The Thinking China section of our site follows developments in the Chinese intellectual world by gradually building up a dictionary of Key Intellectuals who are positioned along the cultural-political spectrum of debate in the Chinese commonwealth. Under Key Articles we publish translations and updates on topics of current interest, while in The China Story Journal essays such as the following contribution by Sebastian Veg add to our understanding of the intellectual life of that country, and its relevance to political and social change.
Sebastian Veg is the Research Director of The French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Hong Kong and the director of publication for China Perspectives/ Perspectives Chinoises.—The Editor
As the dust begins to settle following the Eighteenth Congress of the Communist Party of China (CCP) held in November 2012, and the transition period of party-state leaders draws to a close with the upcoming National People’s Congress session in March, it may be time to reflect on the outcomes of the latest leadership turnover.
Many commentators have noted a change in style, beginning with Xi Jinping’s 习近平 relaxed attitude when announcing the new Standing Committee (in contrast with Hu Jintao’s 胡锦涛 usual wooden delivery of his work report only days before), yet it remains doubtful that style will translate into substantial reform. Rather than focusing on the micro-politics and factional jostling of Zhongnanhai, an environment about which one is hard pressed to produce anything more than informed guesswork, the following notes are the result of taking a step back from the minutiae of politics and speculation in China today and to situate the transition within a larger social and intellectual context.
In the first place, the transition can be viewed from the two perspectives of institutionalisation and politicisation. An important question raised in the run-up to the Congress, especially in the context of the fall of the Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai 薄熙来 in March 2012, was to what extent the procedural mechanisms were strong enough to resist Bo’s challenge (see Joseph Fewsmith’s and Alice Miller’s different perspectives on whether the Bo case constituted a ‘challenge’ to China’s institutionalized system), and whether the new leadership would propose a clear political line, in response to those who aspire to reintroduce politics into the Party’s technocratic discourse of governance.
Although many commentators have criticized the new Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) for its alleged conservatism, it may make more sense to highlight the evacuation of political factors in choosing the candidates. All members of the previous Politburo aged sixty-seven or under were up for promotion (according to the rule now well-known as qi shang ba xia 七上八下); however, rather than striking a balance between ‘elite princelings’ and ‘populists’ (as predicted by the Washington-based political analyst Cheng Li), promotion took place strictly by age (aside from the two top leaders), with Politburo members young enough to enter the PBSC in 2017 being left out of this year’s selection. This provided a most convenient non-factional explanation for the decision to restrict it to seven members, allowing a ‘depoliticzed’ compromise for PBSC membership. The institutionalization of succession by age has attained a high degree of refinement: ten years in advance of the next transition, Hu Chunhua 胡春华 and Sun Zhengcai 孙政才 (both born in 1963) were preferred for induction into the Politburo over Zhou Qiang 周强 (b.1960). In this sense, we may say that the transition favored institutionalisation over politics. This was compounded by the setting of an historical precedent with Hu Jintao stepping down as head of the Central Military Commission at the same time as handing over the position of Party General Secretary.
Another perspective from which to view the post-Congress wash-up is the sociology of the elites, and the capacity of the CCP to absorb newly emergent and rising social groups. While admirers of the China’s ‘authoritarian resilience’ tend to highlight the meritocratic dimension of the Party leadership-promotion system, in keeping with the growing ‘institutionalisation’ of non-democratic decision-making procedures, Xi Jinping’s immediate symbolic call to fight corruption attests how deeply the regime, including the arm devoted to economic policy and the governance of State-owned Enterprises, is paralysed not only by egregious corruption, but also by factional infighting, patron-client ties and vested interests (即得利益 has become a catchword in China). While, in terms of the institutionalisation of succession procedures, the new PBSC may be seen as a providing a successful example of the evacuation of political challenges within the system, on the sociological level, with the exception of Li Keqiang 李克强, it is dominated by offspring of former leaders (‘princelings’). In this sense, the leadership risks being confronted by an ever-wider coalition of groups who feel excluded from the small circles of power that make decisions behind closed doors (China’s urban ‘white collars’ may be fed up with being governed by ‘black collars’), and infighting for the next major PBSC turnover in 2017 has probably already begun.
The third perspective on the party-state power transition relates to state-society relations and the familiar alternating periods of fang 放 (relaxation) and shou 收 (repression). As many analysts (most recently David Shambaugh) have noted, there has been a documentable ratcheting up of repression since 2008, regardless of whether this was triggered by the Tibetan uprising, the Olympic Games, the Ürümchi protests or the sixtieth anniversary of the People’s Republic. According to the usual cycle, there is a good chance that it will be followed by a wave of fang, or relaxation, something perhaps suggested by the downgrading of the Head of Political-Legal Committee from PBSC membership.
In recent years, the weiwen 维稳 (stability preservation) system, encompassing the Ministries of State and Public security and various other bodies under the overall responsibility of Zhou Yongkang 周永康, has been able to secure huge funding for its activities, thus becoming one of the greatest entrenched interests of all . Hence, the recent announcement by the new head of the Political-Legal Committee, Meng Jianzhu 孟建柱, that the practice of Re-education Through Labor (RTL) will be abolished probably also reflects a desire at the top to reign in the security apparatus and its rising costs. However, a phase of fang/relaxation will not necessarily mean less control overall, but rather simply control of a different nature. After all, the Party has become increasingly interested in the pursuit of what we may call corporatism or ‘incitativised authoritarianism’. This is an approach, in which carefully vetted non-governmental structures are employed to pull certain sectors of society into the orbit of the state, and then ultimately outsource control of society to them. This type of ‘social management’ 社会管理, which can also be seen as a Chinese version of global managerialism, is evident both in the policing of the Internet and oversight of NGOs. We might see such forms of creative Party-directed social management strategies extended through a number of symbolic measures, such as hukou 户口 or household registration reform, the one child policy, or assets disclosure of government officials.
The questions of greater elite diversity and shifting social control from repression to the co-öptation of society via vetted para-state organizations brings us back to the question of politicisation. Any reform agenda can only be successful, even in a limited way, if it can mobilise widespread support inside and beyond the Party. However, while in the 1980s there was a remarkable, if temporary, consensus between a broad swathe of thinkers in China’s intellectual world and a group of reformers and technocrats within the state bureaucracy, since 1989 consensus has proven elusive, even among intellectuals. This has been the case in regard to specific policy alternatives as well as for more fundamental questions such as the nature of the Chinese nation, the place of revolution in twentieth-century Chinese history, and the ideal institutional framework for the state in the twenty-first century. In recent years, we have seen a growing divergence between ‘organic’ intellectuals who a keep a foot inside the system, and the search for alternatives outside it in the arenas of legal and social activism, rights defence, as well as academic, journalistic or artistic research on ‘vulnerable groups’ 弱势群体. Reform proposals for the polity as a whole have ranged from the most gradual (such as Cao Siyuan’s 曹思源 ‘separation of powers within the Party’ 党内分权) to the most radical, like those of the authors and signatories of Charter 08. Where, if at all, can intellectuals inside and outside the system find the impetus for a new consensus?
In a recent essay, the retired Peking University professor of Chinese literature Qian Liqun 钱理群 (also interviewed recently about his controversial book on Mao Zedong) proposes a useful typology of current intellectual positions, which he divides into six clusters:
- The ‘China Model’, based on nationalism, statism and populism: encouraged by the government, with a strong popular base;
- Mao-nostalgia, supported by certain old cadres, intellectuals and laid-off workers;
- ‘New Democracy’, brought back into the limelight in recent years by Liu Yuan 刘源 and Zhang Musheng 张木生 and supported by the ‘Red progeny’, based on absolute preservation of the power of the Party but more flexible on policy matters;
- Social democracy inspired by the theories of the late Xie Tao 谢韬, allying constitutionalism and social protection, supported by publications like Yanhuang Chunqiu 《炎黄春秋》;
- Liberal constitutionalism (Charter 08), supported by a strong majority of the metropolitan media and NGO workers; and
- New Confucianism, which supports a return of the state and the use of National Studies 国学 as an element of soft power, with a strong anti-Western streak.
This typology is quite useful as it offers a more nuanced account than one-dimensional analysis of the ‘New Left’ and ‘New Right’, which in recent years have also been loosely aligned with the Guangdong and Chongqing ‘models’. This kind of binary analysis structures (and strictures) the analysis and understanding of China’s complex intellectual topography among many Western analysts. In such a landscape liberal constitutionalists are also advocates of privatization and laissez-faire capitalism, while ‘leftist’ alternatives are found only on the side of pro-CCP intellectuals like Wang Shaoguang 王绍光 (whose notion of ‘China 3.0’ provides the title for the ECFR report edited by Mark Leonard, which was recently featured in The China Story Journal which published Leonard’s introduction to the volume, ‘What Does China Think?‘).
However, Qian Liqun does not specify how these groups or forces are situated on a political spectrum; such a classification would be useful in thinking about possible alliances. These six groups could be arranged according to a classic left to right graduation: Neo-Maoists would be the furthest on the left, followed by New Democracy, Social Democrats, Liberal Constitutionalists, with New Confucians (a category which might be usefully broadened to include ‘Neo-Traditionalists’) furthest to the right. Supporters of the China Model seem versatile or apolitical, sharing a form of populism with the Mao-nostalgics, cultural nationalism with the Neo-Traditionalists and the primacy of the absolute power of the party with advocates of New Democracy.
Where then on this political spectrum might a new consensus emerge? Various options seem possible. On the right we might see a conjunction based on nationalism, anti-westernism and the rejection of democracy, which could federate all groups except social democrats and liberals. An alliance to the left, however, might be based on the idea of corporatism: by co-opting carefully vetted NGOs and non-government groups and outsource the provision of social services to them (as Wang Yang 汪洋 successfully did in Guangdong), it could both increase control of society and, at the same time, improve social services, something advocated by proponents of the ‘Chongqing Model’ and the New Left.
The last option, which might seem the most desirable, also appears the most unlikely: an alliance of moderates at the centre, one which rejects both the neo-Maoist model of a state-controlled society and the capitalist jungle in favour of a framework that offers both constitutionalism and social justice. Such an alliance, which could bring together liberals and the Chinese version of social democrats, with strong support within the modern media, would nonetheless need to broaden drastically its appeal, not only to certain neo-traditionalists, but most importantly among princelings, technocrats or other groups whose support would be crucial for the realisation of the reforms such an alliance might advocate.