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China's Government 'Running To Stay In One Place'

A girl wounded during the clash between the army and students is carried out of Tiananmen Square in 1989.
A girl wounded during the clash between the army and students is carried out of Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Scenes from China horrified the world 20 years ago when the government's killing of Tiananmen Square protesters provided an object lesson in Chairman Mao's adage "all political power comes from the barrel of a gun."

But since then, China has also amazed the world with its degree of economic progress and stability. Does that make China an authoritarian success story, or a country highly uncertain of its future?

RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel asked Roderick MacFarquhar, an eminent China scholar and professor of history at Harvard University.

RFE/RL: China's ruling Communist Party has successfully kept democracy at bay while delivering economic progress to the country. Is this a triumph for authoritarianism, perhaps even to the extent that other authoritarian states may point to China as a successful model of development that justifies their own suppression of democratic movements?

Roderick MacFarquhar:
There are a number of people working in the China field who believe China has developed something called "resilient authoritarianism" and there are obviously governments in Asia and elsewhere in the developing world, where democracy is not fully developed and people might well think of copying it.

But the reason why the Chinese have been able to keep going in this way for so many years, since 20 years ago when there was the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square, is that they have developed economic success. And it is not just the government, of course. The government has liberated peasants, and workers, and managers in many ways so that they are delivering economic success. And the result is that there is less inclination to object to the government.

That is not to say that there are no protests, because there are tens of thousands of protests, and we know this from official figures, every year in China, both in rural areas and in urban areas, mainly in rural areas where there is a lot of exploitation of the peasantry in the sense that there are corrupt officials, there are corrupt deals selling land which the local government doesn't own to industries which then pollute the neighborhood. And there have been thousands and thousands of protests, often resulting in conflicts with the police in various parts of China.

And the problem for the Chinese government, of course, is that no government anywhere in the world can permanently deliver success. And if the present global recession, for instance, has a bad impact on China -- and so far they seem to be doing reasonably well, comparatively speaking -- then all bets are off because then the success would not be being delivered and other arguments against the government would be heard.
The problem for the Chinese government, of course, is that no government anywhere in the world can permanently deliver success.

But one thing you have got to emphasize is that at the moment most Chinese are protesting against local governments, against the governments in their villages, their townships, their counties, perhaps even their provinces, but they seem to think the central government is OK and what needs to happen if there is going to be any change in this "resilient authoritarian" scenario is that the people begin to believe that the central government is behind all the problems and they have no more patience with it.

RFE/RL: The Chinese Communist Party, of course, came to power with the mobilizing ideology of communism. But is that earlier basis of legitimacy enough to perpetuate its claim to rule or is it now in need of a new form of legitimacy?

The original basis for legitimacy was partly the doctrine of Marxism-Leninism, which claimed to understand the past and predict the future. And that has been pretty well abandoned in practice if not in theory.

Another pillar of the communist system was the Communist Party and as a result of the Cultural Revolution, when many of its leaders were purged and humiliated, and as a result of the corruption since the Cultural Revolution, in the last 20 or 30 years, the Communist Party has lost its prestige and authority. It still has power, of course, but it no longer is respected as it was before the Cultural Revolution.

And thirdly, they don't have a leader like Mao or even Deng, Deng Xiaoping, to give coherence and leadership in the absence of these other pillars. So it is in fact a very fragile regime. The legitimacy from the communist system has gone but it is very difficult to see any other legitimacy, because you cannot go back to Confucianism. That would really make a mockery of the whole communist system.

And they have been seeking for various ways to find a new doctrine while not formally discarding Marxism-Leninism. Deng Xiaoping, for instance, said, "Socialism with Chinese Characteristics," but of course the Chinese are not building socialism with Chinese characteristics they are building capitalism with Chinese characteristics, if you want socialism with Chinese characteristics you go to Singapore.

And then Jiang Zemin had the idea of the "Three Represents" as a new theory for bringing the whole people together and now you've got Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao with their theory of the "Harmonious Society," but none of these has any real grip on the people because none of these doctrines are really doctrines, they are simply policy prescriptions or ad hoc descriptions of what is actually happening.

And so the regime, lacking the old legitimacy, is fragile. But the main force in politics, which everyone forgets, is inertia and even a house of cards or a sandcastle can stand a long time until something comes along to destroy it.
But the main force in politics, which everyone forgets, is inertia and even a house of cards or a sandcastle can stand a long time until something comes along to destroy it.

And I think that the Chinese government is itself very worried about the problems it faces. It keeps talking about corruption as something that might bring it down. They know that is a major factor in what brought their enemies, the Nationalist Party, down in the 1940s. They are worried about revolts in the northwest and in Tibet, they are worried about the corruption of local officials, which might undermine their rule, but there is not much they can do about it, they can't purge all the corrupt local officials or they would have no officials to work for them. So they are in a cleft stick and they have to keep running in order to stay in one place.

The New Social Contract

RFE/RL: How much of a role do democratic aspirations among ordinary Chinese play in the Chinese political system today? We saw such aspiration appear strongly with the "Goddess of Democracy" statue in Tiananmen Square 20 years ago. Are they still part of the Chinese political equation?

Well, I don't know that the Chinese know what their own system is at the moment. In the early part of the 20th century they abandoned Confucianism, at least formally, imperial Confucianism, and there were attacks by intellectuals on social Confucianism.

So that was sort of turning their back on the past and with the undermining of Marxism-Leninism they seem to have no doctrine for the future, so it is a very, very unstable situation and that is why the government is worried and is running to keep in one place.

I think that the point about democracy is not that there are Jeffersonians and Washingtonians standing around in the halls of academia in China or perhaps in villages in China.

What I think you saw in 1989, 20 years ago in the Tiananmen democracy protest, was a sense among the students and all the people who cheered them on in 100 cities that there must be a better way to govern the country than the use of police and the use of armed force and the lack of a space in which intelligent people could operate and perhaps give their suggestions to the government.

And what I think has happened in the meanwhile has been that the response of the government has been to say OK you can have a bit more space in private and we will let you have that as long as you do not go to Tiananmen Square and denounce the government. So there is an implicit social contract that has been functioning ever since the Tiananmen protest 20 years ago.

RFE/RL: It is always difficult, even dangerous, to try to predict the future. But do you envision the status quo continuing indefinitely in the interest of stability? Or do you expect that China will ultimately develop a more pluralistic form of government and, if so, what might that look like?

If you look at China's neighbor Japan, which in the past has borrowed so much from China but which China tried to emulate at the beginning of the 20th century, you will see that they have a democratic system there but no one would claim that it was a replica of the Western democratic system except in the most bare essentials, and I suspect that at some point the Chinese will move toward some form of more plural political system but it won't necessarily be anything like the Japanese system or, indeed, the American system.

It will be a functioning form of democracy and it may well be like the former the Soviet Union that some parts of China will be more democratic than others simply because of greater economic prosperity and greater education of the population, but it will be different. But I don't think that you can rule out, in fact I would rule in, at some point in the future, a transformation of China into a more plural political system.

I think one of the real underlying problems of people who say China needs stability was expressed to me some years ago by a very distinguished academic Mandarin, so to speak, and that was when I asked this person what do you think about the prospects for democracy in China. And the answer was very revealing, this was a member of the Communist Party: "Look we have been ruled by peasants for the past 40 years or more," (by peasants she meant a peasant-based Communist Party) "if we have the vote, if we have democracy, we will be ruled by the peasants forever."

And I think what you have got in China is an educated class, the businessmen who don't want any trouble from the workers and want the Party to keep them in order, and a Mandarin class who have finally recovered the position they had down through the ages of being advisers to the government and don't want to be put to one side by electoral considerations and the government listening to the broad masses, as they call them. So I think that there is certainly a great deal of antagonism to the idea of a more plural system, an antagonism in the most unlikely places.

What therefore has to happen, to take Mao's words, is there has to be a series of sparks that would unite a nationwide protest against the government. That is what happened in 1989 when there were demonstrations in a 100 cities.

What that spark would be, the first spark, I don't know, but I think that the Chinese government is very worried about that and that is why it is taking enormous care to block all kind of information coming in from the outside world about the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen. It has not exorcised that ghost and it is continually in fear of the ghost returning to threaten the party.

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