Thursday, April 23, 2009

Thirty Years of Political Reform in China

A few weeks ago I participated in a panel discussion, organized by the Asia Society in Hong Kong, marking the thirtieth anniversary of China’s program of “reform and opening.” Fred Hu of Goldman Sachs spoke about the evolution of China’s foreign economic policies; I spoke about the course of political reform.

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The five most common generalizations one hears about the course of political reform in China over the past thirty years – at least the ones you hear in the United States – go something like the following:
  • Political reform has lagged behind economic reform.
  • Many promising political reforms have been rolled back, so China is actually less open and democratic today that it was in previous years.
  • China’s political system remains authoritarian (and here some would even say totalitarian).
  • China is therefore vulnerable to political upheaval in the event of a crisis.
  • And because of China’s authoritarian system, U.S.-China relations will also be vulnerable to the human rights issue.

Like most conventional wisdom, these five generalizations are not entirely wrong. But each of them needs to be modified if we are to gain a balanced assessment of the changes in China’s political structure over the thirty years of reform and opening.

1. Political reform has lagged behind economic reform

It is hard to compare the extent of economic reform with the extent of political reform, since they are such different phenomena. But, relative to the ideal types that are most commonly mentioned, it is probably true to say that China has moved farther toward becoming a privatized, marketized, globalized economy than it has moved toward becoming a liberal, pluralistic, democratic political system.

Still, each of these two comparisons should be qualified. First, however extensive it has been, China’s economic reform program has also encountered its limits. The hand of the state remains strong, both as an owner of enterprises and as a regulator of the market. There are still significant restrictions on capital flows in and out of China, and on the ability of foreign firms to participate in strategic sectors of the economy. Small and medium-sized enterprises find it difficult to get access to investment capital, largely because land is publicly owned and cannot be used as collateral for bank loans. Moreover, the global financial crisis has led to some retrogression in some areas, particularly ownership structure (toward more state ownership), the financial system (toward more non-performing loans), and market access (toward greater protection of domestic industry).

Second, despite the limits to political reform, to be discussed later below, there has also been substantial change in the nature of the Chinese politics over the past thirty years. Compared with 1978, when reform began, the Chinese political system is now characterized by:

  • More pragmatic and technocratic administration
  • Relatively institutionalized systems of political succession
  • A far freer society
  • A more extensive and effective legal system
  • A narrower political spectrum, in which most political debate is over the details of policy rather than the overall course of reform
  • Greater consultation with affected interests on specific issues

These changes make the Chinese political system very different than it was in 1978 – certainly more pragmatic and liberal, even if neither pluralistic nor democratic.

2. Many promising reforms have been rolled back

In considering this second proposition, we have to begin by distinguishing between cyclical change and secular change. China is still characterized, as it has been since 1949, by a cyclical pattern of tightening and loosening of political controls: a loosening when the regime feels more confident of public support, and a tightening when it is less so. That tightening is particularly evident with regard to freedom of political organization and expression, but in its extreme form it can take the form of curfews and travel restrictions in order to reduce the possibility of political protest. We have recently seen examples of the latter in the run-ups to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and to the fiftieth anniversary of the Tibetan uprising.

The even larger question is the extent of secular change. Has there actually been a permanent rolling back of any of the reforms summarized above? I would argue that there has not – with one important exception that is particularly sensitive in the United States. There appears to be far less enthusiasm about local elections in China now than there was in the past – and certainly less enthusiasm about extending direct elections beyond the village to higher levels of the political system. The Party’s principal rationale for village elections was to impose greater accountability on local officials from below than could be exerted administratively from above. It did not reflect any philosophical commitment to this particular mechanism as the best means of doing so. The apparent ease with which village leaders can evade that accountability through vote buying and other forms of corruption has significantly eroded support for local elections within the Party’s leadership.

In the end, however, the most important problem facing political reformers in China is not the degree of retrogression, but the lack of forward movement. Recent months have seen the imposition – or, more accurately, the restatement – of the limits on further change in political structure. Top Chinese leaders have explicitly identified, and rejected, all of the key features of pluralistic democracy, including independent political parties competing for power, an independent judiciary, or a fully independent legislature. They have also reiterated the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly over political leadership. None of these limits is new, but their recent reiteration suggests that we should not expect further qualitative changes in China’s political structure any time soon.

3. China therefore remains an authoritarian, or even totalitarian, system

Also some continue to describe it as such, by any reasonable definition of the term China can no longer be considered to be a totalitarian political system, although it was during most of the Maoist period. It does not have any of the organizational characteristics of such a system: a charismatic leader, a powerful ideology, or an effective network of media and mass organizations that can mobilize all members of society in support of the Party’s goals and policies. Even more important, the variety range of opinion and activity in society is evidence that the Party clearly does not exercise total control over either thought or action.

China is, however, an authoritarian system – but the question is, what kind of authoritarian system is it? Here, Western political typologies fail us. They define ideal types – such as democratic and totalitarian systems -- reasonably clearly. But they do not provide much analytical insight or clarity into that far larger set of political systems that fall into neither of those two extreme categories. Authoritarian systems vary considerably one from another, but comparative politics does not offer a commonly accepted set of dimensions along which they do.

Still, let me suggest two dimensions that are particularly important in assessing the state of Chinese politics after thirty years of reform. First, China today is what some call a “soft,” or consultative form of authoritarian system – as opposed to a “harder,” more directive form. China has created several mechanisms by which society can express opinions – through the press, public opinion polls, government consultative procedures, the “blogosphere,” and increasingly through protest (even though leading protest activities can still be risky). The Party is more skeptical about some of these mechanisms (the blogosphere and protest) and more enthusiastic about others (public opinion polls, investigative reporting, and formal consultative mechanisms). But their existence means that China is a far less closed and rigid authoritarian system than it was in the 1980s, let alone in the 1960s and 70s.

Another dimension along which authoritarian systems vary is their coherence. Here, Chinese politics is characterized by a high degree of fragmentation, both vertically between central and local governments and horizontally among different bureaucratic agencies. Indeed, many China specialists use the label “fragmented authoritarianism” to describe the country’s political structure. In addition, China’s administrative system is plagued by increasing corruption as officials seek financial benefits through bribes (accepting payment in exchange for favorable decisions) and graft (acquiring state assets for personal gain). Together, fragmentation and corruption mean that the central authorities can have only limited confidence that their decisions will be faithfully implemented, or that their subordinates will enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary citizens.

4. China is vulnerable to political upheaval in the event of crisis

True, China is vulnerable to political upheaval – but the study of political risk tells us that all political systems are vulnerable in the event of crisis. The only question is the size of the shock that would be needed to trigger that instability.

And, in fact, despite its authoritarian character, and despite the fact that its political institutions are both fragmented and corrupt, China appears to be relatively stable – or at least far more stable than was anticipated by analysts who predicted, after the Tiananmen Crisis of 1989, that the country was on the verge either of democratization or collapse. Indeed, some foreign analysts are now saying that China’s political future is more likely to feature “resilient authoritarianism” than either upheaval or democracy.

There are several factors that seem to be making the Chinese political system so resilient:

  • Mechanisms for the expression of grievance, as noted above
  • Increasingly effective procedures protests – some accommodative, others repressive -- for responding to them
  • Relatively high levels of popular legitimacy, rooted largely in thirty years of sustained economic growth and growing personal freedom, and bolstered by widespread popular nationalism
  • A middle class that has been co-opted into the existing political system, and is wary of the consequences of either democratization or “chaos”
  • A leadership that has been able to maintain the appearance – and probably the reality – of relative unity

The resilience of the system has been demonstrated by its ability to ride out a number of rather serious shocks, including a stock market collapse (which predated the global financial crisis), outbreaks of communicable disease (especially SARS), the Tibetan riots, the Sichuan earthquake, the current economic downturn, and especially the melamine and other product safety scandals. These were all national (or at least regional) issues – not simply local problems that could be blamed on local officials. And yet none of them has posed a serious challenge to the stability of the Chinese political system.

It seems, then, that it would take either a more powerful shock, or else the gradual erosion of the regime’s resilience, to create the conditions by which China could experience a severe political crisis. A big shock cannot be precluded, but seems unlikely at the moment. The bigger danger is a gradual decline in the legitimacy of the political system if it is unable to manage China’s long list of social and economic contradictions effectively, especially if that decline is accompanied by growing differences of opinion among Chinese leaders over the desirability of further political reform.

5. U.S.-China relations will also be vulnerable to the human rights issue

A political crisis in China would once again produce a big shock to U.S.-China relations, just as the Tiananmen Crisis shook the relationship to its foundations in 1989. And the authoritarian character of Chinese politics does contribute to the mistrust that many Americans feel toward China, and their concern about the consequences of China’s rising power.

Even so, the human rights issue has been pushed to the side, as other issues in the relationship – the financial crisis, climate change, the North Korean nuclear program, energy security, and the like -- have come to the fore. To be sure, there will be relatively mild criticism of China by the U.S. government, particularly in the annual State Department human rights report, and far sharper criticism of China by non-governmental human rights organizations. Particular developments – especially involving Tibet, individual dissidents, and religious organizations, each of which has supporters in the U.S. – may inflame the issue from time to time. But while the human rights issue will remain an irritant in the U.S.-China relationship, it is unlikely to cause a crisis – unless the human rights issue in China itself reaches crisis proportions.

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In short, much of the conventional wisdom about China’s record political reform over the last thirty years is correct. There have been limits to political reform, the system therefore remains authoritarian, it is vulnerable to shock, and U.S.-China relations will not be immune from a serious political crisis in China. But these same generalizations have to be modified to be more fully accurate: there has been considerable political reform, China is a relatively soft and resilient authoritarian system, and it will take a very large shock – or protracted political decay – to destabilize either the U.S.-China relationship or China itself

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Hard Edge to Soft Power

It’s increasingly clear that Chinese are interested in developing their soft power, as well as their military and economic power. Is this something that Americans should be concerned about? Is the development of another country’s soft power entirely benign, or can it legitimately be of concern to others?

Some forms of soft power are non-threatening. These include the attractiveness of a country’s culture, the beauty of its landscape, the appeal of its educational system, even the skill of its diplomatic corps. To be sure, there may be a degree of competitiveness here, in the sense that all these forms of soft power may enable a country to develop more vital hubs of cultural, tourist, intellectual, and diplomatic activity than other countries enjoy. But the overall effect is positive: everyone benefits from the emergence of these new centers of soft power.

But two other types of soft power may be somewhat less benign. They are the use of soft power to explicitly legitimize the development of one’s own harder forms of power; and then the use of soft power to delegitimize another country’s power, whether hard or soft. Both of these, especially the second, may make the acquisition of soft power a much more competitive undertaking. And while China is clearly trying – with some degree of success – to develop the benign forms of soft power, it is also attempting to create these two other forms of soft power as well.

Legitimizing Chinese power

One key purpose of soft power is to legitimize the development and deployment of harder forms of power, both military and economic. Since hard power can appear threatening, soft power can be used to reassure others about the intentions that harder power will ultimately serve.

Chinese became interested in this issue when they grappled with what initially appeared to them to be a puzzle. After the collapse of the former Soviet Union, when the United States became the world’s sole superpower, why did not the rest of the world come together to counterbalance it? Chinese analysts considered two possible explanations for this. One was that the world was truly unipolar – that the US was so powerful that the only possible response was to bandwagon, not counterbalance. But the other, seemingly more plausible to Chinese analysts who see an irreversible trend toward multipolarity, was that the US was not seen as sufficiently threatening to warrant counterbalancing. And they concluded that the main reason why American predominance was not widely regarded as threatening was that America’s hard power was legitimized by its soft power.

This conclusion became even more relevant to Beijing when the rise of Chinese economic and military power toward the end of the 1990s began to produce concerns about China’s own intentions, and to give rise to the so-called “China Threat” theory. To counter that theory, Chinese analysts realized, Beijing would have to find ways of doing what the U.S. had done so well: to use soft power to legitimize its acquisition of hard power.

Beijing could have tried to do this by putting forward an idiosyncratic set of goals and values to justify the rise of Chinese power. For example, it could have reasserted some of the ideological values rooted in the Marxist-Leninist tradition. Or it could have presented a set of cultural values drawn from Chinese civilization. And, indeed, Beijing has used both these approaches, but to a remarkably limited degree. It continues to talk about a “new international economic order,” much as it did in the 1970s; and it has started to talk about creating a “harmonious world,” using a term that has much deeper resonance in Chinese traditional rhetoric than in contemporary international parlance.

But China’s main strategy has been to invoke universal international values – not specifically Marxist-Leninist or Chinese values -- to justify its rise. In so doing, China has been exercising soft power in an unusual way. It has not taken the approach described so well by Joseph Nye: persuading others to be like China. Instead, it has taken just the opposite tack: trying to persuade others that China wants to be just like them. In other words, China has been reassuring the rest of the world it has accepted international norms and values, and therefore its rise will not be a threat to the international community that upholds those values.

But of course, in invoking those international norms, China has done so selectively, stressing those with which it felt most comfortable and, as we will see in the next section, sometimes using them to subtly delegitimize the exercise of power by the United States. This list of selected universal norms and values is a long one, but they can be summarized by grouping them into five broader categories: goals, values, transactional norms, institutional norms, and policy norms.

  • Goals: Chinese leaders speak of a variety of goals that they say China shares with other nations. Two frequently used formulations are “peace, prosperity, and partnership” for the international system as a whole, and “stability, development, and human rights” for the individual countries within it. These two formulations build on the earlier statement, associated with Deng Xiaoping, that the world is in an era of “peace and development” – a statement that, in turn, was a tacit repudiation of the Maoist formula of a world characterized by “war and revolution.”
    The Maoist formula was a good example of the presentation of an idiosyncratic set of goals that, in the end, appealed to only a relatively small number of people and to even fewer governments. By emphasizing the more universally held values of “peace and development,” in contrast, Deng's formula has been more reassuring form of soft power. The subsequent addition of values such as “prosperity,” “stability,” and “human rights” only enhances its appeal.
  • Values: Here, China has also invoked universal values, but more selectively. It has championed the Westphalian values of national sovereignty and territorial integrity, together with the more recent value of cultural diversity. These lead China to oppose intervention by stronger powers in the internal affairs of the weak, oppose unwanted regulation of sovereign states by international institutions, and defend each government’s right to define its own path of development free of foreign pressure. To be sure, Beijing China no longer absolutizes these values, and is even willing to support economic sanctions and humanitarian intervention in certain circumstances. But in general China holds to what I call the “conservative” (or “modern”) values in international affairs, whereas the U.S. upholds what might be called more “liberal” (or “post-modern”) values – values that permit intervention and sanctions in the name of the protection human security and the promotion of human rights.
  • Transactional norms: By transactional norms, I mean the norms that govern the interactions among states. Here, China has made a somewhat more original contribution – indeed, a contribution that some say will form the basis of a new Chinese theory of international relations – by saying that it stands for “partnerships” that are characterized by norms such as mutual understanding, trust, consensus, and cooperation. These are universal values, to be sure, but they have previously been applied more to domestic social relations than to the international relations among states. China also continues to uphold the related elements of the “five principles of peaceful coexistence,” including equality and mutual benefit.
  • Institutional norms: Similarly, in its discussion of international organizations, Beijing favors those that follow the norm of universal (rather than selective) membership and that operate on the basis of consensus (rather than majority rule or minority dominance). In so doing, it claims two be upholding the principle of democratic governance of international affairs, and opposing any country’s claims to hegemony or dominance.
  • Policy norms: China also has codified a set of norms that underlie specific foreign policies and development programs: For example, China says its foreign policy is organized around “defensive defense,” ”cooperative security,” “win-win” economic relationships, and unconditional foreign aid. And Beijing’s development policy advocates experimentalism, gradualism, and varied solutions to fit the particular circumstances of each developing country, all undertaken by a strong, authoritarian, pro-development state.

Delegitimizing American power

At the same time that Beijing is trying to use soft power to legitimize its growing role in the world, there are also some signs that it is simultaneously attempting, at least to a degree, to delegitimize American power and policy. It is doing so by suggesting the ways in which its selection of universal goals, values, and norms stand in contrast to America’s, and the ways in which American foreign and development policies violate the norms and values that China espouses.

Let’s proceed through the same five categories outlined above, to see how Beijing uses them to criticize the United States, and thereby attempts to delegitimize the American role in the world:

  • Goals: Here, the differences between China and the U.S. are centered more on the goals that Beijing asserts for individual countries than on its goals for the international system. On the latter, China does not imply that the U.S. does not join China in favoring international peace and prosperity as ultimate objectives. But on the former, China asserts far more differences with the U.S. By setting out China’s three goals – stability, development, and human rights -- Chinese analysts say that the U.S. is focused only on one (human rights), and even there is focused primarily on political and civil rights, rather than on the economic and social rights that have equal standing under international law. Beijing does not accept the charge that China is not as committed to human rights as is the U.S. Instead, it says that the U.S. ignores the developing world’s equal interest in stability and development, especially for poorer states, and is willing to sacrifice them in a quixotic attempt to promote democracy and pluralism in countries that are not yet “ready” to achieve them.
  • Values: Here, the differences are far starker, although not absolute. As noted above, China can be seen as upholding “conservative” values in international affairs, which Beijing then contrasts with the “liberal” values (and I stress this is my term, not Beijing’s) promoted by the United States: the right of the U.S., either unilaterally, in concert with its allies, or with the backing of international organizations, to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs to impose Western policies, institutions, and values. Increasingly, too, Beijing accuses the U.S. of a cultural bias – of a “West-centric discourse” that denies the acceptability of anything other than Western policies, institutions, or values in evaluating the domestic and foreign policies of other countries.
  • Transactional norms: As noted above, China advocates transactional norms that embody the ideal of cooperative relationships among trusting partners. Beijing accuses the United States of frequently violating those norms. It claims that America’s relationship with China, like its relationships with other countries it regards as potential threats, is characterized by mistrust and misunderstanding. China also says that the U.S. deals with other countries through sanctions and pressure, rather than in a cooperative and consensual sprit; and conducts its relations with other countries in a hierarchical or hegemonic way, rather than forming equal partnerships of the sort that Beijing claims to favor.
  • Institutional norms: China reserves some of its most pointed criticism of the United States for violating its favored institutional norms: universal membership organizations that operate on the basis of consensus. It has criticized US alliances, especially in Asia, and US proposals for the creation of a league of democracies, as “dividing the world” on the basis of “ideological thinking” and a “cold war mentality.” In other words, these are allegedly institutional reflections of a American mindset that demands allegiance to “Western values,” mistrusts and misunderstands countries that do not unequivocally accept those values, and creates hierarchical and exclusive relationships centered on the US rather than more equal and inclusive “partnerships.”
  • Policy norms: Finally, many of China’s policy norms can be seen as criticisms, direct or indirect, of American policies. For example, “defensive defense” is a criticism of the US policies of preemptive and preventive war. Similarly, China contrasts its “no-strings-attached” approach to ODA with the conditionality associated with the United States and the Washington-based international financial institutions, and contrasts the gradualistic and experimental strategy of development with the orthodox neo-liberal approach it attributes to the “Washington Consensus.”


My point here is not to suggest that China’s normative arguments are correct or unanswerable. Rather, it is to assert that China is using normative arguments to legitimate its rising military and economic power, so as to reduce the chances that China’s rise will be seen as a threat that requires other countries to counterbalance it. It is also to suggest that China is using those same normative arguments to delegitimize some aspects of American foreign and defense policy.

The main implication is that the U.S. will have develop effective counterarguments (or, in some cases, to modify its policies) if it is to maintain the international legitimacy that is such an important part of its overall national power. Many American analysts focus on the rise of the harder forms of Chinese power, or the more benign forms of soft power. They may not be paying adequate attention to the ways in which that soft power can possess a harder edge.