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Early in the 1990s, the Soviet communist bloc experienced disintegration, but the Chinese communist regime survived the collapse. From this time, the Chinese authoritarian regime has attracted attention from people from across the world. Nevertheless, China has managed to sustain a rapid economic growth averaging 8% for the last two decades.1 The Chinese rate of economic expansion poses a significant challenge to the United States especially in the technological advancement. In the recent times, China has experienced increased social protests characterized by university strikes and demonstrations held by the country’s civil society.
Although these protests occur in both rural and urban areas, China continues to hold to the communist regime. The Chinese communist party is one of the world’s most versatile authoritarian regimes. The country’s contentious politics contribute to the stabilization of the authoritarian regime, which has eased political transition to the extent that the country has failed to achieve democratization.
Political structure and authoritarian regime in China
The collapse of the Soviet communism in the 20th century was a significant milestone in the world politics. Apart from marking the end of civil wars that had rocked most of the countries across the globe, the collapse of the Soviet bloc heralded the democratization process and capitalism for most countries.2 However, the case was different for China as the communist regime survived during that period and it continues in the contemporary times. Currently, the regime is facilitated through the China Communist Party that has adopted a market-oriented approach in building the country’s economy.3 Although the party does not subscribe to the traditions of the previous communist regimes, it maintains an authoritarian leadership. Currently, the country experiences widespread contention as characterized by the hostility between the leaders and members of the public, thus leading to political instability.4
However, the country has been keen to use some of the structures that arise from political decisions to dispense authority. For example, toward mid-1990s, political leaders reformed the Chinese fiscal and tax-sharing system to gain not only revenues, but also autonomy of the country.5
Nevertheless, China practices fragmented authoritarianism that seeks to promote negotiations and consensus amongst the affected bureaucracies. From this argument, it is evident that for the authoritarian regime to survive, political leaders have to apply lengthy bureaucracies in managing the country’s central and provincial relations. Further, research highlights the differences in the national government’s way of controlling different provinces. However, differences in the way the national government controls provinces originate from the provinces’ bargaining advantage as characterized by the regions’ ambitions and the leaders’ intelligence, wealth, and connections with the central government.6
Therefore, through the decentralized authoritarianism, the central government has managed to convince the people that they are in control of their provinces. However, these provinces cannot make vital decisions without getting dictated authority from the central government. From this analysis, it suffices to conclude that the decentralized authoritarianism is a crucial reason for the Chinese prolonged successful authoritarian regime.
Decentralization forms a significant element of achieving democracy within a government. With the decentralization of authority, the country facilitates political accountability in addition to encouraging equity that arises from devolved governance of public affairs.7 Although the Chinese central government has the final word, especially in alleviating fiscal problems in the provinces, decentralized governance poses a significant threat to the country’s authoritarian regime. In such a situation, decentralization accounts for the country’s abandonment of strict authoritarianism that was applied by the Soviet communist bloc prior to its collapse in the late 20th Century.8
Furthermore, decentralization contributes to economic growth that tends to undermine authoritarianism. From this analysis, it is evident that these outcomes of decentralization are present in China and they account for the recent unrests amongst the public. However, in trying to maintain its authoritarian regime, China maintains political structures shaped in a way that makes it difficult for citizens to express their needs and interests. Such an argument is characterized by the country’s political bureaucracies that contribute to the illegalization of demonstrations for whatever reason.9 However, with the successful application of decentralization within an authoritative government, it is evident that this process is not the ultimate solution to achieving democracy. True democracy can only be realized if the citizens have the right of expression without the fear of intimidation by the government’s machineries.
The Chinese system of governance revolves around regional administration. Furthermore, this form of governance is further complicated as characterized by the policy initiatives at the county, city, and township levels among others, thus creating the perception of an administration at the grassroots. However, this system of governance is advantageous to the central government as it exploits the nested structures to control the provinces’ economic benefits at different levels depending on a region’s economic strength. Although the central government has a clause that provides for equality, it uses decentralization to make it impossible, thus compounding the problem of imbalanced development.10 With such a form of government, which encourages regional development, wealthy provinces focus on maintaining their status rather than offering support to the poor provinces.
Apart from the political tactics applied by the China’s Communist Party in leading the central government, the party’s personnel management plays a crucial role in strengthening the Chinese authoritarianism. The party’s leaders ensure that economic decentralization is accompanied by political reforms that force provincial administrators to adopt a socialist market economy. Through such a structure, local leaders work toward pursuing the national government’s targets, thus depicting a form of monopoly. Compliance with the country’s central directives can attract either incentives or punishment to the provincial administration.11 Such a move pushes leaders at the provincial levels to use local resources to benefit the central government rather than the local people.
Contentious politics and authoritarian regime
Currently, contentious politics in China are characterized by the prevalence of riots, ethnic clashes, and land disputes. Contentious politics are responsible for the widespread protests in China. However, the protests occur due to the over-exploitation by the private corporations and local administration with the aim of meeting political targets of the central government.12
Researchers attribute the country’s contentious politics to the rapid socioeconomic reforms that triggered political crises toward the end of the1980s. At this time, the government failed to meet some of the workers’ demands especially in the Northeast. The economic grievances attracted radical reaction from the aggrieved workers, thus pushing the provincial administration to reform state-owned organizations. However, reforms further aggravated the workers’ needs, thus forcing members of the public to protest against taxation and land disputes arising due to the reforms initiated by the local government. Nevertheless, contentious politics in China have expanded in the recent times to include class, gender, and ethnic divisions in addition to the regional differences.13
Apart from the labor antagonisms arising from the contentious politics and reforms, China moved further to implement social reforms in a bid to curb the country’s expanding populations. However, the one-child policy elicited violent elements as the people in the rural areas were determined to challenge the national government against this policy. Moreover, contentious politics account for the land disputes with the local administrators denying citizens their ownership rights.14 With reference to the environmental degradation, people use the neglected country’s environmental laws to garner support of some leaders, and this aspect facilitates successful demonstrations against neglected environment.15
Currently, both peasants and entrepreneurial bureaucrats contribute to the Chinese economy. The economic differences between these two categories have pushed some of the people to questioning their economic rights as granted by the central government as most leaders fail to fulfill their commitments. Similar to most countries, it is rightful for the people to demand equality, especially when the central government advocates equality, but it does not make efforts to ensure the elimination of economic gaps in the country.16
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As the Chinese become aware of their political, social, and economic rights, the national government focuses on political changes that aim at strengthening the authoritarian regime. Under these circumstances, the government cites the need to protect the local administration against the challenges that accompany changes advocated by the people. Furthermore, the Chinese government attributes changes demanded by the people to the western influence. Therefore, in a bid to avoid the proliferation of western culture into the country, the administration is working tirelessly to prove the worth of communism. Although Chinese protests focus on attacking the country’s flimsy political structures, they lack a specific target, and thus they are less threatening to the country’s political administration.17
The lack of political focus is further demonstrated by the protestors’ strategy that entails self-infliction of pain for them to gain attention of the political leaders. Some of the strategies such as displaying military medals, chanting revolutionary songs, and kneeling can attract public sympathy, thus failing to exact significant amount of pressure on the political leaders and the government.18
In the recent times, China entered the global scope via its technological advancements. However, protestors use the Internet and mobile phones among other modern modes of communication for mobilization, as opposed to sending their documented needs to both the provincial and national governments. With the widespread protests, the country has focused on silencing protestors by imprisoning them and other activists.19 Although researchers predict a revolution of the Chinese communist government in the future, such an occurrence can only happen in the presence of organized large-scale social unrests accompanied by violence.
Political resilience and adaptability
Local contentious politics lack direction and targets toward the country’s political structures. With reference to this argument, the central government has implemented various strategies to widen the gap between the central administration and the contentious politics. For example, the central government implemented an evaluation system based on adherence to responsibilities. Through this system, the government promotes or dismisses local leaders based on whether they adhere to the professional political life that is in line with the doctrines applied by the central government. Such a system motivates local political leaders to commit to the central governments and betray the interests of the people that they are supposed to represent.20
Furthermore, China applies a mixed scapegoat strategy that leaves the citizens confused as they fail to understand the central government’s political stand. For example, in cases of demonstrations that attract the attention of the international community, the government sides with the citizens and forces the local leaders to assume responsibility. However, if the protests originate from the weak provinces, the government ignores their needs.21
Furthermore, the China Communist Party bases its political authority on social stability, hence the need to do anything within its powers to resist political and social unrests22. In most cases, contentious politics in China target lower political institutions at the county and town levels, thus making it possible for the provincial and national governments to distance themselves from such politics. From this research, it is evident that contentious politics in China focus on small regions, thus lacking national support that is crucial in dismantling the existing authoritarian structures.23
Contentious politics account for the China’s authoritarian regime that has impeded the democratization process. Although local governments have some degree of autonomy, the central government has gained crucial control of all forms of administration and resources coupled with retaining the appointment of crucial personnel within the provinces. Through the China Communist Party, the country has been in a position to control provincial budgetary powers, thus seizing a significant proportion of the revenues collected by the provinces. Apart from the tactics that the central government applies to strengthen its authoritative regime through the CCP, contentious politics lack national support as they target small political units. Such a move makes it possible for the central government to distance itself from the social unrests or apply punitive measures to contain the situation.
Perry, Elizabeth. “Chinese conception of rights: From Mencius to Mao and now.” Perspective on Politics 6 no. 1 (2008): 37-50. Web.
Perry, Elizabeth. Grassroots Political Reform in Contemporary China. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2007. Web.
Sahohua, Lei, and Tong Yanqi. Social Protests in Contemporary China: Transitional Pains and Legitimacy. London: Routledge, 2013. Web.
Sanders, Elizabeth. Historical Institutionalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Web.
Shirk, Susan. China: Fragile Superpower. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Web.
Tong, Yanqi. “Environmental movements in transitional societies: A comparative study of Taiwan and China.” Comparative Politics 37, no. 2 (2005): 167-188. Web.
Tsai, Lily. Accountability without Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Web.
Wang, Zhengxu. “Before the emergence of critical citizens: Economic development and political trust in China.” International Review of Sociology 15, no. 1 (2005): 155-171. Web.
Zheng, Yongnian. The Chinese Communist Party as Organizational Emperor. London: Routledge Press, 2010. Web.
1 Zhengxu Wang, “Before the emergence of critical citizens: Economic development and political trust in China,” International Review of Sociology 15, no. 1 (2005): 155.
2 Lei Sahohua and Yanqi Tong, Social Protests in Contemporary China: Transitional Pains and Legitimacy (London: Routledge, 2013), 57.
3 Yongnian Zheng, The Chinese Communist Party as Organizational Emperor (London: Routledge Press, 2010), 21.
4 Sanders, 126.
5 Lily Tsai, Accountability without Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 58.
6 Susan Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 84.
7 Elizabeth Perry, Grassroots Political Reform in Contemporary China (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2007), 47.
8 Shirk, 74.
9 Perry, 68.
10 Sahohua and Tong, 43.
11 Zheng, 38.
12 Sahohua and Tong, 51.
13 Tsai, 64.
14 Perry, 103.
15 Yanqi Tong, “Environmental movements in transitional societies: A comparative study of Taiwan and China,” Comparative Politics 37, no. 2 (2005): 167-168.
16 Wang, 167.
17 Sahohua and Tong, 75.
18 Ibid, 78.
19 Ibid, 89.
20 Shirk, 104.
21 Sahohua and Tong, 95.
22 Elizabeth Perry, “Chinese conception of rights: From Mencius to Mao and now,” Perspective on Politics 6, no. 1 (2008): 39.
23 Sahohua and Tong, 110.