China's opposition: redder than the Communist Party itself
Opposition to the Chinese Communist Party’s rule is actually coming from the left, with cries that the party has forgotten the masses and coddled the elite. Can the party co-opt this nationalist fervor to remake itself – and all of political science?
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So for the first time since the Soviet Union established a communist state, we have a country in which the leftists constitute the main opposition to the rule of a communist party. This is especially confusing to outside observers because traditionally in China and everywhere else opposition to communist rule had come from the political right. Sometimes it is even confusing to those inside China who would habitually call the attackers of party authority rightists. But of course, they are ultra-leftists through and through.Skip to next paragraph
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They are calling for more equal distribution of wealth even at the expense of slower economic growth. They are attacking privileges of any kind. They are seeing all social ills as results of the party’s coddling of the elites and abandonment of the masses. In fact, they started singing red long before Mr. Bo launched the movement in Chongqing. What is mistakenly viewed by many as China’s right because it opposes the party’s rule is actually on the left and redder than the Communist Party itself.
Can party reclaim its traditional power base?
Piercing through all the noises about left and right, what we see is a movement – singing red – that is in effect an effort by the party to reclaim its traditional power base that is in danger of being claimed by its dissenters in the media and the intelligentsia. And of course Bo correctly sees the same thing. Without the support of the Chinese masses, it would be impossible for China to continue on its current path of development and the self-interests of the elites themselves would be in jeopardy.
There are two implications of this development.
First, although this movement is a reaction to opposition from the left, through it the party will probably succeed in strengthening its political power. Its alliance with the masses was forged in blood and remains in its DNA. Once it decides to move in that direction, the populism of the media-intelligentsia axis is not likely to be able to out-left the Communist Party. In Chongqing, where it all began, rapid economic development seems to be synchronizing with and is even reinforced by the reaffirmation of the power of the masses. And early results of the singing-red campaign elsewhere in the country point in the same direction.
Second, populism everywhere is usually coupled with nationalism, and China is no exception. In the media and especially on the Internet, a vehement strain of nationalism is accompanying the populism that is challenging the Communist Party’s rule. From advocating a more aggressive military posture in the South China Sea to denouncing the Chinese government’s continued purchase and holding of US treasury bills, the duo of populism and nationalism is pressuring the party to alter its long-held policy of moderation toward the West.
As China enters a sensitive period before the leadership transition in 2012, critical questions remain.
Domestically, can the party maintain the delicate balance of reclaiming its mass roots and protecting the interests of the elites that are essential for continuing economic success, which in turn ensures the long-term support of the masses?
Internationally, can the party tame, or even co-opt, the rising nationalist fervor while still maintaining a relatively moderate foreign policy that provides for a peaceful external environment crucial for China’s successful rise?
For the party itself, can it succeed in truly transcending the concept of a conventional political party and becoming a stable governing organization for the largest and fastest changing country on earth? If it does, it would forever change how China is governed and, along with it, political science itself.
Eric X. Li is chairman of Chengwei Capital. He is a Shanghai-based venture capitalist and scholar at Fudan University’s School of International Relations and Public Affairs.