Forum Final Response
July 14, 2011
With Responses From
Jul 14, 2011
6 Min read time
The Chinese government’s gamble.
The commentaries on my article raise a number of thought-provoking points. I would like to concentrate on one: the notion of stability and conservatism as organizing principles of Chinese governance. In Andrew Walder’s view, the essence of Chinese politics is Soviet-style governance, rule by a senior leadership and a vast party network united in their unwavering focus on self-preservation. Ying Ma echoes the view, arguing that the Chinese state tolerates only those changes that buttress its power and resists anything that imperils single-party rule. And both Ma and Baogang He, with plenty of solid evidence, point to the state’s obsessive efforts to manage change, the Wei Wen Ban being just the latest.
Walder, Ma, and He are absolutely correct: the Chinese government, not unlike many of its counterparts globally, is focused on maintaining order and its own position atop the hierarchy. For at least twenty years, the need for stability has been used to justify all manner of political repression, from the nationwide crackdown in 1989 to the more targeted detentions of recent months.
But is this focus on stability really the defining feature of Chinese politics? Does it circumscribe Chinese sociopolitical change? Here, I am much more skeptical.
Why should we believe that conservatism limits the possibilities for the future when it has been so inadequate to explain what has unfolded in the not-so-distant past? The state’s obsession with stability could have been marshaled to preclude every major reform measure of the last twenty years. At each step the government’s desire to avoid disruption, to appeal to loyal constituencies, and to maintain effective institutions of control should have thwarted the radical policy initiatives that eventually were implemented: layoffs of millions of state-enterprise employees, liberalization of commodity prices, elimination of the work-unit system for urban citizens, rapid urbanization of previously rural populations, and redevelopment of urban centers at the expense of incumbent industries and entrenched locals.
Far from prioritizing self-preservation, the Chinese government has gambled on radical and socially destabilizing reforms.
These moves and others like them would have appeared impossibly risky to a system bent on self-preservation. Until they happened. After the fact, they could be explained away as the efforts of a conservative leadership to preserve its rule through the promotion of growth. That is, one could argue that the Chinese state undertakes only those measures that foster growth and maintain the existing hierarchy. But that argument begs the question.
It makes sense only in hindsight, amid continued growth and Communist Party rule, to suggest that recent Chinese reforms have been geared only toward stability. As the policies were being rolled out, the political leadership was effectively throwing the dice, gambling on the idea that radical and socially destabilizing reforms would sustain growth. And when growth resulted, new problems were created, ones that demanded ever more radical solutions—and tolerance of once-vilified classes of problem-solvers. Such willingness to take risk is not characteristic of systems focused exclusively or even primarily on maintaining stability and order. Want to see systems that are truly seeking self-preservation through order and control? Look to those that are desperately clinging to life by fending off growth and improved living standards: North Korea and Cuba. But that is not China.
What is so distinctive about the Chinese political system is not that it is one of the few remaining in the Soviet mold (it is), but rather that it is developmental. China—not unlike Taiwan and South Korea before it—is trying simultaneously to pursue stability and transformative growth, outcomes that are in some sense opposites. We are not talking about the kind of 2 or 3 percent yearly growth to which advanced industrial societies are accustomed. China’s growth is on a scale that is intrinsically deracinating and destabilizing; it involves the kind of transformative processes of industrialization and urbanization that shook Western societies to their cores over the course of centuries, but that China has undergone in the span of mere decades. The Chinese state and the Party may think they are preserving order. So did the state in South Korea and in Taiwan. The Chinese have proven willing to suppress dissent, often brutally. Ditto South Korea and Taiwan. But at each key decision point, China, like its fellow East Asian developers, has opted for growth rather than order. In doing so the Party and the government have willingly exposed themselves and society to an unpredictable and uncontrollable future. That is the defining feature of a developmental state: for all its conservatism, it pursues revolutionary ends.
Of course, Guobin Yang is right that economic development in China has been uneven. The newly disempowered—migrants, low-skilled wage laborers, the rural poor, the elderly, the infirm—are every bit as central to the contemporary Chinese milieu as newly empowered entrepreneurs and real estate developers. Yet such patterns of inequity are unfortunately not unique to the Chinese experience, but are instead characteristic of economic development everywhere. One need look no further than the United States and Western Europe for developmental histories replete with exploitation, abuse, violence, and environmental degradation. Indeed, one need look no further than those advanced industrial societies today for evidence of the propensity of markets to fail, regulators and commercial actors to become enmeshed in double dealing and conflicts of interest, and accumulated liabilities to be conveniently hived off to the least empowered segments of the population.
Similar—and similarly distressing—phenomena from the West do not justify what is happening in China today. They do, however, tell us two things. First, economic development is always deeply destabilizing. It is hard to control, and its benefits are not shared equally.
Second, under conditions of uncertainty, sociopolitical change can proceed even in the face of seemingly unassailable hierarchies of power. In a few notable cases, change has come through revolution, the direct overthrow of long-standing institutions. However, for the reasons that Walder and Helen Wang point out, I don’t believe that is a likely outcome in China today. As both Walder and Wang suggest, the Chinese Communist Party-state is not merely a governmental bureaucracy and set of coercive control mechanisms. It has increasingly become a social establishment. It is now the organization that young strivers join in their effort to make a difference, to acquire status, and to gain influence. Interestingly, so too has it become the organizational home for many of the progressive social entrepreneurs and NGO founders whom Yang describes.
Yet, while the Party is unquestionably an establishment with rules, incentives, and subtle mechanisms of socialization and indoctrination, the young business people, academics, and social entrepreneurs now joining are not unreflective sell-outs ready and willing to be co-opted. They appreciate a mode of change that takes place incrementally and thoroughly within the existing order. It would be wrong to dismiss such change simply because it takes time: institutions can gradually erode and be reoriented from within, often to a point where they cease to resemble their earlier selves.
In almost all cases, this happens despite the original preferences of those at the top of the hierarchy. Sometimes the powerful don’t perceive what is happening until it is too late. Sometimes they see what is going on, their priorities evolve, and they embrace change. And sometimes the old guard simply dies off and is replaced by new generations with new concerns. The strong do not always win. And the winners are not always the strong. That in some ways has been the story of the empowerment of marginalized groups in the United States: women, African Americans, gays and lesbians, etc. So too has it been the story of the reorientation of institutions such as the House of Lords in the United Kingdom. And finally, most relevant for China, so too has it been the story of the democratization of once authoritarian developmental states in East Asia.
While we have you...
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.