Kuora: Why does the Chinese Communist Party believe it is essential to China?

This week’s column comes from one of Kaiser’s answers originally posted to Quora on July 15, 2017.

Why does the Chinese Communist Party not permit an organized opposition, or opposition groups to form?

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) doesn’t suffer the existence of opposition because it’s an autocracy, and autocracies don’t suffer the existence of opposition groups. But that’s probably a bit of an unsatisfying answer. Why does the Communist Party believe that its monopoly on power is essential to China’s continued stability, wealth, power, and prestige?

A caveat here: I am by no means endorsing this view, just trying to channel the view as I understand it.

Let’s look first at the core, often unconscious assumptions underpinning this autocratic worldview — assumptions about China’s “rightful” place, about history, about Chinese civilization, etc; and let’s look at some of the habits of mind and historical reflexes that the institution of the Party still exhibits, reflecting I think some beliefs about political order that are quite deep-rooted:

1. Reclamation of civilizational primacy

Most Chinese elites assume that China, as one of the only (more or less) continuous civilizations of antiquity still around today, as the unrivaled civilizational center of East Asia for most of its existence, and as long-reigning top dog as measured by wealth, cultural sophistication, and military power for a good chunk of history — let’s say from the Song Dynasty of the late 10th century to the mid-18th century, with of course some major interruptions — “deserves” somehow to enjoy primacy once again. China, in this way of thinking, has been “temporarily embarrassed” but will inevitably reclaim its rightful place as a power in the world: In wealth, power, and cultural clout. Though it has not done so explicitly, the modern CCP has nevertheless made the hastening of this day, this reclamation of civilizational primacy, a major unspoken goal and a pillar of legitimacy.

2. National unity

The CCP seems to believe at least in the broad outlines of the historical narrative it regularly teaches: That a once-great nation was laid low because it lacked unity and cohesion, and because it was militarily weak and technologically backward. What followed was a “century of humiliation” from which it drew profound lessons: That wealth and power are paramount goals, that weakness and technological backwardness are fatal, and that no one will hesitate to exploit weak states. Only strength and wealth can earn a nation respect and preserve sovereignty. National strength requires unsentimental assessment of national characteristics, and the extirpation of those traits that make a nation weak. Tradition is only valuable if it serves the ends of national wealth and power. Unity — or at least presenting a convincing façade thereof — is necessary. This has made China extremely defensive about anything that infringes on national sovereignty, and made for a prickly intolerance for anything that smacks of separatism

3. Meritocratic bureaucracy, rule by knowledge elites

Rooted quite deeply in Chinese civilization is a belief in the power of a strong bureaucratic state run by elite individuals (almost always men, alas) selected on the basis of some “merit” who demonstrate that merit — particular knowledge and expertise — of the fundamental ideology or worldview of their time. The dominant paradigm may change, as it has, from Confucianism to Marxism-Leninism to scientism to what today is an odd and hard-to-define blend of neoliberal Leninism, brutalist pragmatism, and technocratism. What unifies them is the conspicuous absence of any pluralist thinking.

4. Lack of pluralistic foundations

Alongside this deep and often unexamined preference for rule by knowledge elites is an absence, historically, of any institutions of constraint that might have laid the groundwork for pluralism. China never developed a concept of rule of law in the same way that we saw it develop in the West. Many have theorized that this has much to do with China’s absence of a transcendent religion — something analogous to the Catholic Church in the West — that held up a framework for law above the person of the sovereign. China developed, as Francis Fukuyama has argued, a strong state — indeed, the first strong state — before it developed any institutions of constraint. I would argue that there were institutions of constraint, but they were informal and generally weak. In any case, nothing like organized estates (in France) or an aristocracy that could challenge monarchy (as it did in England, to create Magna Carta) ever developed.

5. Elitist attitudes toward the rural class

A preference for rule by the knowledgeable elites was, in China’s case, accompanied by attitudes toward the agrarian classes — the vast overwhelming majority of Chinese up until quite recently — that were at best patronizing, and at worst utterly contemptuous. These attitudes absolutely persist, despite (or perhaps in part because of) Mao’s efforts to invert the hierarchy. It’s still absolutely common to hear educated urban Chinese people speak of suzhi (素质) — a kind of “quality” meaning something like breeding or refinement — specifically, how the low level of suzhi among migrant workers and peasants will prevent China from ever enjoying democracy. It’s a deeply elitist belief and should rub any democrat wrong, but it’s very much in play today still.

6. Disillusionment with liberalism

After the overthrow in 1911 of the last imperial dynasty, what followed in the early Republic and what came to be known as the Warlord Period was a period of chaos — endemic warfare, widespread deprivation, famine, and disease — that disillusioned most of the Chinese intellectuals who had embraced liberalism as an ideology (democracy, rule of law, free markets), and discredited the few who still clung to it. The rest saw authoritarian (and specifically Leninist) party organizations as the only way to reunify China, to fight off imperialist predation, and to eventually drag the country into modernity. World War I helped to discredit liberalism; the betrayals of China by the victorious Allied Powers at the Versailles Conference — secret Allied treaties with Japan had given former German concessions in China to Japan — cemented the disillusionment with liberalism.

7. Nationalistic exigencies

Even among putatively liberal Chinese, the embrace of liberalism tended to be instrumental. Few if any saw liberalism as an end in itself; rather, it served the overtly nationalist aims of creating wealth and power. When means and ends came into conflict (as they inevitably would), naturally the ends prevailed. Liberal commitments always gave way to nationalist exigencies.

And so, atop these foundations, the Communist Party leadership both before and since the era of reform and opening began in late 1978 has been committed to single-party rule.

Put yourself in the shoes of the Party as it’s been constituted since Deng Xiaoping’s ascendancy in 1978 and you can perhaps see why they would, given all the above assumptions, feel the necessity of preserving their monopoly. Let’s start at the end of the Cold War, when reform-era China was just starting to really find its feet. Still reeling from their own near-death experience of 1989, they watched as Soviet communism collapsed in Eastern Europe, culminating in the break-up of the Soviet Union itself. But the lessons they took away were stark: There was Russia, under Yeltsin, democratic and receiving substantial aid from the West, falling to proto-oligarchs and seeing its economy drastically contract, while China grew by leaps and bounds. There was India, the world’s biggest democracy, still mired in poverty with suppurating, ulcerous belts of misery in even its most advanced metropolises. There was very little to suggest that embracing pluralistic politics would be the wise choice then.

Today, much of the logic still pertains. They still believe that Chinese are somehow “unready” for democracy, with some even believing that Chinese culture itself is somehow inimical to democracy (despite the successful example of Taiwan just across a narrow strait). They believe that chaos would consume the country. Even many superficially liberal elites would tell a real confidant that they think democracy would be disastrous. And so, any potential rival centers are nipped in the bud. Civil society organizations — non-governmental organizations, popular movements outside of the state, religious organizations — are kept on very short leashes, lest they become poles around which an opposition might crystalize.

They look around them in the world today and believe that the West still regards the ruling Party as fundamentally illegitimate, secretly cherishes an ambition to see them off, and nurtures an agenda of regime change. (Some would certainly argue that this is just talk — that they don’t really believe this, but that it serves their end, which is to remain in power. I don’t think there’s any way to know for sure, so I’m taking them at their word for these purposes.) They believe the West wants to pull an “Arab Spring,” and note that those regime-change tools used at Cairo, and Tripoli, and Damascus, include funding for human rights and pro-democracy NGOs, a pious New York Times editorial line, and of course the doctrine of internet freedom. But they look at the burning ruins of those and other Arab Spring states and say, “That isn’t going to happen here.”

An opposition, in their minds, would quickly become the beneficiary of all of these tools, and so China is doing what it can to prevent the formation of any potential “fifth column” within the country. I write this on the day following the death of the prominent Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo, which I suspect may have prompted the question. Liu’s Charter 08, the primary reason for which he was jailed, was seen by Chinese authorities as too redolent of the Czechoslovak democracy movement’s founding document. The “New Citizens Movement” — which Liu inspired and which was founded in 2010 by another jailed dissident, Xu Zhiyong 许志永 — looks, to Beijing, like the generals of this potential fifth column. We have no reason to expect that Beijing will lighten up — not so long as it continues to feel the deep sense of insecurity that, whether rightly or wrongly, it still feels.

Kuora is a weekly column.