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Gradualism: An explanation of some Chinese political contradictions

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People at a torchlit vigil in Hong Kong in 2009.

In Brief

Internet usage is on the rise in China, especially amongst the younger generation. Faced with the problem of extensive online censorship, this generation has designed software packages to ‘scale the Great Firewall’ which blocks content deemed sensitive by the Ministry of Public Security.

What does this internet usage say about a burgeoning Chinese demand for democracy? A defining feature of a functioning democracy is the active involvement of ordinary people in discourse about the nation.


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The internet is extremely important in facilitating such involvement. In fact, in China, Internet use plays such an important role in public discussion that the central government has started to rely on it as a channel for policy feedback.

Further, the ordinary masses — not just the younger generation — now possess the awareness and capacity to use the internet for collective action. Examples of this include recent internet movements facilitating donations to victims of natural catastrophes, and defending citizens’ rights against property management fee increases.

So it appears the Chinese population is ready to move toward some level of democracy. But is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ready to move with them? The most obvious answer is no.

At an institutional level, the CCP remains firmly wedded to one-party rule and this is not likely to change any time soon. Local and central governments are linked via the nomenklatura system rather than formal elections. Further, far from reflecting grassroots demand for democracy, rules of promotion within the party have become more institutionalised in recent years.

On a more philosophical level, the CCP’s standard response to calls for democracy has been to respect the economic freedom of the market and adopt growth-oriented policies to achieve outstanding economic performance. In short, they have relied upon economic growth to secure acquiescence to one-party rule. But as the discussion of the internet above indicates, this strategy is beginning to look frayed. Experience elsewhere — in South Korea, Taiwan and Chile — suggests that economic freedom is often positively correlated with political freedom.

Yet China does not appear to be on the brink of political transformation. What explains this apparent contradiction?

Put broadly, the CCP have already moved with the times, employing gradualism to combat public dissatisfaction with one-party rule.

This strategy can most clearly be seen by looking at institutions in China. The most eye-catching of all institutions in this context is probably that of village elections, which actually date back to the early 1980s. At that time, People’s Communes had just been dismantled, and national leaders were eager for a solution to prevent peasants retreating from villages. They realised that effective local governance would be a key factor in preventing such a retreat. Local self-governance entails a capable leader, and the CCP realised that the nomenklatura system would not work on the village level, simply because the country was too vast. As a result, village elections were born.

The Organic Law of Village Elections was trialed in 1987, and villages were given an extended timeframe to adopt the election system. Subsequently, in 1998, a procedural version of this law was introduced, emphasising open nominations. Despite some vote buying, the elections have had a significant positive impact on village development. Statistical research and case studies show that the elections largely follow a meritocratic selection procedure. This means that individuals with higher levels of education and managerial experience are more likely to win.

The elections have enhanced the level of public investment within villages — a long-term obstacle for development in the countryside — and have facilitated stronger growth. Elections have also helped reduce income inequality, as elected officials have mandated pro-poor public investment rather than ineffective one-off populist redistributions.

What does this say about prospects for democracy in China?

The short answer is: ‘not much’. Similar to the economic reforms launched in 1978, China is pursuing political reform marked by gradualism. China has a long way to go in its democratic transition, and no one can definitively say whether gradualism will confine popular demand for democracy, or set it alight. Regardless of the answer to this question, it is gradualism that explains the contradictions inherent in the Chinese political system, and it is gradualism that provides a key in trying to understand political change in China.

Mi Luo is a graduate student in economics at the China Center for Economic Research, Peking University, and the Graduate School of Business and Economics, University of Melbourne.

This article is a finalist in the recent EAF Emerging Scholars competition.

2 responses to “Gradualism: An explanation of some Chinese political contradictions”

  1. I’m intrigued that you mention the policy feedback function. It occurred to me that China could use a pilot sample of the net internally to let opinion ring off the hook without repressing it. If they were smart.

    Traditionally western policy is set by the focus group and somehow I don’t think it makes sense to use a media aperture which by all other metrics is policed through fear for policy setting.

    Just a thought. I like China and it’s done a grand job so far but the more tuned it is the more likely it is to succeed.

    • In fact use of the internet and policy participation has been used in the development of grassroots participation in China, including in big urban municipalities such as in Shanghai. There is quite a lot going on at a grassroots level that the rest of the world is ignorant about. I’d welcome a review of these developments from EAF.

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