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.
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The second source of non-democratic legitimacy can be termed political meritocracy: the idea that political leaders should have above-average ability to make morally informed political judgments. It too has deep historical roots. In Imperial China, scholar-officials proved their ability in a fair and open examination system, and consequently they were granted uncommon (by Western standards) amounts of respect, authority, and legitimacy.Skip to next paragraph
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Political surveys have shown that Chinese still endorse the view that it is more important to have high-quality politicians who care about the people’s needs than to worry about procedural arrangements ensuring people’s rights to choose their leaders. In recent decades, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has increased its legitimacy by transforming itself into a more meritocratic political organization, with renewed emphasis on examinations and education as criteria for political leadership.
The third source of non-democratic legitimacy is nationalism. An important part of legitimacy can be termed “ideological legitimacy”: The regime seeks to be seen as morally justified in the eyes of the people by virtue of certain ideas that it expresses in its educational system, political speeches, and public policies. The CCP was, of course, founded on Marxist principles, but the problem is that few believe in the communist ideal anymore. Hence, the regime has increasingly turned to nationalism to secure “ideological legitimacy.”
Nationalism has more recent roots in China: In imperial China, the political elites tended to view their “country” as the center of the world. But this vision collapsed when China was subject to the incursions of Western colonial powers in the mid-19th century, leading to a “century of humiliation” at hands of foreign powers. The CCP put a symbolic end to abuse and bullying by foreign powers with the establishment of a relatively secure state in 1949, and it constantly reminds Chinese of its function as protector of the Chinese nation.
In short, it should not be surprising that the CCP is widely seen to be legitimate in the eyes of the people, and barring unforeseen events there is no reason to expect imminent collapse of the regime. But the key word is “imminent.” In the absence of substantial political reform, China’s non-democratic sources of political legitimacy may not be sustainable in the long term.
First, performance legitimacy varies according to economic conditions. China’s doomsayers often point out that the regime will be in trouble once the economy takes a hit. But that view may not be correct. If China’s rulers are still seen as the best stewards of the economy in times of crisis, their legitimacy may actually increase.
In fact, the real trouble may occur once China has successfully eliminated poverty in the whole country. According to the Confucian perspective, the government must then focus on the education of the people, meaning the provision of the conditions for the ethical and intellectual development of the people. The highest mode of human realization lies in extending the love and responsibility learned within the family to the whole community. In practice, it means more opportunities to participate in politics in a public-spirited way, including the freedom of political speech.