The Maoist period involved the politicization of more or less the whole society. The old Maoist slogan of ‘politics in command’ aptly summed up the nature of Communist rule until Mao’s death in 1976, with its constant calls for mass campaigns, symbolized most dramatically by the Cultural Revolution. In contrast, during the reform era there has been a steady process of depoliticization, accompanied by a steep decline in the importance of ideology. The highly politicized and obstrusive Maoist state has given way to what now looks more like a technocratic state, in the manner of other East Asian developmental states, although the power of the Chinese state remain wide-ranging, from the one-child policy and internal migration to history books and media. As the Party has shifted from ideological to instrumental rule, from a political to a technocratic approach, its relationship with the people has become less intrusive. There is, in effect, a new kind of social contract between the Party and the people: the task of the Party is to govern, while the people are left to get on with the business of transforming their living standard. Far from interesting themselves in politics, people have increasingly retreated into a private world of consumption. Money making, meanwhile, has replaced politics as the most valued and respected form of social activity, including within the Party itself. The Party has actively encouraged its officials to enter business, not least as a means of galvanizing and mobilizing society. ‘Political loyalty’ has in some degree been replaced by ‘money’ as the measure of the political worth of Party cadres, resulting in a decline in the Party’s identity, a loss of its spiritual appeal and a process of internal decay.
The Party has increasingly sought to transform itself from a revolutionary organization into a ruling administrative party. It prioritizes technical competence, entrepreneurship and knowledge over, as previously, revolutionary credentials, military record and class background, with a technocratic class rather than revolutionaries now in charge of the Party. There have been drastic changes in the social composition of the Party leadership over the last twenty years. Between 1982 and 1997 the proportion of the central committee who were college-educated rose from 55.4 per cent to 92.4 per cent. By 1997 all seven members of the standing committee of the central committee’s political bureau (the top leadership) were college-educated in technical subjects like engineering, geology and physics, while eighteen of the twenty-four political bureau members were also college-educated. The Party has opened its doors to the new private capitalists in an effort to widen its representativeness and embrace the burgeoning private sector. By 2000 20 per cent of all private entrepreneurs were members of the Party. This is not surprising given that by 1995 nearly half of all private capitalists had previously been Party and government officials. The large-scale shift of Party and government officials into the private sector has almost certainly been the biggest single reason for the enormous increase in corruption, as some of them exploited their knowledge and connections to appropriate state property, gain access to cash reserves, and line their own pockets. The problem poses a grave challenge to the Party because, if unchecked, it threatens to undermine its moral standing and legitimacy. Despite a series of major, high-profile campaigns against corruption, of which the most prominent casualty so far has been the former Communist Party chief in Shanghai, Chen Liangyu, the evidence suggests that the problem remains huge and elusive because it roots lie deep within the Party itself and the myriad of guanxi connections.
As the country gravitates towards capitalism, changes are also taking place in China’s class structure that are bound, in the longer term, to have far-reaching political implications. For the time being, however, the technocratic leadership will continue to dominate both the Party and the government, with little immediate prospect of a challenge to their position. The peasantry, though increasingly restive in response to the seizure of their land, remain weak and marginalized. The working class has seen a serious diminution in its status and influence, with its protests limited to piecemeal, factory-by-factory action. The new class of private entrepreneurs, meanwhile, seems to be conforming to the traditional role of merchants, seeking an accommodation with, and individual favours from, the government, rather than an independent role of its own.
In the longer run there are four possible political directions that Chinese politics might take. The first is towards a multi-party system. This, for the time being, seems the least likely. The second would be the de facto recognition of factions within the Party. To some extent this process has, at least tacitly, been taking place, with former general secretary Jiang Zemin’s power base resting on what came to be known as the Shanghai faction, who were associated with super-growth, privatization, pro-market policies and private entrepreneurs, in contrast to Hu Jintao’s constituency, which has given greater priority to sustainable growth, social equality, environmental protection, and state support for education, health and social security. The third would be reforms designed to instill more life and independence into the People’s Congress and the People’s Consultative Conference, which are state rather than Party institutions. If all three of these directions were followed, they would result in an outcome not dissimilar from that in Japan, where there is a multi-party system in which only one party matters, where the various factions within the Liberal Democrats count for rather more than the other political parties, and where the diet enjoys a limited degree of autonomy. Another possible scenario, in this same context, is that of Singapore – in those arrangements Deng Xiaoping showed some interest – where the ruling party dominates an ostensibly multi-party system, with the opposition parties dwarfed, harassed and hobbled by the government. The fourth direction, which had been advocated by the Chinese intellectual Pan Wei, puts the emphasis on the rule of law rather than democracy, on how the government is run rather that who runs it, with state officials required to operate according to the law with legal forms of redress if they do not, and the establishment of a truly independent civil service and judiciary, a proposal which, overall, bears a certain similarity to governance in Singapore and Hong Kong. Should this route be pursued then it would mark a continuing rejection of any form of democratic outcome and an affirmation of a relatively orthodox Confucian tradition of elitest government committed to the highest ethical standards.
None of these scenarios seems particularly imminent. For the foreseeable future the most likely outcome is a continuation of the process of reform already under way, notwithstanding the growing problems of governance consequent upon social unrest and chronic corruption. The worst-case scenario for both China and the world would be the collapse and demise of the Communist Party in the manner of the Soviet Union, which had a disastrous effect on Russian living standards for over decade. The ramifications, nationally and globally, of a similar implosion in China, which has a far bigger population, a much larger economy and is far more integrated with the outside world, would be vastly greater. A period of chaos would threaten the country’s stability, usher in a phase of uncertainty and conflict, threaten a premature end to its modernization, and potentially culminate in return to one of China’s periodic phase of introspection and division. The best prospect for China, and the world, is if the present regime continues to direct the country’s transformation on a similar basis of reform and mutation until such time as there can be a relatively benign transition to a different kind of era. Given China’s huge success over the last thirty years, this remains by far the most likely scenario.
Citation from When China Rules the World, - The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the end of the Western World, by Martin Jacques, pp. 224 to 227.