The China model and the authoritarian state

Author: Suisheng Zhao, University of Denver

The Jasmine Revolution that began in North Africa early 2011 frightened the Chinese government because China faces social and political tensions caused by rising inequality, injustice, and corruption.

In an attempt to address these tensions, Bo Xilai, the Chinese Communist Party chief in Chongqing, and who is a contender for the 2012 leadership succession, has crusaded to resurrect socialist values and Maoist revolutionary culture. Bo has become popular in certain political circles within China for the ‘Chongqing model’, which he has championed.

After Xi Jinping, heir-apparent to Hu Jintao, visited Chongqing in late 2010, five Politburo standing committee members made high-profile trips to the city. The most recent visit was in April by Wu Bangguo, Chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the number two ranking member in the Politburo. Less than a month before, in his annual NPC address, Wu had ruled out the possibility of major political changes, saying that China would never adopt a multi-party political system and that the aim of all laws should be to consolidate and improve one-party rule. These visits were confirmation of the Chongqing model’s acceptance by a number of the CCP elite.

In their defence of China’s authoritarian state, the Chinese leadership has found reason to be satisfied with the Chongqing model because it is an important component of the China model of state capitalism, fashioned by nationalistic new-leftists, and a contrast to the Western model of liberal democratic capitalism.

Chinese liberal intellectuals have always been sceptical of a unique China model and have argued that China’s modernisation is not only aimed at building power and wealth, but more importantly at introducing the enlightened values of liberty, democracy, and rule of law. Despite this view, the China model as an intellectual symbol of national pride surged in popularity after the country successfully hosted the Olympic Games and the Western world was consumed by the financial crisis in 2008. For many Chinese people, their nation’s recent success in weathering the financial crisis has passed judgment on the failure of the Western model and the rise of the China model, which features a strong authoritarian state to make use of capitalism and create wealth.

The authoritarian state has made a deliberate effort to direct China’s national goal toward economic growth rather than civil and political rights. This effort is supported by its extraordinary ability to make difficult economic decisions quickly on issues such as large investment and construction projects, and translate them into effective action. This is not only because the Chinese government has huge economic and financial resources at its disposal but also because the Chinese state, in contrast to its Western counterparts, doesn’t have to put up with the distractions of vocal opposition parties nor submit itself to public scrutiny at regular intervals. One good example is that, after Lehman Brothers fell in September 2008, the CCP Politburo met in early October 2008 and quickly implemented a four trillion yuan (US$586 billion) economic stimulus package, which the State Council announced the following month. Thereafter, state-run banks pumped a huge amount of money into the economy. The government was therefore very effective in deploying its enormous state capacity to push its economy out of global recession. In comparison, the transition of power from President George W. Bush to President Barack Obama and political gridlock in Congress delayed the US government’s adoption of a stimulus bill until February 2009, too late to prevent deep economic recession.

For all its glitter and shimmer, the China model has some clear faultlines that are responsible for China’s many social and political problems. For example, without accountability, the authoritarian state’s ability to make quick decisions has often come with high economic and environmental costs, leading to irrational and distorted investment, waste of resources and environmental deterioration. In addition, without an opposition party to keep watch on privileged state officials, a combination of authoritarian politics and the market economy has produced corrupt crony capitalism (权贵资本主义) in which power and money are closely connected. Acting to protect and enrich specific interests, the state has come to infringe upon ordinary people’s rights. Arbitrary land acquisitions are prevalent and workers have to endure long hours and unsafe conditions, causing discontent within society.

China now has one of the most unequal income distributions in the world, with a Gini coefficient of 0.50 in 2009, even higher than the United States, at 0.46. This alarming inequality has come as China has dismantled its social welfare structures, leaving hundreds of millions of people with minimal or no provision of healthcare, unemployment insurance, and other social services. These growing gaps are at the root of social unrest, that threatens political stability, an accepted pre-condition for economic development. Coercive force has been deployed with increasing frequency to suppress popular unrest. This year, the financial cost of ‘maintaining stability’ (维稳) is estimated to have outstripped the size of the defence budget. The dramatically rising costs of maintaining internal control have raised questions about the sustainability of the China model, which is based on the wrong assumption that economic growth trumps all else. If the government takes care of economic growth the assumption is, people will be willing to give up all moral and other demands.

As economic growth has delivered the essentials of living, Chinese people appear, in fact, to be expressing greater demand for social justice and protection of their rights. So it is increasingly difficult to contain or discourage social discontent through economic growth alone.

In this case, neither the China model nor the Chongqing model is a solution to China’s intensifying social and political problems. A sustainable model requires China to find ways to balance the power of the state by democratic and legal institutions based on liberal values.

Suisheng Zhao is Professor at Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, and Director of its Center for China–US Cooperation.

This article was published in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Governing China’.

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