The Chinese Communist Party Wants It All

China's use of sharp power could shatter East Asia.

Chinese President Xi Jinping attends a meeting in Beijing on Aug. 29.
Chinese President Xi Jinping attends a meeting in Beijing on Aug. 29. How Hwee Young - Pool /Getty Images

In Hong Kong, protesters clash with police, but the real power behind the scenes is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The experiences of activists in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and even on the Chinese mainland show that the CCP is a ruthless opponent—but not an unbeatable one. The CCP’s sharp power approach should be considered an extension of its united front method, a vision of the political process as a zero-sum game and a worldview that distinguishes between friends and enemies. Since its founding in 1921, the CCP has invested considerable resources to isolate its perceived enemies and has lobbied waverers to support it.

The resulting party-state’s governing approach is thus a two-pronged process of simultaneous co-optation and coercion, where proverbial carrots and sticks are applied to suppress any political opposition to party-state rule. In the case of CCP rule in mainland China, the party-state has tried to win over waverers by adopting a “rule by bribery” approach. Those unwilling to align themselves with the party-state have been at the receiving end of a “rule by fear” approach.

In order to protect its monopoly on power, the CCP has gone to great lengths to suppress any potential challenges to its continued rule. It has not only invested more money on domestic stability preservation than on national defense, but it has also continued to use highly draconian means to intimidate and silence opponents of one-party rule. Among the repertoire of political control instruments are the highly invasive personal file system, the continued use of labor camps and reeducation camps, the use of mainland China’s psychiatric system to lock up dissidents, and the rise of alliances between local governments and organized crime, forming local mafia states and the resulting phenomenon known as “thugs for hire.” It is highly concerning that on mainland China’s periphery, the CCP appears to have approved the rent-a-mob tactic to disrupt the democratic political process in Hong Kong and Taiwan, too.

In Hong Kong’s case, the CCP also maintained pre-handover British colonial institutions when they suited its united front approach, such as the use of functional constituencies in elections, and engaged in selective decolonization of other institutions when they were seen as a threat to its monopoly of power, for example, by breaking up the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations’ monopoly on Hong Kong’s education sector.

The problem with the CCP’s winner-takes-all conception of politics is that it has resulted in a highly elitist and exclusive political system. The criminologist Borge Bakken is on point when arguing that what “we might see in China is not so much an exemplary elite serving the people, but rather the strengthening of a lawless elite, looting China in the interests of its members.”

The party-state since 1989 has started to erratically move back and forth between the role of a developmental and predatory state, one that was effectively captured by rent-seeking elites from 1999 onward. This is best reflected by the Politburo Standing Committee morphing from a party-state institution into a cabal of business empires, where CCP leaders defend their respective monopolies over vast industries. The resulting crony-capitalist system is marked by endemic and systemic corruption and collusion.

The continuous plundering of state assets has also led to very low levels of public expenditure for crucial public services such as health and education. One of the unintended consequences of low levels of public investment has been the rise of rent-seeking in sectors such as the food-processing industry, the health and education sectors, and China’s media. This means that corruption is no longer limited to individuals and organs under the control of the party-state but is now a defining feature in every industry and sector in mainland China’s business and society.

What can activists do in the face of such a state? There are lessons to be drawn from the experience of political activists in mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong who have made progress in their quest to liberalize and democratize their respective polities. My longitudinal study of democracy movements has made previously overlooked long-term trends and developments visible. The 12 episodes I have studied revealed examples of lessons learned among democracy activists which have arguably advanced their political causes as well as cases of pathological learning.

In the case of mainland China, it took the promulgation of Charter 08 in 2008 for the democracy movement to fully embrace a firmly anti-establishment position. Previous challenges to one-party rule were marked by a lack of a unified strategy. In 1989, workers subscribed to an anti-establishment strategy whereas students effectively pursued a Trojan horse approach. The 12 writers and scholars who tried to mediate between movement leaders and the Chinese party-state, on the other hand, subscribed to a trans-establishment tactic. In their attempt to remedy the shortcomings of 1989, democracy activists attempted to register the China Democracy Party in 1998. This attempt also failed: While the party’s leader Wang Youcai pursued an anti-establishment objective, he opted for a Trojan horse strategy of working within the system, which had no chance of succeeding. It was only in 2008 that mainland China’s democracy movement thus managed to develop its grand strategy in the form of Charter 08. This was the first time that an end to one-party rule was made its declared goal.

But with the emergence of mainland China’s New Citizens Movement, a process of bottom-up self-liberation is now well under way. Admittedly, under the conditions of President Xi Jinping’s hard authoritarianism, reform approaches are currently very difficult to implement. Many bargaining spheres such as China’s nascent civil society sector or China’s reforming legal sector, which provided venues for nonstate actor participation during the eras of Jiang Zemin (1989 to 2002) and Hu Jintao (2002 to 2012), are rapidly closing.

Yet lawyer Xu Zhiyong’s vision for the New Citizens Movement nevertheless remains highly relevant, as it opens up the possibility for future elite settlements between mainland Chinese democracy movement leaders and members of the pro-establishment CCP nomenklatura. In his seminal study, Xu argued that the “most ideal reform model for China is to develop constructive political opposition groups outside the existing political system that can negotiate with progressive forces within the system to enact a new constitution and, together, complete a transition to constitutional democracy.”

While in early 2019 Xu’s scenario may seem far-fetched or even utopian, from a recent in-depth discussion that I had with a high-ranking party official, I learned that Xi’s illiberal political agenda has already greatly antagonized many pro-establishment figures in mainland China. Others have explored the backlash against Xi. While it is impossible to gauge how widespread this sentiment is felt among rank-and-file CCP members, it is entirely possible that increasing members of the pro-establishment are only paying lip service to Xi’s rule while secretly harboring hopes for greater liberalization in the not too distant future. The emergence of the party discourse about what are referred to as “two-faced” officials, who are suspected of being corrupt or opposed to continued one-party rule, suggests that this is not only a theoretical possibility but in fact an acute concern for the CCP’s top brass.

Furthermore, given the decentralized nature of the New Citizens Movement, it will be hard for the CCP to suppress it. At the same time, Xu and his supporters are arguably playing a very long game. Bottom-up democratization strategies are hard to implement, and not just because of the size of the country and number of people they will need to reach and convince. Such bottom-up attempts to enlighten the population are being countered by top-down united front efforts aimed at co-opting or coercing Chinese citizens to support one-party rule. The endemic and systemic corruption in mainland China is not just a problem of the party-state but has already spilled over into Chinese business and society. This is why it is particularly noteworthy that the New Citizens Movement has a strong anti-corruption element aimed at restoring axiomatic moral and ethical principles.

But the case of Taiwan has also shown that it can take up to half a century for activists to achieve a democratic breakthrough. In this protracted democratization process, continuous muckraking but also strategic interaction with the party-state was instrumental to pressure the Kuomintang to liberalize and democratize throughout the early 1980s. A central role was played by Kang Ning-hsiang, a trans-establishment politician, who held a fractious movement together by marrying the street protests approach of the Formosa faction with the parliamentary route of his more policy-oriented Mainstream faction. This reform strategy was in part made possible by the changing nature of the Kuomintang establishment.

Under the leadership of Chiang Ching-kuo and throughout the 1970s, more liberal-minded Taiwan-born politicians were co-opted into the party-state. This opened up the possibility for more constructive forms of communication and tacit collaboration between the pro- and anti-establishment camps in the early 1980s. This episode is particularly relevant, as it highlights the importance of distributed leadership that transcends ideological and political organizational boundaries.

While on the surface Hong Kong’s democracy movement appears to have been more assertive than mainland China’s due to its one-sided strategic approaches and tactical errors—first and foremost the unwillingness of the Democratic Party to forge a pact with social movements, as well as the party’s unwise support for extremely limited constitutional reform in 2010 and the localists’ Oathgate scandal in 2016—Hong Kong’s pan-democrats have been underperforming since the 1997 handover. That’s one reason why Hong Kongers have now taken to the streets in a leaderless movement, rather than looking to work within the city’s limited political framework.

The example of Hong Kong is instructive of the uneasy relationship among political parties, social movements, and civil society organizations. While Hong Kong’s political and civil society managed to come together to defeat the implementation of the controversial Article 23 of the Basic Law in 2003, such cross-sectoral alliances have been few and far between. To a certain extent it can be argued that in democratization processes political parties are caught between a rock and a hard place.

This tension between street protest and a parliamentary line is most visible in Hong Kong’s current anti-extradition law protests, which have already morphed from single-issue demonstrations into a wider civil rights and pro-democracy movement. Now that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government and the CCP have effectively abandoned the “one country, two systems” policy and started governing Hong Kong by de facto martial law, the pathway to an election-driven democratization has been blocked.

This means that we are at a historical turning point and on the cusp of a much more dramatic escalation. The use of an increasingly militarized Hong Kong Police Force as a political weapon has enraged so many Hong Kongers that the protest movement is already turning into a slow-motion revolution. The signs of a rapidly rising Hong Kong nationalism are clear for anyone to see, from the slogan “Revolution of our time!” to the rapidly adopted anthem “Glory to Hong Kong.” This hardening of a separate identity comes at a time when the CCP is weaponizing ethnonationalism against Hong Kongers.

The tragedy of the CCP’s sharp power approaches, in mainland China and at its periphery, lies in its militancy and the party-state’s unwillingness to allow even gradual liberalization and piecemeal democratization. Depending on the dynamics on the ground in the coming weeks and months, we may witness Hong Kong becoming a new Northern Ireland, where the pro-democracy movement evolves into a protracted urban struggle against outside rule. And with mounting fears of a political contagion from Hong Kong to the mainland, a CCP led by Xi Jinping may set its eyes on Taiwan, the other bastion of liberal democracy. The CCP’s sharp power approach thus could be the spark which will set the entire region on fire.

This article is adapted from Andreas Fulda’s new book, The Struggle for Democracy in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Andreas Fulda is a senior fellow at the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute and the author of The Struggle for Democracy in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong: Sharp Power and Its Discontents.

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