Since the 18th Party Congress, China has undergone drastic political changes, stirring up a great deal of uncertainty among Western academics, businesses and policy research communities in understanding Chinese politics. Political changes unveiled since the 18th Party Congress have resulted in various changes at personal and institutional levels. As China’s economy enters a “New Normal” state, its elite politics too is entering the discourse of “New Normal.” Misconceptions of China’s New Normal politics has led to suspicion and distrust from the West. Furthermore, such misperceptions and misconceptions, to a large extent, have started to affect these countries’ policies towards China.
In general, misconceptions in the West prevail in five aspects.
First, the 18th Party Congress signaled a conspicuous trend of power centralization within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) higher echelons. The establishments of the National Security Commission, Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms, Central Leading Group for Cybersecurity and Informatization as well as the Leading Group for National Defense and Military Reform of the Central Military Commission have drastically changed the condition of power decentralization which was prevalent before the 18th Party Congress. Recently, Chinese top leadership has been recapitulating the political concept of “leadership core” which the Party used before the 16th Party Congress but abolished during the Hu Jintao era. These changes have caused the West to become doubtful about Chinese politics. With fears that Chinese politics would once again tilt towards personal dictatorship due to power centralization, Westerners are worried that the Chinese political system would become highly secretive and its decision making process could become opaque and unpredictable.
The issue lies in one’s perception of power centralization and has nothing to do with power centralization itself in the superstructure of Chinese politics. In the process of observing Chinese politics, one tends to give a positive meaning to power decentralization, and associates power centralization with autocracy. Individuals are now fearful of power centralization due to the huge impact that it had brought upon the country during the Mao’s era before China’s reform. Such a mentality prevails in both the West and China. Nevertheless, we should not impose our moral judgement on power centralization and there is a need for rational analysis of the issue.
Why is there a need for power consolidation after the 18th Party Congress? Simply speaking, the power decentralization system in the past was unsustainable. If power decentralization had continued, it could have imperiled the survival and development of the ruling party. Changing the situation remains the only way out. Power distribution within the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) was rather fragmented before the 18th Party Congress. Effective coordination was lacking as each member in the committee is only responsible for their own field and enjoy the final say in their respective field. This system is like a top-level “feudal system,” culminating in the “Zhou Yongkang” case, or “oligarchy” in political science terminology. Zhou Yongkang (a PSC member), Ling Jihua (Hu Jintao’s top personal assistant) and Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong from the military all became oligarchies within the Party. The formation of “factions and cliques” within the Party had stymied the proper exercise of authority of the top leadership with excessive checks and balances. This phenomenon had thrived during the Hu Jintao period, whose ambitious plan for implementation of reforms was stalled due to multiple hindrances and opposing forces. The impact of “factions and cliques” was severe as it would directly jeopardize the survival of the ruling party. This threat was far more lethal than the threat brought about by their corrupt practices. In addition, power centralization is required to implement the top-level design of reforms, to overcome the opposing forces from immediate stakeholders for deepening reform, and to launch large-scale anti-corruption campaign. Without effective centralization, the performances of all these aspects could be adversely affected, leading to the eruption of a crisis.
The impact of “factions and cliques” was severe as it would directly jeopardize the survival of the ruling party.
We should view the CCP’s newly proposed “leadership core” concept as emphasizing on political responsibility rather than whether China is reverting to the political system before the 16th Party Congress. Before the 16th Party Congress, the CCP’s expression of its top leadership is “Party Central Committee with Jiang Zemin as the core.” This expression was then changed to “Party Central Committee with Hu Jintao as its general secretary” at the 16th Party Congress. Then at the 18th Party Congress, this practice was continued as Xi Jinping was also addressed as the Party’s general secretary. Today, the CCP top leadership is in need of a “core” and the late Deng Xiaoping had spoken clearly about the need of having a “core” in 1989 in the aftermath of the Tiananmen crisis. While people typically associate the idea of core with “personal dictatorship,” it is not only about the core of power, but also about the political responsibility concomitant with the concept of core that Deng was referring to. In any political system, be it presidential system or cabinet system, it is necessary for someone to undertake the main political responsibility in order to ensure effective operation of the government. Before the 18th Party Congress, there was no clear leader and decision-maker under the “collective leadership” system. After the 18th Party Congress, the CCP finally turned the page with political responsibility put in place. For example, except for the Leading Group for National Defense and Military Reform of the Central Military Commission, Xi Jinping is the head and Li Keqiang is the deputy head of all leading small groups, and several other members of the PSC have been assigned to different groups according to their job requirements. Thus, power and responsibility are two aspects of a position, and we should be aware that power centralization, at the same time, implies greater responsibility.
Yet, power centralization did not make Chinese politics highly secretive, as feared by many Westerners. China is instead opting for a transparent political development path. While there is still room for improvement, generally, China is showing an increasingly transparent development trend. The leading small groups formed after the 18th Party Congress are different from the past leading small groups which were informal, not open and less transparent. Unlike the leading small groups that are established after the 18th Party Congress, the existence, membership and operating system of the old leading small groups were unknown to the public. Today, these leading small groups are formal, open, transparent and their activities are made known to the public.
Political institutionalization at the top-level of Chinese politics is the second misconception that has caused dismay in the West. Some believed that Stalin’s power centralization was reasonable, because power decentralization was not sustainable and would threaten the survival and development of the Soviet Communist Party (SCP) if power decentralization were to persist. However, Stalin’s regime ultimately became a personal dictatorship due to the lack of power restriction, wrecking huge havoc on the SCP. In the same vein, some in the West regard the political changes after the 18th Party Congress as reflecting the level of institutionalization in the Chinese political system. A low level of institutionalization level implies that the system will be easily destroyed and reverting the state into a personal dictatorship.
Again, this is obviously a misreading of Chinese political institutionalization. First, there is little evidence to support the idea that the Chinese leadership today is deviating from the system and rules — the practices of term limits, age limits, and collective leadership — built by the late Deng Xiaoping. Changes introduced after the 18th Party Congress are simply adjustments and tweaks to the current system. If a leader knows that there are shortcomings in the current system and yet allows them to persist, he should be deemed as an irresponsible leader. A responsible leader would instead assume political responsibility and introduce the necessary changes to the system. Constant revisions to the Chinese political system is in fact an advantage rather than a disadvantage. If a system cannot be adjusted, it will be dominated by those with vested interests, leading to enormous conflicts within and outside the system. For instance, the US political system — despite being considered as the most democratic and open in the world — has always been dominated by vested interests. People with the right to vote, however, are unable to change the current system. This has caused great dissatisfaction and such resentment has evolved into strife and conflicts both internally and externally. Hence, associating the political changes since the 18th Party Congress with a non-institutional personal dictatorship is purely an ideological presupposition devoid of empirical basis.
The third misconception pertains to the relationship between anti-corruption and institution-building. The West has been paying close attention to the sweeping anti-corruption campaign in China since the 18th Party Congress. Some Western companies, who behave well in their home countries, engage in corruption in China. The crackdown on corruption has therefore created a negative impact on these companies. However, most Western firms want China to build a conducive business environment with the characteristics of integrity and honesty. In general, the anti-corruption campaign has created a positive impact on the West, boosting the confidence level of Western firms on Chinese institutions. However, some people are concerned that the anti-corruption campaign will remain as just a campaign, and not capable of becoming an institution. The West has misread this too. Along with the anti-corruption campaign, China has also been pursuing its institutionalization. “Rule of law” is the key phrase in the reform plan approved during the Fourth Plenary Session of 18th Party Congress, which could be seen as a comprehensive proposal for institution building. The institution-building of the anti-corruption campaign is reflected at the state and party levels. At the state level, it is mainly to reduce and prevent judicial politicization and what the Chinese dubbed as “legal localism.” To achieve these aims, cross regional judicial bodies, circuit court, judicial professionalism and lifelong responsibility system have been implemented and strengthened to control undue political interference on the judicial system. At the party level, the ruling party has greatly fortified the building of party discipline. While China has a long-standing party rule, the effort in refining the party rules since the 18th Party Congress is unprecedented.
Along with the anti-corruption campaign, China has also been pursuing its institutionalization.
Fourth, the concept of regression and progression. To some in the West, the Chinese leadership is embarking on a path which could send China backward, not forward. Some cases raised include the tightening control over Chinese non-governmental organizations (NGOs), media (including the Internet) and human rights lawyers. There is no doubt that the Chinese government is having a strained, sometimes even conflicted, relationship with these social groups. However, these collisions are inevitable as China is in search of a system that could regulate all these areas. Most countries do have a regulation system in these areas. As for China, they are considered “contemporary” issues and it takes time to establish the system. Generally speaking, China’s “regression” as believed by the West is happening because China is not developing as the West has expected it to be. Western scholars have been frank in expressing that the drastic changes since the 18th Party Congress simply do not meet the expectations of the West. Yet, from the Chinese perspective, it is a transformation for a betterment of the country. Simply speaking, Chinese logic and Western logic are not converging.
Fifth, the expansionist foreign policy. Some Westerners believe that China has completely abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy of “keeping a low profile” and is embarking on international expansionism. They cited the East China Sea and South China Sea issues as well as the "One Belt and One Road" initiative as evidences of the big power diplomacy of China. This is, however, clearly a question of ideology and position. It is ideological because the West tends to judge China based on its own historical experience, assuming that a rising China will eventually engage in foreign expansion and imperialism just like they did in the past. On one hand, the West complains that China is a free rider and does not undertake enough international responsibilities; on the other, they fear that China will follow their expansionist footsteps. With respect to both the East China Sea and South China Sea issues, China has been adopting a reactive stance, and was not the first to stir trouble in the disputed waterways. Without an effective response to the disputes, the legitimacy of China’s regime could be at stake. Yet, China’s responses have been deemed as provocative and aggressive by the West, and the US has chosen to side with its allies. At the same time, China’s lack of discourse power is also another of the contributing factors leading to the problem.
Nevertheless, China’s internal system and external foreign policy are not without problem. On the contrary, there is still significant room for improvement in all these aspects which will require China’s continuous effort. Indeed, the internal construction and external rise of a great power is never easy in today’s international environment.
(Translated by Wen Xin Lim)