Features | Security | East Asia

Why Chinese Obey

True, the state gains legitimacy from performance. But there is more to it than that.

By Chun Peng for

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.

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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.

First, gratitude plays an important role. Socrates justified his acceptance of the death penalty imposed by the Athenian jury in part on the grounds that citizens should display their gratitude to the state by obeying its laws. This idea has been well echoed in China, where grandparents are grateful for national independence and parents for the economic prosperity apparently achieved by the party-state. In particular, it is worth noting that Chinese born between the 1950s and 1970s, who constitute the bulk of the propertied class in China today, normally consider themselves to have benefited enormously from policy changes in the reform era, which opened up more life opportunities. They have also enjoyed benefits such as guaranteed employment and free university. So they remain somewhat grateful to the regime for providing both these tangible and intangible benefits.

Second, the long Chinese tradition of equating country, state and family also contributes. Calling local governors the “father-mother official” is an old habit that dies hard. The allusion to Party as the “dear mother” remains prevalent in textbooks, songs and school essays. Arguably this might be a form of mass indoctrination, but the convenient conflation of country with state is subtly and meticulously preserved to the extent that the perceived Chinese identity or membership alone feeds nationalism and patriotism that lends unconditional support to the state. Analogizing the government to parents softens and lubricates its relationship with the people, since Chinese in general are more than willing to keep harmony within the family and ward off criticism from outside.

It is these feelings that encourage most Chinese to think of themselves not as consumers, investors or those “protected” by gangs in a cold exchange with the party-state. Instead, they imagine themselves to be appreciative beneficiaries or family members who do not and should not calculate, negotiate or argue heartlessly with the party-state as the benefactor or parents. Of course, this is not to say that people never become dissatisfied under the two scenarios. But the people-state bond is much more intimate and firmer than exchange theories suggest, entailing not just obedience but allegiance and loyalty. In this way, gratitude-based and membership-based legitimacy effectively complements performance-based legitimacy and this is probably why Chinese in general at least obey their government today.

Nevertheless, by no means are these two additional forms of legitimacy immune to problems. First, they can be influenced by the erosion of exchange-oriented theories of legitimacy. Moreover, gratitude-based legitimacy is weakened by the fact that the younger generation shares little of their parents’ or grandparents’ gratitude. On the one hand, as the reformist Vice Premier Wang Yang openly admitted last year, public well-being cannot be viewed as a benevolent bestowment from the Party and government, but as the end results of people’s own pursuits. Thus the people should be thankful to themselves alone. It is even harder to claim gratitude when the party-state itself is sometimes regarded as a barrier to happiness.

On the other hand, gratitude is usually at play when benefits are conferred in some altruistic manner and with some special efforts or sacrifice. Historically, this was true of the Communist Party, with its struggles and martyrs. But it appears much less so today, when the Party and bureaucracy are swelling, functioning suboptimally and clinging to monopolistic powers.

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. This intransigence could ultimately diminish its standing as a respected and reliable family member.

In the long run, these two complementary factors that sustain Chinese obedience to the system are neither sustainable nor cost-effective. China is still in search of a more robust foundation for itself.

Chun Peng is a DPhil candidate in law, at Oxford University.