By Zhengxu Wang.
Governing the very dynamic and complex Chinese society and economy has become increasingly difficult for the Chinese Communist Party. Challenges to governance abound, so much so that many are wondering whether the large number of “crises in governance” have already resulted in a real crisis in the Party’s legitimacy.
A wide range of international and domestic factors made last year especially challenging for the leadership in Beijing. The Arabic Spring generated very high level of anxiety in Beijing as it worried that similar protest movements would take place. The fall of authoritarian regimes in North Africa and the Middle East, especially the fall of Kaddafi in Libya, the Russian public’s protests again Putin, and the death of the North Korea leader Kim Jung-Il are often seen by liberalists in China as warning signs to the Party on its hold to power.
Domestically, long-term structural problems in the economic development model have resulted in serious imbalances that are threatening social stability. Household income growth has slowed relative to GDP and government’s fiscal revenue, income inequality has exacerbated, and the political and economic elite is becoming increasingly less self-restrained in abusing its power and wealth. They lead to increasing unhappiness and discontent. Large-scaled protests by villagers in Wukan of Guangdong, for example, took place toward the end of 2011 against local government corruption that seriously harmed the villagers’ interests.
What complicates matter further is that the current leadership is on its way out. With the next Party Congress scheduled for the autumn of 2012 the leadership has no incentive to introduce new policies to address the structural and systemic problems. Inflation, for example, has been on a high level since the second half of 2010, fuelling public anxiety and grievances. But for the better part of 2011, the leadership was reluctant to take essential measures, as tightening money supply would harm the interests of powerful groups and organizations. The same applies to leadership’s handling of rocketing real estate prices.
Important reforms are desperately needed to increase household income, expand channels for public expression, and contain power abuse and corruption, but they are postponed. Liberal voices are calling for political reforms to address such problems, while ‘radical elements’ call for democratization or stage protests.
As the task of governing China gets more difficult, the Party has resorted to a two-handed approach. On the one hand, it tries to build up institutions that can better penetrate and monitor social groups as well as co-opt activists. 2011 saw a number of major efforts to build up the government’s capacity in “social management”. On the other hand, the Party continues to use heavy-handed measures to deal with rebellious elements in the society. While Liu Xiaobo, the author of Chapter 08, was formally sentenced to 17 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power”, other outspoken regime critics such the artist Ai Weiwei, the writers Liao Yiwu and Yu Jie, and the lawyer-activist Chen Guangcheng, and many others, were either harassed, detained, tortured, silenced, or forced to leave the country.
This two-handed approach is likely to continue in 2012 and beyond. The Party is hoping goodies delivered to the public, such as better coverage and effectiveness in its social welfare programs, increased household income, and improved environment (such as better air quality), as well as China’s enhanced status as a global power, will generate enough public support for the Party to stay in power. At the same time, it will not shy away from tough measures in containing and crashing radical challengers to the regime.
Dr Zhengxu Wang is Deputy Director of the China Policy Institute and Lecturer at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham
Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.