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Last winter, as the novel coronavirus began to take over headlines, China’s Communist Party appeared to be facing an unprecedented challenge. At home, there was widespread outrage with Beijing’s initial mishandling of the pandemic. Abroad, too, opposition was rising.
But today, on the eve of the party’s centennial, China’s government has pulled off a stark turnaround. Its economic output grew in 2020, the only major world economy to expand. And its curbing of COVID-19 contrasted sharply with bungled responses abroad, swelling domestic support. Even as it turns increasingly autocratic, the party’s longstanding recipe for legitimacy still works: achieving concrete development goals, like a massive poverty alleviation campaign.
But Beijing knows it will face difficulty retaining this mandate as the population ages, economic growth slows, and debt increases. The party’s quest to retain legitimacy drives much of China’s behavior at home and abroad – and could unravel if it doesn’t meet rising expectations.
“The party’s leaders believe they have a narrow window of strategic opportunity to strengthen their rule ... before China’s economy sours, before the population grows old, before other countries realize that the party is pursuing national rejuvenation at their expense,” says retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, former U.S. national security adviser.
A year ago Feb. 7, China’s brave coronavirus whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang died after treating patients in Wuhan, triggering an unprecedented online torrent of grief and anti-government rage along with calls for freedom of speech.
The widespread public outrage over the government’s initial mishandling of the virus outbreak and suppression of Dr. Li’s warnings amounted to what longtime observers called an existential crisis for China’s Communist Party and Xi Jinping, its leader since 2012.
Angry residents brazenly heckled a visiting party Politburo member. Some yelled “it’s all fake” from their apartment windows during the draconian lockdown in Wuhan, the city of 11 million people that is now estimated to have suffered half a million cases and at least 3,800 deaths.
But only five months later in August, with the virus under control, a jam-packed pool party in Wuhan with DJs and dancers in neon tutus was captured in a viral video – a testimony to China’s success in largely quashing the outbreak at home. By January, China’s rapid economic recovery saw the country emerge in many ways stronger from the pandemic year. Its economic output grew by 2.3% in 2020 to become the only major world economy to expand.
This stark turnaround has shored up popular support for the party inside China, bolstering the belief of Mr. Xi and other leaders that China’s authoritarian system is resilient and on the rise, despite a sharply negative turn in attitudes toward Beijing in Western democracies. “The best criteria” for judging a country’s system, said Mr. Xi, sitting with folded hands before a huge mural of the Great Wall in a virtual address to the World Economic Forum Jan. 25, is whether it delivers “political stability, social progress, and better lives.”
Indeed, as the Communist Party prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary this summer, experts in China and abroad are delving into why the country’s increasingly autocratic regime enjoys such domestic popular support, especially as Mr. Xi tightens party controls and his own personal grip on power.
“How do you now explain the fact the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] at least appears to be fairly resilient?” says Edward Cunningham, director of Ash Center China Programs at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Overall, popular satisfaction with China’s government has grown stronger over the past 20 years, according to Dr. Cunningham and other Harvard researchers who led an independent, multiyear survey of Chinese public opinion. The 2003 to 2016 study drew on face-to-face interviews with more than 31,000 people in urban and rural China, but did not include most ethnic minorities or migrant workers. In 2016, fully 93% of those surveyed expressed satisfaction with the central government, with 32% saying they were “very satisfied.” That same year, 70% of respondents voiced approval for their local governments, which deliver most public goods and services, marking a significant increase from 44% in 2003.
These trends are likely continuing today, says Dr. Cunningham, pointing to anecdotal evidence. “The recent COVID case is a useful example,” he says. “At the outset, citizens were unhappy with the local government response, but as the central government engaged in lockdowns and the situation improved, satisfaction with central government actions rose, eventually spreading to views of local government as well.”
China’s swift curbing of the virus contrasted sharply with bungled responses in the United States and other developed countries, swelling domestic support for the regime, experts say.
“Within China itself, when they apply the lens of China’s response to the virus, both in public health and economic terms and political terms, versus the American management of the virus domestically and many other Western countries, it has further consolidated Xi’s hold on the Chinese leadership,” says China scholar Kevin Rudd, president of the Asia Society.
Popular satisfaction in China should not be underestimated, says Elizabeth Economy, author of “The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State.” “The vast majority of Chinese feel a lot of pride in how their country has developed economically, and in the greater role China now plays on the global stage,” says Dr. Economy, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California.
Still, the latest developments also shed light on how the country’s authoritarian leadership, even while amassing greater power and control with a high-tech surveillance state, must continue to respond to popular needs, complaints, and pressure. With a population of 1.4 billion, China faces serious demographic, environmental, and economic problems going forward. The party’s often-obscured quest to retain legitimacy drives much of China’s behavior at home and abroad – and could unravel if it doesn’t meet rising expectations.
“China has politics, too,” says David Lampton, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
How this political dynamic evolves in the world’s flagship communist state will have major geopolitical implications for the world over the next decade and beyond.
Delivering the goods
When A Bo was growing up in a high mountain village in China’s southwestern Yunnan province in the 1970s and ’80s, his family was so poor that they had to eat wild fruit and herbs. One dirt road led to his village, and when heavy summer rains turned it to mud, travel was all but impossible.
“We were always hungry,” he recalls. Today, with government help, Mr. A Bo’s family and many others in his village have worked themselves out of poverty. He raises ducks, pigs, and cows on a small farm and works at construction and other odd jobs. His village has running water and paved roads. And while his modest income “doesn’t count as very good, it’s a lot better than before,” he says with a laugh.
In December, Mr. Xi announced that China had eradicated extreme poverty in Yunnan and across the country, completing the massive task of lifting 850 million people out of destitution since 1981. The milestone offers one powerful example of how Mr. Xi and the party continue to gain legitimacy for their authoritarian rule in the eyes of China’s people.
“The government helped us build houses ... and gave us livestock to raise,” says Mr. A Bo. “If we didn’t have their help, we wouldn’t have paved roads or running water, so the common people are relatively happy.”
As a result, rural people and migrants with lower incomes, such as Mr. A Bo, have been a key source of support for China’s central government, multiple surveys show, constituting essentially an important political base for the party.
“There is a very high degree of satisfaction in rural low-income areas for the Chinese Communist Party,” says Matthew Chitwood, a U.S. fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs, who recently returned from living for two years in Yunnan’s remote mountain village of Bangdong. There, he says, “Xi is the poster child of the party and the poverty eradication campaign.”
“My neighbors in Bangdong are living their best lives now,” he says. “Their lives have dramatically improved from even five years ago, and they attribute that directly to the party.”
Indeed, satisfaction levels since the early 2000s have risen most among China’s poorer residents like Mr. A Bo, signaling that despite growing inequalities created by economic reforms, marginalized people are not a swelling source of political resentment, the Harvard survey found. “There is still little evidence of a ‘social volcano’ of bottom-up discontent,” says Dr. Cunningham.
The anti-poverty campaign trumpeted by Mr. Xi is one example of the party’s overarching strategy of “performance legitimacy.” Under Chairman Mao Zedong, the party rallied support around Marxist-Leninist ideology and waging the 1949 revolution. But after Beijing launched market-oriented economic reforms in 1978, the party adopted a more pragmatic strategy to maintain public backing by achieving concrete development goals.
This performance legitimacy approach is rooted in China’s ancient, dynastic concept of the Mandate of Heaven, which emperors could retain or lose depending on how well they governed, says Dingxin Zhao, dean of the sociology department at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China.
Today, the Communist Party works to secure this mandate above all through robust economic growth and “delivering the goods” – from roads to jobs, Dr. Cunningham says.
The party has also bolstered its rule though social policies aimed at reducing inequalities unleashed by economic reforms. These include rural health care, free education, agricultural subsidies, and poverty alleviation. “Social policy ... has contributed decisively to the regime’s stability and general support of the regime,” says Dr. Zhao.
Another popular policy has been Mr. Xi’s anti-corruption drive, launched soon after he took charge in 2012. “From the minute he became general secretary of the Communist Party, [Mr. Xi] talked about the need to root out corruption,” which he said “could mean the death of the Communist Party and the death of the Chinese state,” says Dr. Economy.
Rampant official corruption unleashed along with China’s market-oriented economic reforms has stirred deep public discontent. More than half of Chinese surveyed in 2011 described local government officials as “unclean” or “very unclean,” ineffective, and favoring the wealthy, the Harvard survey shows, dismaying villagers such as Mr. A Bo.
“It was chaotic,” says Mr. A Bo, who recalls corrupt local officials setting up roadblocks and charging tolls, or restricting the water supply.
Mr. Xi responded with the most sweeping anti-corruption campaign in modern China – arresting thousands of party and government officials of all ranks. Although the campaign was also viewed as part of Mr. Xi’s efforts to purge opponents and consolidate power in his own hands, it sharply curbed official abuses encountered by the public, surveys show.
Today, local thugs no longer control roads around Mr. A Bo’s village. “Now those people don’t dare do that ‘underworld’ activity, or they will be arrested,” says Mr. A Bo. “Now it’s peaceful ... and everyone can use the roads.”
Such concrete gains in prosperity and well-being, and progress on problems ranging from corruption to environmental pollution, have boosted the party’s performance legitimacy nationwide – including among China’s new middle class.
Mr. Zhang, a retired private entrepreneur who was born and raised the son of a factory worker in Beijing, is on the lower rung of this emerging tier. Among the fastest growing in the world, China’s middle class swelled from about 3% of the population in 2000 to more than half, or 700 million people, in 2018.
Mr. Zhang (who asked to withhold his first name to protect his privacy) has benefited not only from China’s economic boom, but from housing security and government spending on his health care and pension. He sums up popular attitudes with a simple story typical of his generation. “When I was small, all we wanted was to be able to fill our stomachs. ... Then, gradually, you could eat well. If you wanted to eat an apple, you could buy an apple. If you wanted to eat meat, you could buy meat,” he says.
In Mr. Zhang’s eyes, steadily rising living standards equate to Beijing doing a good job. “If my life is better day by day, if year by year it’s going in a good direction, then what do I have to be upset about?” he says.
“Of course,” he adds, Chinese people still complain about things around the dinner table. “Above all, we curse about Chinese officials’ corruption. But what country doesn’t have ‘bad eggs?’” he asks, using Chinese slang for “scoundrel.”
Today, such sentiment buoys Mr. Xi politically as the Communist Party nears its July centennial. “By the end of 2020, Xi Jinping had recovered his political position comprehensively,” says Mr. Rudd, the former prime minister of Australia. Mr. Xi is further entrenching his power with the aim of effectively becoming China’s “leader for life” at the next party congress in 2022, he says.
Yet despite the current strength of Mr. Xi and the party, experts point out that performance legitimacy is inherently fragile. It depends upon a continuous, tangible improvement in people’s material well-being. Ever rising expectations create both positive energy and risky tensions – a double-edged sword for the party and its limited resources. “Performance legitimacy relies too much on performance,” says Dr. Zhao. “Your relationship with the people is ... transactional. People judge you ... day by day, case by case.”
One major obstacle to raising living standards is the sheer size of the low-income population: 600 million of China’s 1.4 billion people have a per person income of only about $150 a month, according to official data. Although the party has achieved its poverty alleviation target – a very low bar – it now faces the harder task of shrinking the income gap between urban and rural China, and between the coast and hinterland.
“You basically have two different Chinas and two different economies operating,” says Dr. Economy. “So when do you begin to take care of the people who have been left behind?”
Beijing knows it will face increased difficulty retaining this performance-based mandate as the population rapidly ages, economic growth continues to slow, and stimulus financing dramatically increases debt. Moreover, China faces rising opposition overseas, where unfavorable public opinion toward Beijing has reached its highest level in 12 years and the lack of confidence in Mr. Xi has surged, according to a Pew Research Center poll of 14 countries with advanced economies in North America, Western Europe, East Asia, and Australia.
“The party’s leaders believe they have a narrow window of strategic opportunity to strengthen their rule ... before China’s economy sours, before the population grows old, before other countries realize that the party is pursuing national rejuvenation at their expense,” says retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, former U.S. national security adviser and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Rolling back reform
On a sunny October morning in Shanghai, Jack Ma, co-founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba and one of the richest men in China, took to the podium at a global finance summit and made a bold call for innovation of China’s financial system.
China’s banks exhibit a “severe pawnshop mentality” that hurts entrepreneurship, he said, criticizing the nation’s financial regulators as anachronistic. “We shouldn’t use the way to manage a train station to regulate an airport,” Mr. Ma said. “We cannot regulate the future with yesterday’s means.”
Soon after, Mr. Ma was reportedly dressed down by regulators and then disappeared mysteriously from public. The highly anticipated initial public offering of Alibaba’s financial technology arm, Ant Group Co., was halted and the firm placed under investigation, reportedly on the orders of China’s top leader Mr. Xi. In January, after missing major appearances, Mr. Ma resurfaced in public for the first time in months in an online video of a small local ceremony.
The incident demonstrated how, in Mr. Xi’s China, Beijing will not tolerate constructive criticism – even from a top entrepreneur such as Mr. Ma. The imperative of party power and control means subordinating everyone and everything, including top business magnates and their firms.
Facing uncertain economic growth, China’s post-Mao leaders have looked for alternative ways to secure Communist Party rule into the future. After launching market-oriented economic reforms in 1978, leader Deng Xiaoping and his followers moved to bolster legal sources of legitimacy by strengthening government institutions, promoting a meritocracy, setting standards for a smooth leadership succession, and allowing new avenues for political participation.
In a 2009 paper, Dr. Zhao warned that moves toward “legal-electoral legitimacy” were vital. Otherwise, Beijing would “face a major crisis when the Chinese economy cools off.”
But since 2012, Mr. Xi has moved in the opposite direction. “You had a very dynamic, vibrant political birthing process underway, and for Xi, that was very threatening,” says Dr. Economy.
Mr. Xi has rolled back political reforms, strengthened ideological indoctrination and censorship, and tightened party controls. He has concentrated power in his own hands to a degree not seen since Mao – ending term limits and paving the way for his lifelong rule.
Under Mr. Xi, the party has also reined in big companies and curtailed civil society by shuttering nongovernmental organizations. He has jailed activists, from feminists to human rights lawyers, and imposed broad population control measures such as facial recognition surveillance and a social credit system that rates citizens’ behavior. Harsh crackdowns have arbitrarily detained an estimated 1 million Uyghurs and members of other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in the western region of Xinjiang, while curtailing basic freedoms and purging pro-democracy elected officials, students, and others in Hong Kong.
Yet by monopolizing power, Mr. Xi also positions himself as a singular point of blame for any national crisis or setback that can’t be deflected onto local officials. Indeed, Mr. Xi himself is fixated on domestic opinion, prioritizing it over international events, says Steve Orlins, president of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, a nonprofit that promotes engagement between the countries. “President Xi gets up in the morning and he ... gets briefings on Tibet, Xinjiang, Chengdu, Wuhan,” he says. “The Chinese view the threats as internal.”
Ultimately, the increased repression can stifle, but not destroy, pressures from members of China’s increasingly urban, educated, middle class for a greater say in their futures. “Even authoritarian governments have to respond to the elites in their society,” says Mr. Orlins.
Discontent over the direction Mr. Xi is moving the country runs deep among some Chinese, from intellectuals and entrepreneurs to migrant workers and activists. Others in China’s creative class feel broader reforms are needed for people to realize their full potential.
Tu Guohong lives quietly as an independent artist, writer, and art scholar in Chongqing, a megacity neighboring China’s southwestern Sichuan province. A graduate of an art school, Mr. Tu uses Western-style oil painting to depict working-class Chinese in traditional urban settings. His subject matter is varied, though. He is especially proud of a series of portraits depicting former President Barack Obama as a Chinese peasant.
Asked about his views on the overall level of support for the government, Mr. Tu, who says he doesn’t generally talk about political problems, chooses his words carefully.
“I don’t know what most people think, but they seek a happy life,” he says.
“As for myself, I want China to follow Deng Xiaoping’s road of reform and opening. Not only economic reform, but also cultural – a nation’s development is not just dependent upon the economy, but also on the humanities,” he says. “China should not go backward.”
*This story was updated to state the correct administrative status of Chongqing, China. It is a municipality and not part of Sichuan province.