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The China Quarterly, 211, September 2012, pp. 595–623 leadership led by Jiang Zemin – many of whom studied overseas (in the Soviet Union and the East European countries in the 1950s) – as well as Hu Jintao’s fourth generation, in which a majority were engineers by training.35 In a sense, these leaders could be seen as technocrats. As for the upcoming fifth generation of leaders, although they are less technocratic than the last two generations, some have studied in the West or Japan as visiting scholars. Generally speaking, they seem more informed about world affairs than their counterparts in other countries. According to some foreign observers, a majority of Chinese national leaders have previously served as municipal and provincial leaders for many years or even decades, and are thus well prepared for the national stage.

However, in the eyes of the Chinese public, especially critics of the Party, the current method of selecting PRC leaders is anything but meritocratic. In the absence of democratic competition, nepotism in various forms (such as blood ties, school ties, regional identities, mishu 秘书 or personal assistant experiences and patron–client ties) continues to play a crucial role. Three new phenomena deserve special attention.

First, all of the leading candidates for the next Politburo, and especially the Standing Committee that will be formed during the 18th Party Congress in the autumn of 2012, are well known for their strong family backgrounds, factional affiliations or other patron–client ties. One can reasonably argue, as many in China do, that their rise to the pinnacle of power in the most populous country in the world has had more to do with heavyweight patrons than with their own leadership credentials and administrative achievements.

Second, a large number of the fifth and sixth generation leaders hold postgraduate degrees. For example, among the 402 newly appointed Standing Committee members of China’s 31 provincial-level Party committees, 298 (74 per cent) hold post-graduate degrees and 92 (22.8 per cent) have PhD degrees.36 However, a closer look at these leaders reveals that an overwhelming majority of them attended these degree programmes on a part-time basis, often in recent years while they served as senior leaders in municipal and provincial governments.

These advanced degrees have even become a liability for these leaders. Minxin Pei, a prominent US-based scholar of Chinese elite politics, has called this phenomenon of inflated advanced degrees among Chinese officials a sign of “systemic cheating.”37As Pei puts it, “many Chinese officials use fake or dubiously acquired academic credentials to burnish their resumes … in order to gain an advantage in the competition for power.”38 Along the same lines, Wang Yukai 汪玉凯, professor in the Chinese Academy of Governance, recently pointed

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out, “When you see these part-time degrees obtained by senior leaders, you cannot rule out the possibility that they are fraudulent.”39 The third phenomenon is undoubtedly the most troubling. It has been widely reported even in official Chinese media that in order to get appointments and promotions, some officials, especially those who do not have strong family backgrounds or political connections (guanxi 关系), have routinely used bribes to “purchase office” (maiguan 买官).40 According to the Hong Kong and Singapore media (though not verified), Liu Zhijun 刘志军, a former minister of railways, intended to use two billion yuan to “purchase” the post of vice premiership, and even a seat in the 2012 Politburo, before he was arrested on corruption charges in February 2011.41 These three phenomena have understandably tarnished the CCP’s reputation for meritocracy among the Chinese public.

Regarding the separation of power in the Chinese political system, since the 1989 purge of Zhao Ziyang 赵紫阳 the CCP has explicitly stated that it is not interested in pursuing a Western-style tripartite division of government.

Instead, the leadership has proposed institutional separation of the Party into three divisions, namely: decision-making, policy implementation, and supervision. Given that CCP power remains unchecked, however, what Andrew Nathan has described as the “functional specialization of institutions within the regime” has largely consisted of empty words on the part of the Party leadership.

For example, judicial power has been increasingly marginalized in the PRC political structure over the past decade, as the Party has strongly resisted judicial independence and given infinite power to the Central Commission of Politics and Law (CCPL) of the CCP. The Central Commission of Politics and Law, known as zhengfawei 政法委, oversees all law enforcement authorities, including the Supreme People’s Court, Supreme People’s Procuratorate, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Public Security, and Ministry of State Security, making it a very powerful organ.42 This absence of functional specialization between Chinese governmental institutions undermines arguments that channels for political participation have broadened – the fourth area of Chinese institutional development that Nathan describes. According to Bruce Dickson, the CCP has created new political institutions “to channel political participation and to provide a bridge between state and society,” such as village elections and government offices for petition letters and complaint visits (known as the xinfang 信访 system).43 Some Western observers argue that “in China, protests, corruption probes and village elections 39 Xinhua News Net, 4 July 2012, http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2012-07/04/c_123366738.htm.

40 Pei 2012.

41 Lianhe zaobao, 27 February 2011. Also see http://www.zaobao.com/wencui/2011/02/hongkong110227c.


42 All the Party committees of provinces, municipalities and counties establish respective politics and law commissions.

43 Dickson 2005, 4.

The China Quarterly, 211, September 2012, pp. 595–623 provide a certain degree of accountability without democracy.”44 The number and scale of group protests, however, have increased in recent years and some have become increasingly violent. In response, the Chinese leadership has lately adopted what Mary Gallagher calls “a mixture of carrots and sticks” – political repression on one hand and growth-producing public goods on the other.”45 The fact that the CCP leadership has been paranoid about the need to maintain social stability shows the serious limitations of institutionalized public participation.

Will today’s ally become tomorrow’s challenger? The role of the middle class One of the central arguments of the “authoritarian resilience” thesis is that the CCP has relied on economic development and material incentives to prevent grassroots demand for socio-political challenges. “The main reason why the CCP is so strong,” a foreign journalist has observed, “is that the Chinese are aware of the improvements that have been made in such a short period of time.”46 New socio-economic forces, especially entrepreneurs and the emerging middle class, are understood to be political allies of the CCP regime.47 But this assumption should be subject to greater scrutiny. Just as yesterday’s political target could be today’s political ally, so too could today’s political ally become tomorrow’s political rabble-rouser. Recent studies conducted in China have found that the Chinese middle class, more than other social groups, tends to be cynical about the policy promises made by authorities, more demanding of policy implementation and more sensitive when it comes to official corruption.48 If middle-class Chinese begin to feel that their voices are being suppressed, that their access to information is unjustly being blocked or that their space for social action is being unduly confined, increased political dissent may begin to take shape.49 The Chinese middle class’s grievances over government policy have become increasingly evident, partly because the expansion of the middle class has slowed and economic disparity has increased in recent years. The high unemployment rate among recent college graduates (who usually come from middle-class families and are presumed to be members of China’s future middle class) should send an alarming signal to the Chinese government. In a recent forum on China’s response to the global financial crisis held by the Academy of Chinese Reform and Development in Beijing, Chinese scholars argued that the government should pay much greater attention to the needs and concerns of the middle

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class – otherwise, they argued, the “sensitive” Chinese middle class could become the “angry” middle class.50 Members of the Chinese middle class have indeed been up in arms over official corruption and the CCP leadership’s lack of accountability and transparency in cases such as food safety, environmental pollution and the 2011 Wenzhou bullet train incident that killed 40 passengers. Like their counterparts elsewhere, the Chinese middle class is also interested in media freedom and resents government censorship.

The Chinese middle class is particularly concerned about the increasingly obvious oligarchic power of state-owned enterprises (SOEs), a trend working at the expense of the private sector. A study conducted by Chinese scholars shows that the total profits made by China’s 500 largest private companies in 2009 were less than the total revenues of two SOE companies, China Mobile and Sinopec.51 Ironically, the private sector’s net return on investment in 2009 was 8.2 per cent, compared to the 3.1 per cent for SOEs.52 The impressive growth of China Mobile has been attributed, at least partially, to the company’s monopoly on China’s domestic telecommunications market. With large SOEs monopolizing the telecommunications sector, there is no incentive for these flagship companies to pursue technological innovation.

Xu Xiaonian 许小年, a professor of economics and finance at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, uses the term “crony capitalism” or “state capitalism,” to express his reservations about this growing trend toward state monopoly.53 He believes that, with the rapid expansion of SOEs in the past few years, China has in fact begun to reverse Deng Xiaoping’s plan for the country’s development. In Xu’s view, China is drawing the wrong lessons from the recent global financial crisis and heading in the wrong direction.

According to Xu, the main beneficiaries of SOE growth are corrupt officials, not the Chinese public. He believes that in today’s China, entrepreneurs only exist in the private sector and not in SOEs, because SOE managers have neither an entrepreneurial spirit nor a sense of responsibility for their companies’ losses.54 Generally speaking, private entrepreneurs have always been denied bank loans and preferential policies.

Echoing Xu’s critique, Chen Zhiwu, an economist at Yale University, observes that 25.5 per cent of fiscal expenditures in China in 2011 were used for social welfare, public health, education and other public goods, while 38 per cent of fiscal expenditures were spent as administrative expenses. By contrast, in the 50 Hu Xiao 2009, 1.

51 Beijing shangbao, 30 August 2010. See also http://news.xinhuanet.com/fortune/2010-08/30/c_12496387.


52 See http://xuxiaonian.blog.sohu.com/160724498.html.

53 For Xu Xiaonian’s views, see http://xuxiaonian.blog.sohu.com/158818651.html. And Lianhe zaobao, 1 August 2010, http://finance.ifeng.com/opinion/zjgc/20100830/2567934.shtml. Also see Bremmer 2010;

Huang 2008.

54 See http://finance.ifeng.com/news/20101205/3005151.shtml.

The China Quarterly, 211, September 2012, pp. 595–623 United States the fiscal expenditures on these two categories were 73 and 10 per cent, respectively.55 He called for a reallocation of resources, through democratic reforms in the Chinese political system, to help the country’s middle and lower classes.

Three Transformative Trends This review of the resilient authoritarianism thesis suggests that thinking of the Chinese political system in monolithic terms tends to lead to dogmatic cynicism, on the one hand, or wishful thinking on the other. While the CCP’s omnipresence and its future should be a central concern, we need to explore the internal dynamics and tensions within the Party in greater detail. At the same time, transformative trends in broader contexts – the shifting power and relative strength and weakness of other factors besides the Party– deserve greater attention.

Altogether, they can help us reconcile in a more holistic way the widely divergent phenomena and contrasting analyses discussed above.

Trend one: weak leaders, strong factions Over the past three decades, China has been gradually moving away from rule by a single, charismatic all-powerful leader such as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping toward a collective form of leadership. This transformation has ended the era of strongman politics and, to a certain extent, China’s long history of arbitrary decision-making by a lone individual. This transition, of course, has been a gradual process. Mao Zedong 毛泽东, a god-like figure, wielded almost limitless power, especially during the Cultural Revolution. Mao routinely made major policy decisions alone, such as the devastating Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.56 During the Deng era, as a result of his legendary political career and formidable patron-client ties, a set of reform initiatives – including establishing special economic zones and sending students to study in the West – were carried out with little resistance. Following the Tiananmen incident Deng maintained his role as China’s paramount leader even while he held no important leadership position.57 Both Jiang Zemin of the third generation and Hu Jintao of the fourth are technocrats who lack the charisma and revolutionary credentials of Deng, but both had broad administrative experience and were good at coalition-building and reaching political compromises. They were, to a great extent, no more than “first among equals” in their respective generations of collective leadership.

They could hardly put to use the sort of power enjoyed by Deng, especially when it came to commanding the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

55 Chen 2012.

56 Teiwes and Sun 1998; MacFarquhar and Schoenhals 2008; Hu Angang 2009.

57 Vogel 2011.

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