Undoubtedly, the work of leading the rise of China, rejuvenating the Chinese nation and improving the lives of the Chinese people is the fundamental source of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s legitimacy.
The party has been quite successful in all these aspects. According to opinion polls conducted by both domestic and international polling organisations, approval ratings for the party have remained high for a long time. But how may the regime’s affinity with the people be maintained perpetually in the absence of electoral democracy? This remains a conundrum that the CCP has yet to resolve completely.
Everything about the People’s Republic of China (PRC) revolves around the word “people”. In this country, we have the People’s Government, the People’s Congress, the People’s Court, the People’s Bank, the People’s Liberation Army, the People’s Political Consultative Conference, the people’s communes, the People’s Police, the renminbi (literally “the people’s currency”), etc.
It was Mao Zedong who came up with the party tenet of “serving the people”. The first of his three famous early essays bore the title “Serve the People”. Mao was known to have firmly asserted: “Who’s God? He is the people!” Decades later, thus said Deng Xiaoping as he looked back on his own life: “I am a son of the Chinese people. I love my motherland and her people deeply.”
‘Serving the renminbi’ to 'serving the people'
After reform and opening up began, China had gone through a phase where the whole country was “serving the renminbi”, so to speak. But by 2000, when Jiang Zemin spoke of the “Three Represents”, the CCP was said to “[represent] the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people”. In 2002, as Hu Jintao came to power, he put forth his new “Three People’s Principles”: power should be used for the people, sentiments should be linked to the people, and benefits should be sought for the people.
Closer to today, Xi Jinping’s version of this triad emphasises that the CCP is “of the people, by the people, for the people”. Xi also declares, very much à la Mao: “This country is its people; the people are the country. As we have fought to establish and consolidate our leadership over the country, we have in fact been fighting to earn and keep the people’s support.” He also says that “concordance with the people’s support and approval is the basis and purpose for [the party’s] policy formulations and decisions”.
In addition, the CCP has affirmed in its constitution its “dedication to wholeheartedly serving the people”, claiming that the party “has no special interests of its own”. The party is said to have “never represented any individual interest group, power group, or privileged stratum”, for its mission lies only in “seeking happiness for the Chinese people and rejuvenation for the Chinese nation”.
In order to realise the grand ideals of communism, the party must reshape the thinking of society and the people, and demand that they make sacrifices and contributions...
Commoners in the hands of authorities
But with the CCP as a Leninist vanguard party, there is a lot of fuzziness with regard to how its affinity with the people may be maintained. Efforts to this end can very easily arrive at undesirable results contrary to the ultimate goal.
First and foremost, general elections are at odds with the nature of the Leninist party. The vanguard party is supposed to lead the people, but the masses, by definition less advanced, cannot possibly form a progressive party through election.
The second thing to note is that “serving the people” has become tremendously complicated by the party’s pursuit of a future ideal society. In order to realise the grand ideals of communism, the party must reshape the thinking of society and the people, and demand that they make sacrifices and contributions instead of giving the people whatever they want as an electoral party.
From the Rural Cooperative Campaign, joint state-private enterprises, the people’s communes, state-run enterprises characterised by greater scale and public ownership, planned economy, to the Maoist tenet that says, “In the east, west, south, north and centre, from the party’s affairs and the government to the military, citizenry and academia, the party holds leadership over all” etc., power has been concentrated in the party’s cadres across various levels. The fate of the common folk is put in the hands of the government officials.
Indeed, under the work unit (danwei)-based system prior to China’s reform and opening up, the control held by the party and the state over the life and fate of every individual far surpassed that which was enjoyed by the feudal ruling class of any dynasty in Chinese history. In exchange, the party not only promises an ideal society in the future, but also gives assurance that it will serve the people wholeheartedly.
However, in this tacit social contract, the power placed in the cadres’ hands is something very real, concrete and institutionalised, often to the point where these individuals can decide critical losses or gains (even life or death) for those in their charge. In contrast, there is no systemic guarantee for their commitment to serve the people, and the “great ideals of communism” is something of a mirage.
With such an imbalance between the substantial and the insubstantial, the officials of various levels, localities and units are in a position where they can choose to serve the people slavishly, or to ride roughshod over them.
...in real life, cadres constantly face the temptation to lord over the populace oppressively.
The party cadres who truly served the people with slavish devotion — exemplary heroes like Jiao Yulu, Kong Fansen, Lei Feng, Zhang Side, Wang Jinxi, Chen Yonggui and Liao Junbo — fed into the main thrust of the official propaganda and ideological indoctrination. These figures had indeed inspired many young people, including Xi Jinping back in his formative years. Nevertheless, in real life, cadres constantly face the temptation to lord over the populace oppressively.
After all, objectively speaking, the power and positions they hold enable them to do so with ease. The privileged class that was the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the widespread corruption that the CCP struggles against are both manifestations of such a behavioural choice.
The pursuit of the future ideal society requires sacrifices and hard struggles in the here and now. The Great Leap Forward resulted in tens of millions of “non-normal deaths” but no one was held responsible, because the campaign had been launched with “a good motive”.
Consequences of the masses run amok
When Mao Zedong initiated the Cultural Revolution, he started from the faith and reliance on the masses, failing to realise that the masses were “trustworthy” and “reliable” only because they were under the total control of the party-state. Once the mass movements brought down the authority and institutions of the party’s rule, the innate evil in human nature was like a wild horse broken free from its reins, resulting in what the CCP describes as an “enormous catastrophe”.
But Mao Zedong was right on one point: the violence and cruelty of the campaigns of Great Criticisms were a general eruption of the masses’ discontent, which had been repressed by the bureaucratic dominance for a long time.
...public opinion is a powerful force, but the way it works in China is by catching the attention of the higher-ups who would then prompt the relevant officials to take action.
Priority in serving the higher-ups
Under the current system, whether an official chooses to serve the people slavishly or ride roughshod over them is often wholly up to his own whims.
According to an old saying, in ancient China, the courthouse of the government was open but nobody could gain entry without paying a bribe. On the flip side, commoners could beat a drum hanging outside the gate of each courthouse to summon the county magistrate to hear their grievances. There was also the political culture that regarded state officials as the “parental officials” of the people while they treated people as their own “food and clothing parents” from whom they derived a living.
Unfortunately, it is established institutions that are always more powerful than culture. The tendencies of antipathy towards and fear of government officials, and refraining from talking about state affairs and staying away from politics, are all spawned from the fact of the government enslaving the people.
...the purpose of the action is to be accountable to one’s higher-ups, not to solve the problems of the masses.
Today the drum outside the government house is no more. Commoners with grievances often have to intercept the motorcade of travelling mandarins instead, because cadres are always ensconced deep within government compounds, insulated by sentries, tight security and layers of secretaries. Endless corruption is spawned in the secretiveness of the officialdom.
In the age of the internet, public opinion is a powerful force, but the way it works in China is by catching the attention of the higher-ups who would then prompt the relevant officials to take action. The higher up an official is, the more he is concerned about the regime’s legitimacy, which is of no concern to low-level bureaucrats. It is top-down political pressure, rather than bottom-up pressure from public opinion, that pushes the relevant officials into action. Fundamentally, the purpose of the action is to be accountable to one’s higher-ups, not to solve the problems of the masses.
...whenever a big issue pops up, the first instinct is to cover it up, suppressing it for as long as possible and, when that’s not possible, to use all means to appease the victims or claimants to make the whole thing disappear.
Surviving Chinese officialdom
The behavioural consequences of the above-described mechanism include one-size-fits-all policy measures, task inflation down each layer of the bureaucracy, distorted information flows and “commandism”, and the resultant lack of rationality and humane considerations in how the grassroots governments act.
Take for instance the ongoing Shanghai lockdown, which has stirred up so much public resentment. Little is known of what went on behind the scenes in making such a momentous decision, but the whole exercise has a strong whiff of commandism to it.
To ensure that the tasks handed down by the higher-ups are fulfilled, the bureaucrats inflated the tasks at each level down the hierarchy, applied rigidly the same measures regardless of the circumstances on the ground, and practised brutal law enforcement and so on, bringing about unnecessary tragedies.
The main cause is that officials on all levels are lacking in two things: room for autonomy and an institutionalised public servant status in relation to the common folk. What the officials are most concerned about is what their higher-ups think, not the needs of the hoi polloi.
These problems of public administration have been widely recognised for a long time, yet they continue to exist despite repeated efforts to curb them. That’s because they are the intrinsic products of the system at large.
The common pattern of behaviour in officialdom is this: whenever a big issue pops up, the first instinct is to cover it up, suppressing it for as long as possible and, when that’s not possible, to use all means to appease the victims or claimants to make the whole thing disappear.
Even till this day, the CCP is still unable to do what other countries have long practised — asset disclosure for public officials, betraying the Chinese bureaucracies’ non-affinity with the people.
Let the people stay out of politics
Throughout the whole process, the “people” remains no more than an abstract notion or slogan. Even till this day, the CCP is still unable to do what other countries have long practised — asset disclosure for public officials, betraying the Chinese bureaucracies’ non-affinity with the people.
The CCP regime’s affinity with the people still resides mainly in the subjective will of the top leadership. Under the Chinese system, this will is powerful and consequential, without institutionalised guarantees, the CCP is still in danger of eventually capsizing like the CPSU.
Because of China’s cultural traditions, the systemic inertia and the vested interests of the enormous cadre corps, the default model for Chinese politics is close to what Russia has under Putin.
The CCP has a firm grip on political power on every level of the government, as well as the major enterprises and social organisations, but it also gives the common folk sufficient latitude, decent infrastructure and public goods, along with adequate welfare and options for entertainment and leisure. As long as the people are able to enjoy material sufficiency and live a relaxed life, most of them would stay out of politics.
True “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” requires a different subspecies of institutionalised democracy, one that puts the people in charge.
However, the ruling party must ensure that their policies are in line with the people’s wishes and sentiments; that corruption, abuses of power and oligarchic monopolies do not harm the general population’s interests too much. This, coupled with the backing of a powerful state coercive machinery, would guarantee lasting reign and social tranquility.
Further assurance is provided by the fact that modern technology and productive forces have either already eliminated or are eliminating the main sources of social upheavals in Chinese history, such as famines, pestilences, poverty, wars, and exploitative misgovernment that drives the populace to rebellion.
The model described above requires the least effort. It represents a subspecies of democracy, one defined by “taking charge for the people”. Its shortcoming is that it drains society of vitality and creativity, such that the people end up not only tame and obedient, but also stupefied.
In the end, we may have the entire nation stuck in stupor, with everyone having gone back to the old thousand-year slumber on a new bed. China as such would only ever be a poster boy for mediocrity or even backwardness. True “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” requires a different subspecies of institutionalised democracy, one that puts the people in charge.
Currently, the CCP is in the middle of its second round of institutionalising the empowerment of the people (i.e., “whole-process democracy”).
Institutionalising the empowerment of the people the second time round
Mao Zedong was the first to try things out along these lines. The innovativeness of the land reform in the CCP’s Soviet Zone and Liberated Areas, and of the establishment of the new PRC regime itself in 1949, goes without saying.
After 1949, Mao sought to steer the CCP away from the CPSU’s path of degenerating into a privileged class out of touch with the masses by constantly emphasising the “massline” and narrowing the “three major scissor gaps” (i.e., inequality between the rural and urban sector, mental and manual labour, and between industry and agriculture).
Eventually, he set the Cultural Revolution in motion to bring down the overbearing mandarins big and small, as well as the “new bourgeoisie”. He also strove to institutionalise many innovations, such as the tripartite revolutionary committees consisting of cadres, military personnel and representatives of the masses; the posting of cadres to work with the masses on the grassroots level; the May Seventh Cadre Schools; the demand of the “Three Togethers” (for cadres to eat together, live together and labour together with the masses); the Worker-Peasant-Soldier students programme; sending educated urban youths to labour in the mountains and villages; the “barefoot doctors”; sending artists and performers to the countryside; the Ulan Muqir troupes and so on.
Most of these initiatives failed over time because they were detached from reality and went against human nature. Nevertheless, the underlying spirit of equality and populism still has a rallying appeal today.
Currently, the CCP is in the middle of its second round of institutionalising the empowerment of the people (i.e., “whole-process democracy”). The basic concept is that democracy should be “realised not only through electoral democracy, but also through other facets of national governance, such as democratic consultation, democratic decision-making, democratic management and democratic oversight; it is to be realised not only in the domain of politics, but also widely and deeply in those of the economy, culture and society, as it becomes part of the people’s daily work and production lives.”
Unfortunately, it is precisely civil society that has been squelched by the authorities.
However, all that remains a vision for now. The desired institutionalisation requires hard, tireless efforts over the long term. Such efforts are easily fettered by old thinking, frameworks, habits and notions. They are also prone to stopping halfway or derailed due to the vested interests of the cadre corps.
Solving the problem of the regime’s legitimacy
For instance, the CCP often preaches that cadres should “self-consciously accept the supervision by the masses”. This, in effect, means that the initiative of oversight is held by the overseen themselves. Parameters like when they are to be monitored, what aspects to monitor, the extent of the monitoring, who gets to be involved, etc. can all be flexibly controlled by them. The thing about the word “self-consciously” is when the officials are not “self-conscious”, there is really no way for the people to monitor them. Furthermore, who gets to define “self-consciousness” anyway?
The systemic curse of the officials’ dual choice, between either serving the people slavishly or riding roughshod over them, must be broken through institutional reforms.
The precondition of the people becoming the masters of the country is that they must be of sound mind and mature moral character to regulate their behaviour. They must not repeat the Cultural Revolution when people went crazy and became highly destructive once put in the driver’s seat.
The mature character must be nurtured in a mature civil society, with which autonomy and self-government over community affairs would serve as the first lesson in the praxis of democracy. Unfortunately, it is precisely civil society that has been squelched by the authorities.
The ongoing fight against Covid-19 in Shanghai is almost completely reliant on the official organisational system to control every minute detail. Should this system fail, there are no NGOs to serve as a second line of defence, and so the tragedies caused by the rigid, cookie-cutter approach would become inevitable. In contrast, whenever Japan suffers a great disaster, its people are able to conduct self-rescue successfully even if official aid takes a long time to reach them.
For the empowerment of the people to be institutionalised, the people have to be able to wield systemic influence over the careers of government officials. The systemic curse of the officials’ dual choice, between either serving the people slavishly or riding roughshod over them, must be broken through institutional reforms. Failure to achieve this would mean that the problem of the regime’s legitimacy can never be completely resolved.
Related: China needs to work towards a new socialism | Can socialist China change society's value orientation and triumph over the ills of capitalism? | The Chinese ruling party needs a new pact with the people to forge a more humane and self-confident nation | A new paradigm needed: China cannot achieve 'common prosperity' with Marxism and class struggle | Rise of China's CCP and demise of USSR's CPSU: A tale of two communist parties