This is the seventh instalment in a series of interviews with scholars and experts on China as a resurgent Asian power that is changing the regional order. This instalment looks into the strengths and weaknesses of the Communist Party of China. -- Ed.
The greatest vulnerability facing the Communist Party of China is that it has never been given a popular mandate to rule the nation, China expert Yang Gab-yong said, underscoring the importance of the trust of the Chinese people to keep its governing legitimacy.
Yang, head researcher of the Institute of China Studies at Sungkyunkwan University, said that the party has hitherto secured its legitimacy based on the fact that it founded the country and has achieved economic growth.
"It is a somewhat vulnerable system in which people recognise and accept the governing party based on its historical legitimacy and the legitimacy based on the economic achievements. The question is: What if the public no longer upholds the party's legitimacy?" he told The Korea Herald.
To maintain its political legitimacy, the party has constantly pursued innovations to win the hearts of the Chinese, he noted. The party has also been running training and educational programs for Communist Party elites that represent the present and future of the party.
Touching on Chinese leader Xi Jinping's recent moves to consolidate his leadership position, the scholar said that Xi has apparently been bolstering his authority to ensure that the power succession process would proceed stably without causing confusion both in and outside of the party.
"Xi needs to have adequate authority to ensure stable power succession," he said. "Should the successors be determined, uncertainties over the power transfer will be reduced, which would help forestall potential confusion."
As for the party's decision-making process, he said it would be wrong to believe that the process would be a top-down, inflexible and rigid one.
Following is an interview with Dr. Yang.
Korea Herald: The Communist Party has ruled the country since modern China was founded in 1949. How has that been possible?
Yang Gab-yong: There are both external and internal factors. The external factor is the Cold War during which the US recognised the strategic value of China amid its rivalry with the then Soviet Union. The US wanted to bring China onto its side while China also had a confrontational relationship with the Soviet Union.
The US didn't want to see China's power weaken too much as it wanted China to play some role in keeping the power dynamics in its favour.
So, there was this external environment that recognised the existence of China no matter what China did domestically - even if that might be a one-party dictatorship.
When it comes to domestic factors, there has actually been no alternative that could supplant the Communist Party. And the party has "historical legitimacy" as it was the very party that founded the country.
Since the Opium War (in 1840), China had explored ways to reestablish itself and find its own path toward the future.
In the process, Sun Yat-sen, a Chinese revolutionary leader, favoured republicanism, while Mao Zedong pushed for communism. After all, the Communist Party won in the competition over ruling ideologies and established China in 1949. For the Chinese people, the party ended the century of humiliation and laid the basic foundation for China to thrive economically.
This gives the Communist Party historical legitimacy, which has been deeply lodged in the Chinese psyche.
However, the historical legitimacy has faded with the lapse of time, meaning the party needed something else to ensure its legitimacy. After it adopted the policy of reform and openness (in 1978), China's economy grew and the fruits of its growth have been shared among the people.
Thus, Chinese have naturally thought of the party as the organisation that has not only established their country but also fed them.
People also anticipate that the party would lead their country on a path toward economic prosperity in the future as well. Therefore, the party has been something that they are thankful for.
KH: You said that the Chinese feel grateful to the Communist Party for the founding of China and its economic growth. Is that sentiment shared by the majority?
Yang: Well, there are those with vested interests in the party. For them, the party's existence itself is linked to their own personal interests. They think that if the party is doing well, things will be going well for their country as well as themselves.
We can also think of those who are apathetic about politics. Many Chinese show little interest in politics, unlike Korea where people's confabulations are oftentimes dominated by political issues.
Chinese rarely talk about politics, while they enjoy talking about bread-and-butter issues or their day-to-day lives.
In fact, people's political orientations have been influenced by the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), an intense sociopolitical movement to promote communism and eliminate capitalist ideas.
Those in their 70s, who were "sent down" to work in rural areas during the revolution, believe that if power is concentrated or monopolized, it would have adverse effects. Their thoughts are largely liberal.
But those who were part of the "Red Guards" or those in their 30s or early 40s who grew up after the country adopted the policy of reform and openness … they believe that the growth of the party and the country correlates with their own growth. They believe the party's future mirrors their own, because they have grown up benefiting from the party's economic achievements.
There are of course those who are critical of the Communist Party. But they can hardly be grouped as a collective voice to challenge party affairs. This is in part because of the culture in which people rarely rally unless a prominent leader, whose interests are usually aligned with those of the Communist Party, encourages them to move.
It is different from Korea's culture in which an ordinary individual can encourage and push others to stage a collective movement against whatever they are unhappy about.
KH: What are the vulnerabilities or weaknesses of the Communist Party?
Yang: The biggest vulnerability stems from the fact that Chinese people have never directly entrusted the Communist Party with any mandate to rule the nation, for example through electoral procedures. The Communist Party has about 87.9 million members -- only a fraction of the Chinese population of more than 1.3 billion. It is like a small minority leading some 1.22 billion people -- something unthinkable in a democracy.
It is a somewhat vulnerable system in which people recognise and accept the governing party based on its historical legitimacy and the legitimacy based on its economic achievements. The question is, what if the public no longer upholds the party's legitimacy?
Another weakness is the paradox of economic success. There have been income disparities and excessive development gaps between regions and between urban and rural areas. These issues could lead people to question the legitimacy of the governing party. The Communist Party is aware of these potential problems and has been striving to address them.
KH: The Communist Party's decision-making mechanism appears to have changed as its leaders have changed from such charismatic leaders as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping to others like Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping. What is your take?
Yang: Over the last six decades, the Communist Party has basically maintained the collective leadership mechanism under which Communist Party leaders share their roles (according to their specialties) and respect the roles of their colleagues in the decision-making process -- or seek consensus when there is an issue that goes beyond any single individual specialty.
Although the collective leadership was in place, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping had charismatic authority bestowed on them because of two things: their participation in the anti-Japanese campaign (1937-1945) and the "Long March" (the Communist Party's military retreat between 1934 and 1935 to evade the pursuit of the Chinese Nationalist Party).
But after the era of Deng Xiaoping, the charismatic authority disappeared. As society has become more pluralistic with the emergence of technocrats with specialties and expertise, there was no need for the country to rely wholly on a charismatic leader. In the past, the country, which lacked social capital and resources, might have needed the charismatic authority to push for revolution and economic development.
Instead of this charismatic authority, Chinese leaders -- after Deng Xiaoping -- have relied on the institutionalized authority to rule the nation. In other words, their authority stems from institutions.
Current leader Xi has been seen strengthening his authority by institutionalizing his leadership.
What Jiang, Hu and Xi have in common is the fact that they all took the top posts in the party, government and military through the institutionalized authority. But under the collective leadership system, these leaders can be seen as a first among equals, meaning that the leader lacks the authority or power to push for future national strategies or power succession on their own terms.
This is partly the reason why Xi has been seeking to consolidate his authority.
Xi's pursuit of a stronger authority appears to be related to power succession. In 1992 when the 14th National Congress of the CCP was held, Deng Xiaoping and other senior leaders designated Jiang and Hu as successors that would lead China between 1992 and 2012. Following that decision, the power succession process proceeded stably.
Should a competition be employed to pick successors, it could trigger confusion or infighting, for which a coordinator is needed. The coordinator needs to be Xi, and to undertake the coordinating role, Xi needs to have an adequate amount of power. Xi may want to pick two successors who would lead the nation for the next two decades following the end of his term in 2022.
Should the successors be determined, uncertainties over the power succession will be reduced, which would help forestall potential confusion.
KH: The role and behaviour of senior Communist Party officials are important as people identify them with the party as well as the government.
Yang: As the Communist Party has never been given a popular mandate to lead the nation, it is of paramount importance for the party to maintain trust with the people. For this, the party should keep pursuing innovations. At the core of party innovations is Communist Party elites -- the reason why the education and training for them are crucial.
At various institutions such as the Communist Party's Central Party School, there have been training programs for party elites. During training sessions, Communist Party officials are given ideological training and other classes. Through this process, the party conducts evaluations on trainees based on which they happen to discover talented officials and sometimes bring them to higher posts, or relegate those who are underperforming.
China's top decision-making panel, the Politburo, has also been running educational programs such as regular group study sessions to keep reinventing itself.
Through the study, Politburo officials exchange their views on a wide range of topics and coordinate their stances to ensure a unified voice.
The study session usually consists of some 50 officials including government speakers.
Under Hu Jintao, the Politburo held collective study sessions every 45 days, while under Xi, these sessions have been held every month.
The sessions are marked by heated debate on multiple pending issues such as the environment, defence, foreign affairs, education, governance and even sports. It would be a mistake if you believe that the decision-making process is only a top-down, Lenin-style inflexible one. All those in the dynamic group discussions exchange their views freely and candidly without caring too seriously about what others might think about their opinions.
KH: You said that through group study sessions, the politburo gets to have a unified voice. But in the Communist Party, there have traditionally been divergent policy lines. How can unity be forged?
Yang: There are still divergent views within the Politburo. For example, officials share the need for reform, but they differ over the width and scope of the reform. But when a policy decision is presented to the public, the announcement comes only after internal consensus is reached. Without any agreement, nothing would be divulged to the public. When there is internal conflict over an issue, the decision-making process might be put on ice or delayed until conditions are forged for building consensus.
There was a case of Bo Xilai, an ill-fated politician, when some confusion in the decision-making was revealed, but it was an extremely rare case. A decision represents unity over a particular issue, but the process of reaching the consensus is not an easy one as it comes only after heated discussions and even onsite inspections if need be.
KH: Do you think that the rule by the Communist Party will be sustainable?
Yang: There are two conditions to that end. One is China's continued economic growth. As the Communist Party has never been given any procedural legitimacy, it needs something to offset the absence of it. That is to continue economic growth to ensure that people have stable ways to bring home the bacon. By what percentage the Chinese economy will grow doesn't really matter. What matters is whether the party can continue to create jobs and address unemployment issues, and prop up economic growth.
Another condition is the Chinese government's crisis management capabilities that affect public trust and sentiment about the party. As Chinese society becomes diverse, a host of things over which the party's control does not extend have taken place, including drug dealing, human trafficking and other crimes -- plus natural disasters. Should the party fail to properly handle these unexpected situations, people would start to show skepticism over the party's capabilities, which would dent the public trust.
KH: The Communist Party has kept reforming itself to adapt to changing domestic and external environments. One example would be Jiang's "three representations" theory to modernize the party and allow entrepreneurs and professionals to join it.
Yang: The Communist Party is quite flexible, practical, open-minded and inclusive, although stereotypical ideas continue to remain that the party is rigid, dogmatic and inflexible. The party has continued to expand its boundaries to represent diverse groups of Chinese people as shown in Jiang's three representations theory. Had the party stuck to its own socialist principles in a rigid manner, it wouldn't have joined the World Trade Organisation, the core capitalist institution.
Of course, there are concerns that the changes in the party could undermine its identity as a communist party or its socialist principles. Thus, the party has been conducting exhaustive tests before actually applying anything new at a national level -- a reason why they have employed the cautious policymaking methodology of proceeding from "point to line and then to surface" in a gradual progression.
If any policy experiment does not work as intended at one experimental point, its application would not be extended.
They would stop the experiment or go back to the drawing board and start it afresh in their quest of viable policy options.
History shows China has pursued constant change. The country that has upheld Confucianism for thousands of years adopted socialism. And later, it accommodated capitalism. In this respect, there is also a possibility that the Communist Party would change the party's name into one that better represents a wide range of its members, such as "Chinese Society Party" or "Chinese Democratic Society Party."
The party may think that the name in itself is not important, and that what counts is the content that the party carries as a container to accommodate diverse hopes and wishes of the Chinese people.
KH: Lastly, what major challenges do you think the Communist Party faces on its path toward the future?
Yang: As there has been a growth of China's middle-class, which might seek to raise their voices to protect their interests, the party needs to think about what kind of governance system would be effective to handle them. Another issue concerns those in the lowest income brackets that seem to be increasingly away from the party's boundaries even though the party was founded based on their support. Thus how to take care of them is a major task.
As the party continues to seek innovations and reform, it also needs to restore the role of the press. Currently, the Chinese media are under the control of the party and merely serve as a window to promote its guidelines. The party is leading its own reform, but it should not forget that it is the very subject of reform. For the reform to succeed, the third party, the media, can play a positive role.
- Yang, the head researcher of the Institute of China Studies at Sungkyunkwan University, is noted for his extensive research on the elites in China's Communist Party, government reform and education training of senior party officials.
- He previously served as a research professor at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on China at Kookmin University and senior researcher at the China Research Center of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
- He has authored or coauthored various books and academic papers, including "A Study on Changes in China's Top Political Elites," "China-style Democracy and its Method to Recruit Elites" and "China's Governance Reform: Perceptions, Issues and the Future."
- He obtained his bachelor's and master's degree from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in 1991 and 1996, respectively. He earned his doctorate degree in politics from Fudan University in Shanghai, China, in 2008.