherland" will settle for finding solace in fish head dishes, congee, roast pig and banter with other Chinese whose mere existence provides a stark reminder of how much more China must still do for its citizens."

Jerry said...

How wonderful to have found this blog. Thanks for the insightful post and to the commenters for the discussion. As a Canadian who is woefully lacking in knowledge about the socio-political situation in China, it is really nice to be able to read here.

Perhaps I'll actually be able to join in on the discussion sometime!

Anonymous said...

@Alfonso - Nice to see another Spanish in the China blogosphere. :)

Sorry I answer so late to your comment, I just saw it now, as this blog doesn't have email notices for comment replies. (Xujun, if you want to have more people discuss your posts I absolutely recommend you add this feature, I added myself recently and Ifind it really useful).

Re: The WSJ article you link, I suppose you have seen the record long discussion that took place on the FM forum?

Xujun said...

Welcome, SoapBoxTech.

Uln, does provide the function for email notices, but I guess that link only appears if you have provided an email address. Let me know if it works for you.

hamza orabi said...

I'm from Syria and in my school tomorrow is an international day for all the school so my teacher said to me "Bring some information about china"