Earlier in September, Wang Qishan, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s de facto right hand man, openly discussed the question of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) legitimacy at the “Party and the World Dialogue 2015” conference in Beijing, China’s capital. “The CCP’s legitimacy lies in history and popular support from the people. The Party is the choice by the people,” Wang said to more than 60 politicians and academics from home and abroad, including former South African President Thabo Mbeki and former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
Chinese senior cadres have long blocked public mention of the party’s legitimacy, especially by high-ranking officials. Yet, private discussion and academic studies on this subject have actually intensified in recent years among scholars and policymakers. Why the sudden mention of legitimacy in public? How is the issue of legitimacy laid out in Chinese official discourse?
The most obvious and perhaps oxymoronic explanation why someone like Wang, a member of the CCP’s Politburo, would raise the topic in public is that they have to. Sixty-six years after it came into power, the CCP is no longer a revolutionary party (ge ming dang) but a governing party (zhi zheng dang). German sociologist Max Weber concluded that political legitimacy may derive from tradition, charisma, and legality or rationality. Although these are simplified ideal types, Weber’s theory of legitimacy nonetheless provides a useful framework within which to answer why the CCP has decided to bring up its legitimacy issue in a seemingly sudden way.
For a long time before and after it became the ruling party of the People’s Republic of China, the CCP did not need to and in fact could not talk about seeking legitimacy from the people because of Marxist ideology that emphasized the centrality and vitality of class struggle. Its legitimacy was thus ratified not by ballot but by people’s voluntary cooperation and participation in massive political and social movements. As a revolutionary party, the CCP only claimed to be the party of the workers and peasants. Its basis for legitimacy came from a system of majority tyranny supported by these social classes, or, as Mao Zedong famously put it, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” While Mao is still frequently brought up and worshipped by the Party as a “great patriot and national hero,” his influence is and probably will not ever be as large as that before 1978, when the Party’s legitimacy was, consciously or unconsciously, based on the charisma of the leader. Not only was Mao seen as the one man who possessed the right to lead by virtue of power and heroism, his thoughts were considered as “invincible.”
The appeal to class struggle and ideology, however, soon failed as a source of legitimacy and led to the chaotic Cultural Revolution. It was then that Deng Xiaoping and his successors began to put seeking legitimacy from a wider social base on the party agenda. The Party has used two main sources to claim its legitimacy: history, or what Max Weber defined as “traditional authority,” and developmentalism, or as some refer to as the so-called “East Asian Model.” Wang’s speech, though a rare public mention of legitimacy, resonates with the official Party rhetoric; that is, the CCP is legitimate because it has always existed. In addition, authoritarian regimes are usually headed by a strong man who is determined and able to justify most political repression by promises of economic success that benefits a majority of the dominated.
Take South Korea. While many criticize the late President Park Chung-hee as dictator, Park turns out to be South Koreans’ most popular president ever. Under his rule, South Korea, once occupied by Japan during World World II and devastated by the Korean War in the 1950s, was transformed into one of the most developed countries in East Asia and the world.
Or a more recent case: Singapore, whose 2015 general elections came just two days after Wang Qishan’s speech. Contrary to what most Western scholars and media predicted, Singaporeans handed the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) a sweeping victory, with 83 of the 89 seats in parliament, while the opposition Workers’ Party winning just six seats. Some analysis suggested one reason for the surprise result were Singaporeans’ feelings of nostalgia for Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father who died earlier this year. Lee’s iron-fisted political rule, pro-business, anti-corruption approach to government helped transform Singapore into one of the wealthiest countries it is today. Chinese analysts and party schools have long looked to Singapore’s governance and political model to justify authoritarianism and the CCP’s one-party rule. One of the frequent references they turn to is Singapore. Soon The Beijing-based newspaper Global Times, one of the CCP’s mouthpieces, was quick to describe the Singaporean election as a robust victory for the PAP after the passing of Lee Kuan Yew, citing PAP’s economic success.
This is not to say authoritarian regimes boasting strong leadership traditions and economic success are immune to legitimacy issues. In fact, legitimacy crises is more evident than ever in most authoritarian countries. With the death of Lee Kuan Yew, the apogee of strong-man politics that began in the 1960s has passed. Facing a more confident and contentious public, these regimes had only economic performance to justify their authorities. And when the “economic miracle” gradually loses its magic power, accompanied by growing social inequality, that legitimacy weakens. The PAP in Singapore may have won a resounding victory in the recent elections, but it has had to move rapidly to respond to growing complaints from Singaporeans.
This potential legitimacy crisis also explains why the CCP would rather take the risk of raising its legitimacy in public than passively wait for others to define for it. The “Theory of Three Represents” proposed by former President Jiang Zemin, the “Scientific Outlook on Development” offered by former President Hu Jintao, and the “Chinese Dream” introduced by President Xi Jinping are the latest efforts by the CCP to address its concerns over the these ideological crisis of its legitimacy. If we were to sum up these official discourses, they all emphasize the Party’s legitimacy not with reference to the CCP’s revolutionary past, but to the vitality of the CCP resulting from its ability to adapt to an ever-changing environment and to reform itself from within. Unlike the PAP, however, the CCP’s claims to legitimacy seems to be much less persuasive, even among its own members.
In recent years, the PAP in Singapore has adjusted and appealed to the rationality embedded in the constitutional and legal system; popular support manifest in the votes won through open and competitive elections becomes the new source of legitimacy. While Singaporeans can express their dissatisfaction by voting for the Worker’s Party, the complaints in China are reflected in the fact that people, some of them CCP members, are divided into those in favor of free markets and developmentalism, and those who want to return to the Mao era, and others. In the face of such public doubts, the CCP has chosen to cling to the economic miracle and resort to costly repressions, as sources of legitimacy. Even in Wang’s recent speech, there is no actual substance suggesting the Party will try to seek rationality or other news sources for its legitimacy.
In sum, while it may be a first for a CCP’s high-ranking official to publicly discuss the legitimacy issue, there is no reason to become excited about any hidden meanings behind Wang’s move. And as much as authoritarian states like China and Singapore share traits, such as an emphasis on developmentalism, analysts should not be overly optimistic about China’s chances of replicating the PAP’s success. The PAP has actively established its legal and rational authority in Singapore. The CCP has far more work to do in that regard.
Lotus Yang Ruan (@lotus_ruan) is an M.A. candidate in Asia Pacific Policy Studies at the University of British Columbia. Formerly a China-based journalist and freelancer, she writes on China’s current affairs and studies social media. Follow her blog here.