Tea Leaf Nation
China’s Communist Party Hails Its Own Legitimacy Amid Online Skepticism
Web users and academics cast doubt on the official claim, citing lack of free speech and popular representation.
On Sept. 9, Chinese anti-corruption czar Wang Qishan broke a longstanding unspoken taboo by openly discussing the question of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy at the Party and the World Dialogue 2015, an annual conference initiated last year to address party issues among scholars and political figures, in the capital city Beijing. Speaking to over 60 assembled politicians and academics, including former South African President Thabo Mbeki and former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Wang said that the “party’s legitimacy arises from history and is determined by popular support. The party is the people’s choice.” As a member of the party’s seven-man Politburo Standing Committee, the highest decision-making body in China, Wang is one of China’s highest-ranking officials, making this rare mention of party legitimacy even more remarkable. But while official media hailed Wang’s speech as “groundbreaking,” many Chinese web users reacted to the news with skepticism and ridicule.
Official rhetoric holds that the fate of the party is inextricably linked with the fate of the country, thus rendering party legitimacy so important to China that it cannot be called into question. On Sept. 14, just days after Wang’s speech, Wang Changjiang (no relation to Wang Qishan), professor and researcher at the Central Party School, wrote a front-page editorial on the Party School’s weekly newspaper Study Times on the topic of party legitimacy, asserting that “if the party is strong, then China is strong. If the party is in danger, then the country is in danger.” A widely read article from “Xue Xi Da Guo,” the allegedly government-backed public account on China’s giant mobile messaging platform WeChat, described Wang’s speech as “groundbreaking” and “a manifestation of the party’s confidence.”
Chinese netizens and public intellectuals, however, did not seem to buy Wang’s speech or the official discourse on party legitimacy. “When leaders emphasize unity, it indicates the existence of disunity. When they emphasize stability, it indicates that there is instability. When they emphasize a clean government, it means corruption has become a serious problem,” wrote Gao Yan, a popular Chinese military commentator and freelancer, to his nearly 900,000 followers on Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblogging platform. “So when they emphasize legitimacy…” Gao trailed off, leaving the implication clear. Another Weibo user refuted Wang Changjiang’s Sept. 14 argument, writing, “In democratic countries, ruling parties change every few years without causing national crises.” The user concluded, “It’s only if you conflate party and country that a party crisis becomes a national crisis.” Another posted a short excerpt from the Selected Works of Mao Zedong published in the northeastern city of Dalian in 1946, letting the irony of the quote, and its source, sink in: “A government that is not elected by the people, how can it claim to be representing the country?”
Leading Chinese scholars also took to Weibo to express their discontent at how the party handles discussion of legitimacy. Zhang Ming, professor of political science at Renmin University in Beijing, wrote on his Weibo account that “the legitimacy issue is in fact something they are not able to explore.” Chinese intellectuals have quietly discussed the party’s legitimacy for years, but have been dismissed by Chinese officials. “Not long ago, I planned to do a research on the subject of ‘legitimacy’ but it terrified related government agencies, and they took numerous measures to stymie me,” Yu Jianrong, a prominent Chinese scholar at the prestigious government-affiliated think tank Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a leading figure on Sina Weibo, wrote on Sept 9. “Their reasoning is, ‘Legitimate or not, it’s what we say that counts.’” The post was later removed.
For years, Chinese officials have shied away from public mentions of regime legitimacy, perhaps fearing that it would eventually lead to discussion of democratic elections and raise doubts about the party’s ruling position among the people. Without the benefit of a people’s mandate bestowed by representative government, the party once relied on its revolutionary ideology and the people’s participation in massive political and social movements for popular legitimacy. After 1978, as the country gradually opened its markets to the world and the party’s ideological underpinnings weakened, rapid industrialization and the subsequent improvement in standards of living provided a new foundation for party legitimacy.
But as economic growth has begun to slow, widening social inequality and pervasive corruption have threatened the party’s image. President Xi Jinping has assigned Wang Qishan as the leader of the most sustained and wide-ranging anti-graft campaign in the party’s history, with the hope to regain people’s trust. But some see the campaign as primarily an internal power struggle, allowing Xi to remove political opponents and solidify his grip on power. Nor does China’s powerhouse economy, the party’s long-time pride, suffice as its source of legitimacy. In response to the recent turmoil of global stock markets and its own economic slowdown, China’s decision-makers have pumped nearly $235 billion into the stock market prop up share prices, but that did little to restore confidence; a few weeks later, the government intervened further by devaluing the yuan, sending global financial markets into a tailspin. The grievance is widely evident online. “If you help people lead a decent life, who cares if you are a dictator,”one Weibo user wrote in a representative post. “But even if China didn’t have the Communist Party, it wouldn’t be in crisis. Maybe it might even be better off!”
To be sure, the party’s future is not all gloomy, and not everyone in China reacts to the party’s efforts to seek legitimacy with ridicule. An online opinion poll by China Youth Daily, a Beijing-based state-run newspaper, last August shows that over 95.2 percent of its nearly 50,000 respondents wanted the party to continue its crackdown on corruption; over 60 percent acknowledged that their confidence in the country’s development had been strengthened by the anti-graft sweep. Such relative assurance wasn’t purely representative of the older generations who may harbor a lingering revolutionary nostalgia; half of the respondents were Chinese born after the 1980s. And while China’s economy is indeed slowing, it still outperforms many other countries in the world. Its burgeoning tech and services industry offers more reason for hope; a number of Chinese companies have now become leaders in consumer products and business model innovation.
But to many online, Wang’s championing of the party’s legitimacy sounded tone-deaf and even deceptive. As one Weibo user wrote on Sept. 14, “Let’s hold a referendum, and see your approval rating. Empty talk just serves to deceive yourself and others.”