Why Chinese Obey


There is broad consensus both within and outside China that the existing regime relies primarily, if not solely, on performance for its legitimacy. Hence the popular theses of “resilient authoritarianism” and “adaptive authoritarianism”: the Chinese party-state has to do and has been doing everything possible to navigate a complex and sometimes unstable domestic and international environment to guarantee economic prosperity, social stability, public goods provision and a dignified global image.

The thesis of performance-based legitimacy easily outperforms competing theories when it comes to explaining why Chinese obey today. Clearly official ideology dose not enchant anymore and the traditional Confucian values have yet to regain the sacrosanct status they once enjoyed. The glory of revolutionary triumph has waned, while the procedural backing of the government – especially in the form of open competitive elections through which the governed can express their consent – is absent. In fact, the success in providing the Chinese people with material certainties is now generally considered the cornerstone of the Chinese regime, making Vaclav Havel’s observation of Eastern Europe thirty-odd years ago quite appropriate for describing China today: “the post-totalitarian system has been built on foundations laid by the historical encounter between dictatorship and the consumer society.”

So yes, the performance legitimacy thesis has a great deal explanatory power. It explains why Chinese governors, central and even more so local are so obsessed with maintaining high GDP growth each and every year. It also explains why the Party designates “moderately prosperous society” and “medium-level developed country”, rather than communist society to be the mid- to long-term national goal. It is once again confirmed by the recent “Chinese Dream” slogan used by President Xi Jinping, who pledged in his first press conference as head of state better education, jobs, income, healthcare, dwelling conditions and environment to the Chinese people.

But the problem of resting regime legitimacy largely upon performance is two-fold: one obvious and the other less so. The obvious problem is that such legitimacy is unstable. The less obvious issue is that it hardly tells the whole story, obscuring some very important characteristics of the Chinese collective psyche today.

At its core, the performance-based legitimacy proposition tends to reduce the state-people relationship to an exchange between, particularly in the Chinese case, obedience and welfare. This fits nicely not only with the social contract metaphor but also with the existential status of contemporary China as a market society. A cruder but popular version of this exchange theory of legitimacy brings taxation into the picture: absent the practice of “no taxation without representation”, Chinese taxpayers are effectively paying for state services. In this type of exchange, tax, as a crucial symbol for obedience to the regime, is essentially a price or investment for goods or returns supplied by the state. An even cruder formulation, used by Charles Tilly to describe state-making in historical Europe, is not wholly irrelevant to China: the state is quintessentially a protection racket that charges the people for its services.

The extent to which people obey the state is therefore determined by the continuity and quality of such goods, returns or services, which are and never will be fully assured given the vicissitudes of all human communities. It is no wonder that the Party is now itself highly concerned with this shaky foundation on which it commands obedience from the people after decades of rapid development. And unsurprisingly, the constantly invoked grounds for criticizing the government in China is that it does not perform well enough to deserve what it takes from the people. In other words, the exchange of people’s obedience for the State’s performance is not a good deal.

Yet despite the fact that such criticisms are pervasive online and are evident in the growing number of mass protests in recent years, the Chinese party-state seems to be far from reaching the tipping point at which the overall obedience of the people is lost. Many explanations have been proffered to why “the coming collapse of China” never seems to come, and why the performance-obedience exchange persists. By and large the reason is said to be either that the general performance of China’s party-state is not really all that bad or that the Chinese people are culturally more submissive than usual. While both propositions hold some water, they fail to account for the fact that most Chinese do not view their relationship with the government purely as an exchange or transaction. There are at least two additional elements in the thinking of the majority of Chinese when they extend their obedience to the regime.

March 10, 2014 at 03:36

Why Chinese Obey?

CCP has brainwashed her people for 65 years. CCP elites want to keep people uneducated. CCP is afraid people to find out the truth. A case in point Mao sold opium to Japanese to fund the war and killed 70 millions Chinese but his picture is still hang on that wall said it all.

July 25, 2013 at 23:18

Similarly, membership-based legitimacy faces the challenge of excessive paternalism, which may well disrupt the familial ties. Also problematic is that Chinese party-state may never truly be open and brave enough to learn from other countries, fearing the risk of diluting its own Chineseness.

Is it me or the author seems to making a thinly veiled attack on the PRC's political system while conveniently forget to mention that neither communism nor democracy can  claim superiority over one another since it is the quality of the country's leadership that determines the faith and prosperity of the people. To claim Beijing fear loosing its "own Chineseness"  goes against the fact that current system ha d demonstrated its ability to absorb socialist ideology while adapting to a capitalistic economy, all in the unique flavour of Chineseness.

And it is of no coincidence that another large Asian country, India, is still struggling with its own form of democracy which fails to address the reality of the country's "Indianess".


July 20, 2013 at 23:02

The lack of an alternative might be important, but has been ignored so far by the author and all comments.  Any alternative, of course, would attract immediate condemnation, but recent developments raise the specter that more and more Chinese are doing the math and drawing the obvious conclusion that their system cannot survive without significant change. 

July 20, 2013 at 16:41

since taking the country by force in 1949 they have – in one way or another – killed more than 80 millon Chinese. Not to mention labour camps and censorship – brainwahsing at schools — that's why the masses follow – fear and they now don't know any better.  

July 20, 2013 at 09:25

Most of you, author included, seem very routed in your Western upbringing and resulting assumptions. A neutral 3rd party might ask why Westerners, and some Western countries more than others, expend so much energy on political resistance and change (before a government will have had time to really test much of its policy in a 5+ year horizon). China has it own dynamics because of size, etc but I don’t see India benefitting much from its choice of 2 establishment parties. Singapore, on the other hand, illustrates pragmatism among a population that realises one party has given them a fairly good deal to date. If they had a crises like similarly sized Western countries, eg 2007-2011 Ireland, I suspect the population would be listening to alternatives too.
In short, don’t overstate the ‘meak’ or ‘suppressed’ theory for Chinese-dominated cultures.

July 19, 2013 at 04:46

Why chinese obey?


Because if they don't, the ccp will send tanks and troops to mow down its own people like nothing as they did in 1989 at Tiananmen Square. Typical of chinese leaders, very tough with the little ones but so afraid of the big ones such as Russia. So pathetic and laughable.

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