Where is China going? Is the Party’s grip on power stable, or does the string of troubling news stories – about a slowing economy, a sustained and brutal crackdown on dissidents, and a never-ending stream of corruption cases – suggest that the central leadership might be facing a more fundamental challenge in the months and years to come?
These are the questions that Bruce J. Dickson seeks to answer in his important new book, The Dictator’s Dilemma: The Chinese Communist Party’s Strategy for Survival. Dickson, a political scientist at George Washington University and a longtime China-watcher, argues that reports of the Party’s imminent demise are greatly exaggerated. In his view, the Party has done a decent job of navigating the difficulties of tremendous economic and social change, and it has the right mix of tools at its disposal to deal with the challenges that it faces in the years to come. Those who think that a prolonged economic downturn will end to the Communist Party of China (CPC)’s almost 70 years in power are likely to be disappointed, Dickson warns.
At the heart of Dickson’s book are two public opinion polls, carried out in collaboration with Beijing University’s Research Center for Contemporary China, in 2010 and 2014. In those surveys, citizens from cities across China generally expressed qualified support for the CPC, along with optimism that shortcomings in the government’s performance would be addressed. To be sure, the survey highlighted some real problems: many citizens were critical of local officials even as they praised the central government in Beijing, for example. But overall, the Party came out reasonably well. Indeed, in some ways, Beijing did better than Washington does in surveys of the American public’s views of its political leaders. “All things considered, the status quo seems not so bad to many Chinese,” Dickson writes.
Why is the Party doing so well in public opinion polls? Dickson believes that the key to the Party’s success is its mastery of a mix of core tools that bolster its hold on power. Those tools include repression, limited political reforms that foster some level of public participation, astute stewardship of the economy, heavy investments in public goods for China’s growing middle class, and a nationalist message that resonates with a broad swath of the Chinese public.
Dickson is at his best in explaining the relationship between economic performance and the Communist Party’s political position. For a long time, many observers, both inside and outside China, have argued that the Party owes its political standing to years of double-digit economic growth. Indeed, at times, Beijing has governed as though its own political life depends on a strong economy: it invests billions of yuan in seemingly unnecessary infrastructure projects. It evaluates local officials in part on the basis of their annual GDP growth numbers. As the economy has slowed, some local governments have eased up on the enforcement of environmental and labor laws that they fear might act as a drag on private sector activity.
So an economic downturn, especially an extended one, means political trouble for the CPC, right? Not necessarily, Dickson argues. His surveys, conducted as economic growth was already slowing, show that the Chinese public does not really react to changes in China’s overall growth rate. Instead, perhaps unsurprisingly, people respond to changes in their own particular situation. As Dickson puts it, “slower economic growth is not a threat to (the Party’s) popular support so long as incomes continue to rise.” In other words, if the Party can continue to deliver real benefits to average Chinese – either in the form of rising incomes, or in the form of increased access to public goods such as education and health care, or both – then it can at least partially insulate itself from the political risks of prolonged economic malaise.
Dickson is right to remind us both that the Party benefits from very real public support and that there are ways that it can weather any future economic storms. That said, I found myself disagreeing with some of the other arguments he puts forward in his book.
Take the Party’s use of repression as a governance tool, for example. While Dickson does note that repression has increased in recent years, he doesn’t grapple as fully as he might with the dramatically heightened repression of the Xi Jinping years. Since Xi took office in 2012, several key activists have taken a step back from their important work, while others have been forced to leave the country altogether. Others – including journalists, academics, filmmakers, artists, and writers – have found it impossible to write, say, and teach what they think, even using coded language that in years past would have made it by official censors.
At times, Dickson relies on explanatory frameworks that may no longer fit. Drawing on the work of the scholar Richard Baum, Dickson argues that Chinese politics – and in particular the Party’s attitude toward dissenting voices – should be viewed through the prism of fang and shou, or loosening and tightening. When senior officials start to feel more confident about their overall position, they are willing to loosen up, but once they do so, key social actors rushing to take full advantage of the opening quickly move beyond the leadership’s comfort zone, which in turn leads to a reversal and a cycle of tightening up. Baum identified three such cycles in the 1980s, which means that there was one full turn of the wheel every three years.
But as Dickson himself notes, the political and social space in China has been tightening since at least 2008, a trend which has intensified since Xi came into power at the end of 2012. Rather than a cycle of fang and shou, we may be looking at a “new normal,” one in which activists, lawyers, and liberal intellectuals struggle to continue their work in the face of growing repression, with no end in sight. The implications of this new normal for the Party’s political legitimacy are potentially quite significant, but The Dictator’s Dilemma doesn’t parse them as deeply as it might.
I also think that Dickson overstates the extent to which the modest reforms that the Party has pursued in recent years have changed the relationship between the government and the governed. Dickson dutifully chronicles these various reforms, including greater efforts at government transparency, new mechanisms to increase public participation in official policymaking, and even platforms for aggrieved citizens to challenge alleged official misuse of power. To be sure, these efforts have made a difference on particular issues at particular times: environmental activists, for example, have used Open Government Information regulations to push for better enforcement of environmental laws. But by and large, on matters large and small, the Party still has the final say. Given the limited bite of these reforms, I question whether they have done much to bolster the Party’s legitimacy.
The best assessment of these modest political reforms comes from Chinese citizens themselves: as Dickson himself notes, the Chinese men and women he surveyed did not seem to register these modest political reforms one way or the other. For the most part, they were indifferent to them. This indifference speaks to the limited impact that these reforms have had on public perceptions of the CPC’s performance. If the Party truly wants to use political reform to improve its legitimacy, it will likely have to surrender more of its authority to the public. At present at least, it has shown little if any willingness to do so.
These concerns aside, Dickson’s thoughtful and wide-ranging assessment of the Party’s performance and its political standing deserves a wide readership. I see more clouds on the CPC’s horizon than Dickson does, but I was glad to grapple with such an informed and engaged counter-argument to my own concern that, absent more fundamental change, China is facing a turning point. One cannot deny that, at least thus far, events have borne out Dickson’s view: close to 70 years on, the Party is still in control. Still, I wonder whether the time has come for the Party to invest in big-ticket reforms that would strengthen government institutions and limit the Party’s free hand. If I were an adviser to Xi Jinping, I would tell him: better to move on difficult reforms a bit early rather than too late.
Thomas Kellogg is director of the East Asia Program at the Open Society Foundations. He is also a lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School.