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Global Viewpoint

Why China won't collapse

The purge of provincial party chief Bo Xilai is seen as China’s most serious political crisis in decades. But this view assumes the people are dissatisfied with the regime. In fact, the large majority of Chinese people support the single-party state structure. Still, dangers lurk.

By Daniel A. Bell / July 11, 2012

Former Chongqing Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai attends the closing session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference held in Beijing's Great Hall of the People on March 13. Op-ed contributor Daniel E. Bell writes that the purge of Mr. Bo is not indicative of political demise in China. 'Such predictions about the collapse of China’s political system have been constantly repeated since the suppression of the pro-democracy uprisings in 1989.'

Alexander F. Yuan/AP

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The purge of Chongqing’s party chief, Bo Xilai, is China’s most serious political crisis in recent decades. What seemed like a relatively stable system of political transition – two five-year terms for top leaders – has been thrown into chaos.

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Or so we are told. Such predictions about the collapse of China’s political system have been constantly repeated since the suppression of the pro-democracy uprisings in 1989. But the system didn’t collapse then, and it won’t collapse now.

The key reason such dire predictions are taken seriously – especially in the West – is that non-democratic regimes are seen to lack legitimacy. A political regime that is morally justified in the eyes of the people must be chosen by the people. In the case of China, the political leadership is a self-selected elite. Such mode of rule is fragile, as the Arab Spring has shown.

But this view assumes the people are dissatisfied with the regime. In fact, the large majority of Chinese people support the single-party state structure. Since the 1990s, scholars in the West and China have carried out many large-scale surveys into the legitimacy of Chinese political power, and by now they have virtually arrived at a consensus: The degree of legitimacy of the Chinese political system is very high. Surveys have been modified to prevent people from telling lies, and the results are always the same. To the extent there is dissatisfaction, it is largely directed at the lower levels of government. The central government is viewed as the most legitimate part of the Chinese political apparatus.

How can it be that the Chinese government managed to achieve a high level of political legitimacy without adopting free and fair competitive elections for the country’s leaders? However paradoxical it may sound to Westerners, the Chinese government has succeeded by drawing upon sources of non-democratic legitimacy.

The first source of non-democratic legitimacy can be termed performance legitimacy, meaning that the government’s first priority should be the material well-being of the people. This idea has deep roots in China – Confucius himself said the government should make the people prosperous – and the Chinese Communist Party has also put poverty alleviation at the top of its political agenda.

Hence, the government derives much, if not most, of its legitimacy from its ability to provide for the material welfare of Chinese citizens. It has substantially increased the life expectancy of Chinese people, and the reform era has seen perhaps the most impressive poverty alleviation achievement in history, with several hundred million people being lifted out of poverty.

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