Just ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy, the Chinese State Council Information Office published a whitepaper outlining its distinctive conception of democracy. Much of China’s recent emphasis upon democracy – through an alternative discourse that deviates considerably from the West’s – should be read in light of the wider context of the country’s search for a plausible and emphatic legitimation narrative.
Legitimation narratives are the set of discourses and argumentation advanced by states as justification for the normative legitimacy of their rule over their territories and citizens. Such narratives have both domestic and foreign audiences – domestic, in the sense of persuading citizens at large to accept their rule; foreign, in deflecting and pushing back against challenges to the state’s territorial sovereignty and claim to political authority.
Such narratives manifest in many forms: The United States has historically centered its regime around the dual notions of freedom and democracy. The British bicameral system, coupled with a constitutional monarchical framework, emphasizes representation and checks and balances. Singapore, on the other hand, prizes meritocracy and quality governance as the fundamental lynchpin to its rule. Legitimation narratives bolster regime strength and continuity, heighten popular buy-in and support, and provide compelling reasons for individuals to refrain from secessionist activities.
The Chinese state is no exception in its search for legitimacy, but the legitimation narratives employed by Beijing have shifted and evolved during the post-reform and opening-up period (1978 onwards).
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The Ebbs and Flows of Post-reform China’s Legitimation Narrative
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By the time of Deng Xiaoping’s ascent to the zenith of political power in China, he was presented with a country of over 980 million people, an economy ravished by decades of internal turmoil and upheaval, and a generation of youth starved of education due to the Cultural Revolution. Given political constraints, Deng was compelled to reinterpret Marxist-Leninist doctrines in a manner that would justify both rapid economic development and the continued political survival of the Chinese Communist Party (see Zhang Weiwei’s commentary on Deng thought in 1996).
Deng viewed his regime’s legitimation narrative as primarily ends-driven – to solve some of the most pressing socioeconomic problems confronting the Chinese people, especially those victimized and traumatized by a system that recognized no profits and individual innovation. “Let some people get rich first,” Deng declared, inaugurating what Yuan Yuan Ang calls China’s Gilded Age. The key to this, he decided, rested with an ultra-pragmatic outlook that contained three strands: first, the view that socialism remained the ultimate objective of China’s politico-economic trajectory, and that all reforms must be undertaken with this end goal in mind; second, the prescription that ideological purity must be temporarily superseded by development – at the hands of a consolidated state in politics, and an empowered market in economics (which critics have subsequently termed a precursor to the neoliberal/neo-authoritarian split amongst 1990s Chinese intelligentsia), and third, the insistence that China would benefit most from harmonization and cultivation of ties with the outside world – perhaps best epitomized by the Special Economic Zones and economic liberalization implemented across coastal areas.
Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, inherited the reformist mantle, despite the fact that he had started out with a broadly conservative bent. Through his flagship Three Represents theory (a vision that current Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Huning also played a part in developing), Jiang championed a representative relationship between party-state and people – the state was due to represent the development trend of China’s advanced productive forces (including its industrialists and entrepreneurs), the orientation of the country’s culture, and the “fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people.” The shift toward representation and incorporation of the middle and capitalist classes into the denizens served by the Communist Party was reconciled with the conventional Maoist ideal of “vanguard of the proletariat” through the creative stretching of what the “proletariat” comprised. Under Jiang, China’s legitimation narrative evolved into one propelled by the party serving as a proxy for the interests of the majority. Correspondingly, despite the lack of democratic elections in the upper echelons of the regime, the 1990s under Jiang and 2000s (the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao era) saw considerable experimentation with village elections on the municipal and local level.
Hu’s era marked a watershed moment – it featured a hybrid legitimation narrative that paved the way for the present state of normative discourse in China. In the early years of their tenure, Hu and Wen placed a heavy premium on “societal harmony” and stability and a scientific approach to social management – perhaps unsurprising, given their technocratic backgrounds. Much of this should be read as a continuation of Jiang’s account of representation, albeit with a distinctly more preservative bent: the focus was on maintaining order, preserving stability, while advancing development. Order and representation collectively rendered the regime legitimate.
Democracy With Chinese Characteristics?
Yet to portray Hu and Wen as merely a status quo-preserving pair would be to do them significant disservice. Both openly complied with norms concerning succession as set out by Deng Xiaoping; both also emphasized, toward the tail end of their rule, the need for more stable mechanisms that ensure the maintenance of meritocratic, high-quality rule. The state was not only a guarantor of stability, but also of effective, meritorious, and virtuous governance. Means of achieving that goal could well include – as noted by Yu Keping, author of the essay “Democracy Is A Good Thing” and a prominent theorist who closely advised Hu – a gradual yet genuine shift toward more suffrage and electoral enfranchisement in the country.
Xi Jinping’s first term sparked a marked shift toward making meritocracy front and foremost a critical component of China’s legitimation narrative. Respected and preeminent theorists – both within and outside the party – turned toward constructing what they take to be a reasonable interpretation of the “China Model.” Among them, Canadian Scholar Daniel Bell’s stand-out account offers a lucid and comprehensive exposition of a system of governance underpinned by fair, competitive examinations that rewarded the talented and virtuous – effectively the modern Chinese way of doing things, sans its deficiencies and flaws, which Bell himself notes to be persisting (although improving) in certain quarters.
In Xi Jinping Thought, merit is to be understood dynamically – not just in terms of technical expertise or political skillsets, but also in terms of resonance with the people. Indeed, as set out at the 19th Party Congress in 2017, a core tenet undergirding Xi’s expectations for party members is that Chinese governance must be “people-centered.” Merit is to be measured not by the elite, but by the masses. Here, Xi draws heavily upon the Maoist ideal of the “mass line” – the masses are both the originators and receptors of the government’s mandate, and merit is measured in terms of whomever can best fulfil the needs of the public.
All of the above is to say that we should not be surprised by the recent surge in discourses concerning democracy propagated by the Chinese state. “Democracy with Chinese characteristics” is but a logical end-product that draws upon a mixture of Jiang’s emphasis upon representation, Hu and Wen’s insistence of stability and harmony taking precedent over competing demands, and Xi’s fusion of Mao’s emphasis upon the masses with a more top-down, centralized account of Chinese meritocracy. It is neither a recent concoction that spontaneously erupted, nor an ideology that is fundamentally disjointed from its predecessors.
What does this brand of democracy entail? First, it is primarily outcome- and results-driven, often without granting comparable weighting or consideration to questions of procedural legitimacy – e.g. how inclusive, open, or contested are the procedures employed to arrive at the outcomes? The newly coined notion “whole-process people’s democracy” replaces the more typical criteria measuring processual democracy (e.g. enfranchisement and suffrage rates) with a holistic measurement of whether people’s lives are materially and substantively improved. To put it bluntly, it is consequentialist, and arguably exclusively so. As economist Eric Li has repeatedly proclaimed, the Chinese system works, for it is adaptive, meritocratic, and – as a result – frequently attains high levels of satisfaction and approval from its denizens.
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Second, Xi’s conception of democracy with Chinese characteristics is centered around the poor and excluded – including many who, in his view, had been shut out of the exclusive circles that benefited from the country’s astronomical economic growth over the past decades. From the crackdown on big tech, to anti-graft and -corruption campaigns, to his calls for “common prosperity” – setting aside (for now) questions of efficacy and genuine intentions – Xi Jinping Thought clearly has far greater appetite and room for socialist and redistributionist thought, as compared with his predecessors.
In practice, the extent to which this view of democracy is compatible with conventional Western understanding of the term is likely to be minimal. Observers may see an undergirding commonality in the importance accorded to the “demos” – the people – but that’s where the similarities end. While cynics are likely to dismiss this account as a propagandistic innovation, its advocates would be expected to vociferously proclaim that such deviation from the Western-influenced norm is precisely the point.
The Expanding Audience Theory: From Domestic to Global
What could explain this gradual yet contiguous transition in official ideology – from Deng’s “it doesn’t matter if it’s a white cat or black cat, so long as it’s a cat that catches rats” brand of pragmatism, to Jiang’s all-encompassing, co-optation-heavy “Three Represents,” to Hu’s prizing of political stability and hierarchal order, to, finally, Xi’s meritocratic articulation of democracy?
An explanation rests with each respective leader’s intention to expand the targeted audience of Chinese state rhetoric. While historically – until the early 2000s – the primary preoccupation of Beijing’s legitimation narrative remained domestic (e.g. the burgeoning class of wealthy entrepreneurs, but also grassroots and middle-class individuals that lacked socioeconomic wherewithal), the scope was considerably expanded as China “turned outwards.” As China acceded to the membership of significant multilateral institutions, as well as played an increasingly significant role in shaping global financial and trade networks, it correspondingly acquired a new target in its search for legitimacy: the international community.
Ideals of pragmatism, representation, and (partially) meritocracy sold well to a domestic audience, both in assuaging criticisms and convincing them that their state was worthy of their support. While during the 1980s, full democratization was (briefly) on the table and vigorously debated in public, the 1990s and 2000s saw a considerably muted response from the Chinese public – as officially sanctioned debates shifted from the politico-ideological to the economic-technocratic. Since then, it has been more than sufficient, for a vast majority of the Chinese public, that their state delivered substantial material benefits, even if they cannot directly participate in the selection and removal of their senior political leaders.
Yet – as Hu exemplified in his attempt to stretch the scope of harmony to an international context in his second term – China’s increasing global influence needed to be accompanied by a narrative that would resonate with audiences beyond its borders. The audience consuming China’s legitimation narrative was not purely domestic – indeed, the party’s basis of legitimacy goes hand-in-hand with its soft power and affective aura overseas.
In an era where American democracy had seemingly lost much of its allure, with its record at handling the pandemic, internal polarization, and significant socioeconomic turmoil, China has caught onto what it views to be the “changing winds” of international relations: the East is on the rise, and the West is on decline, its leaders argue. In their eyes, this has presented senior party cadres the perfect opportunity to promulgate and embody a “different” vision of democracy – one that would, if substantiated and viable, pose a fundamental challenge to the Anglo-American monopoly of the term.