Is China Ready to Listen to Its People?
Richard Baum (Professor, University of California, Los Angeles, and Director, UCLA Center for Chinese Studies)
(This article originally appeared in the June 28, 2003 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and is reproduced here with permission from the publisher)
The Sars crisis - and the Chinese government's deceitful early response to it - has underlined the urgent need for systemic political reform.
Although a vibrant market economy and a nascent civil society have begun to emerge on the mainland, China's Leninist political institutions remain substantially unchanged, remnants of a bygone era. There is, thus, a growing disconnection between a dynamic, robust economy and society, on the one hand, and a brittle, anachronistic party-state on the other. This is dramatically illustrated by the Chinese government's self-damaging denial of the spreading Sars emergency, and poses a formidable obstacle to China's developmental health and stability.
The economist Charles Lindblom once observed that Leninist regimes - with their claim to an absolute monopoly on political power and truth - were particularly well suited to inducing social change from above. That is, they had muscular, well-developed institutional and ideological "thumbs" that could exert highly concentrated pressure on society. By the same token, Leninist regimes had weak, insensitive "fingers". That is, they had great difficulty accurately gauging and responding to subtle, dispersed societal signals.
In contrast, Lindblom observed, pluralist democracies had relatively weak thumbs, rendering them incapable of generating concentrated coercive force. But they had sensitive, well-articulated fingers, enabling them accurately to gauge and respond to changing environmental stimuli. In short, Leninist systems excelled in mechanisms of force, while market democracies excelled in mechanisms of feedback.
As Chinese society becomes more complex, dynamic and information-rich, the need for enhanced sensitivity in the system's feedback mechanisms increases greatly. In democratic societies, these normally include autonomous interest groups, a robust free press, public opinion and competitive elections. Lacking such institutionalised mechanisms, however, China's Leninist polity remains seriously insensitive and unresponsive. In effect, it suffers from being "all thumbs".
What is urgently needed at present - more than multi-party elections or a constitutional separation of powers - is a serious Communist Party commitment to strengthening the institutions of socio-political inclusion and feedback. This would involve concrete measures that go well beyond the limited scope of former president Jiang Zemin's minimalist "theory of the three representatives".
Such steps would include easing present restrictions on unofficial religious, social and occupational groups; enhancing the autonomy of the mass media and organs of public opinion; strengthening the representative functions of people's congresses; and, in general, relaxing party control of governmental administration. Such "soft authoritarian" reforms would not automatically ensure government transparency and responsiveness. Still less would they ensure a successful democratic transition. But they would help to strengthen China's congenitally enfeebled input mechanisms.
For a while in the late 1980s, it appeared that greater political pluralism and transparency might be introduced under the progressive leadership of general secretary Zhao Ziyang. In the repressive aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen upheaval, however, all talk of meaningful political reform was shelved indefinitely. For more than a decade thereafter, the government's fear of instability - heightened by the sudden collapse of communism in east Europe and the Soviet Union - precluded all but the safest, most non-threatening political innovations.
While fear of chaos remains deeply embedded in the political consciousness of China's leaders, an equally important
obstacle to soft authoritarian reform today is the formidable force of political inertia. Short of a large-scale systemic crisis, China's new leaders may continue to opt - as did their predecessors - for the path of least resistance. They may choose to "muddle through" with only modest, incremental tinkering and minimal structural adjustment. Muddling through is the default political strategy preferred by entrenched political elites everywhere, most of the time.
But China's leaders may not enjoy the luxury of delayed reform. With the recent deepening of a number of socio-economic stresses in Chinese society - including massive unemployment, rural-urban income polarisation, widespread corruption, a teetering banking system and a looming HIV/Aids epidemic - time may no longer be on their side.
The country's extraordinary record of near double-digit economic growth since the Tiananmen disaster enabled the government to weather the transitional shocks of rapid marketisation and "opening up" without encountering serious, systemic political upheaval. Discontent is on the rise, however. Stopgap measures such as the introduction of village elections and the "theory of the three representatives" are arguably steps in the right direction, in so far as they permit some political stress reduction. But they are only baby steps, a "hard authoritarian" system's minimal concession to the need for more robust feedback mechanisms.
Could the country's leaders continue to muddle through for a while longer? They have, after all, confounded outside observers many times before, defying dire predictions of imminent crisis and collapse.
Perhaps they might succeed in the short run. But the strategy of indefinite delay has two major longer-term drawbacks: first, it makes the government a captive hostage to global (and local) economic forces that it cannot readily control; and second, it compounds the political risks posed by an increasingly restive, cynical population. Far better, it can be argued, to initiate institutional reforms while the economy remains relatively robust, than to wait until the system is in crisis and "regime failure" becomes a real possibility.
The need for more sensitive socio-political "fingers" has never been greater in China. The Leninist "thumb" needs to relax its grip while it still commands sufficient public authority to do so. If popular backlash from the government's woeful handling of the Sars crisis should provide the impetus for such a relaxation, then Sars will have served a useful - if costly - purpose.