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.
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.
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.
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.
Second, the emphasis on political meritocracy does not just refer to rulers with ability, but also to rulers with above-average virtue. In the past, political leaders had moral legitimacy by virtue of their perceived commitment to Confucian values. Today, however, political leaders are widely seen to be morally corrupt and lacking any serious commitment to an ethical system that constrains their selfish desires. At the moment, most of the popular anger is directed at lower-level corrupt officials, but the Bo case points to rot at the top.
The leaders are also seen to be responsible for the moral state of the whole nation. If nothing is done to improve perceptions of widespread moral collapse, they may not be able to resist calls for wholesale change of leadership. Hence, there is a need for more ethical education in the training of officials as well as society at large.
Third, a form of nationalism that draws on the emotion of resentment to strengthen the state makes less sense as China becomes a dominant global power. The whole moral point of building up state power is to secure political stability so that people can lead decent lives without worrying about material deprivation and physical insecurity. It may have made sense to build up state power at the cost of other considerations when China was poor and routinely bullied by foreign powers, but it is harder to justify now that the country has the ability to bully others.
There is still a legitimate role for nationalism, but it needs to take a more humane form. Hence, Chinese “cultural nationalists” have been calling for the revival of traditional Confucian values such as social harmony and compassion. Just as Americans take pride in “American” values such as freedom and democracy, so Chinese can take pride in “Chinese” values. The challenge, as always, will be to minimize the gap between the ideals and the reality, but any decent society needs some guiding ideals.
Daniel A. Bell is a professor of comparative political philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing and the author of “China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society.”