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The best books on Obstacles to Political Reform in China

recommended by Richard Baum

The late China specialist and UCLA professor Richard Baum said that he sometimes felt genuine admiration for China’s technocratic leaders. Other days, he shook his head at their obsessive intransigence and China's endemic political insecurity

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Do you want to start with Minxin Pei’s China’s Trapped Transition? There’s a comment on the back by Elizabeth Perry of Harvard, that the book ‘directly challenges much of the conventional wisdom about the rise of China…’

Minxin Pei’s book is important because it poses most directly a question that is at the heart of the debate about whether China can survive an entrepreneurial revolution with its political system substantially intact. His argument, in a nutshell, is that a Leninist political party is communism’s ‘original sin’– an innate impediment to transparency and accountability in governance.

His argument is interesting and controversial. He suggests that the self-appointed political power monopoly enjoyed by the Chinese Communist Party makes it, in effect, a closed autocratic society, and that such societies, as Lord Acton observed, over time tend to become deeply corrupted in the absence of countervailing power. Pei argues that Chinese communism is unable to overcome its absolutist, conspiratorial origins, its ‘original sin’. This, in turn, makes the party highly suspicious of spontaneous economic and socio-political activity, especially when such activity is organised. Consequently, economic reform in China has spawned not market democracy, but a state-dominated form of bureaucratic capitalism, involving the subordination of private sector initiative to the dictates of the party-state.

According to Pei, China is thus in a ‘trapped transition’. Although its leaders have adopted policies designed to encourage economic growth through enhanced productivity and controlled market competition, the country nevertheless remains trapped within an archaic Leninist political framework from which it cannot seem to escape. Eventually, he concludes, the deepening contradictions between the party’s obsessive desire to retain monopolistic political control and the pluralising pressures of an increasingly open, market-based society will catch up with China’s leaders, leading to some form of systemic paralysis and/or traumatic power transition.

The fact this book is on your list, does that suggest you are convinced by Minxin Pei’s arguments? What about Dali Yang’s rather diametrically opposing views, as presented in your second choice, Remaking the Chinese Leviathan?

While I do agree with much of Pei’s analysis, his book lies at one end of a highly polarised debate over the sustainability of China’s current political institutions. At the other end of this conceptual dichotomy lies Dali Yang’s equally provocative and controversial book, Remaking the Chinese Leviathan. Yang argues that Pei’s concerns over the endemic corruption and maladaptation of China’s Leninist polity are at the very least exaggerated, and at worst entirely misplaced. In his view – which clearly has its merits – the CCP has shown a positive capacity to adapt, adjust and innovate in response to emerging developmental stresses. He argues that China’s authoritarian polity has become more responsive over time, and more attentive to the needs of society.

Here’s one example. When China’s chronically stagnant and inefficient state-owned enterprises (SOEs) proved highly resistant to market reforms in the 1980s and early 90s, they were forcibly reorganised and consolidated. Thousands of unproductive firms were pushed into bankruptcy, while those that remained were transformed into competitive, profit-oriented shareholding enterprises. As a result, industrial efficiency and productivity rose substantially.

Another example concerns the government’s response to rising rural protest demonstrations. After peasants in several provinces began to engage in organised protests against excessive (and often illegal) ad hoc taxes, user fees and random levies imposed by predatory rural officials, the central government stepped in to ease peasant burdens by eliminating the agricultural tax and setting a strict limit on locally imposed fees and levies.

And finally, when the plight of underpaid, overworked migrant labourers in China’s coastal export industries led to a wave of labour unrest a few years ago, the central government responded by passing new labour legislation guaranteeing the workers union representation along with a maximum six-day work week and mandatory pay for overtime. These examples illustrate that although the CCP remains a monopolistic, non-competitive ruling party, it has arguably displayed an admirable technocratic capacity to effectively respond to deepening societal stresses by progressively fine-tuning the country’s administrative and regulatory rules. It is precisely this capacity for self-correction and regulatory adaptation that inspired Dali Yang to adopt a broadly optimistic outlook on China’s capacity for political development under one-party dominance – despite the continued absence of major democratic political reforms.

So who is right – Pei or Yang?

That’s the $64,000 question. I personally vacillate a lot on this question. Some days I feel genuine admiration for the ability of China’s technocratic leaders to adopt timely social, economic and environmental policies to address serious imbalances in the Chinese economy and to redress legitimate grievances of the less fortunate, less advantaged members of society. On such days I find myself sharing at least some of Yang’s congenital optimism. Other days I shake my head at the endemic political insecurity and obsessive intransigence of Party leaders in China – the way they grossly overreact to perceived ‘troublemakers’ by arresting or intimidating them. China’s leaders display a strong hint of what I have called ‘post-Tiananmen stress disorder’: a near-pathological fear of spontaneous, unauthorised political activity. This fear tends to bring out their worst political instincts and makes me more receptive to Pei’s pessimistic assessment of China’s political future.

So where do your other book choices fit in?

The other books that I’ve chosen examine specific facets of the broad debate between Pei and Yang, looking, as it were, ‘under the hood’ to shed new light on the dynamics of contemporary Chinese politics. For example, Kellee Tsai’s book, Capitalism without Democracy, looks at the curious fact that while an affluent class of private entrepreneurs and businesspeople has arisen in China as a result of economic reform, the new Chinese bourgeoisie has displayed no real interest in Western-style democracy. And this, in turn, appears to violate one of the most sacred canons of the classical theory of modernisation.

Yes, what does classic modernisation theory predict?

As formulated most famously by Barrington Moore, modernisation theory predicts that the historical emergence of an affluent, self-confident urban commercial and industrial bourgeoisie, rising to challenge the traditional power exercised by a strongly conservative landed rural aristocracy, comprises a potent force for democratisation. As Moore famously put it, ‘no bourgeoisie, no democracy’.

In addressing the puzzle of why Moore’s prophecy has failed to come true in China, Tsai notes that the party-state has successfully co-opted and patronised China’s new bourgeoisie. By offering aspiring entrepreneurs preferential access to state-controlled resources and opportunities, the state in effect has bought the political loyalty of China’s private sector. Unwilling to bite the hand that feeds them, most private entrepreneurs appear satisfied with China’s existing institutional arrangement. And why not? They have been among its biggest beneficiaries. In documenting this story of the party-state’s successful seduction and co-optation of the private sector, Tsai provides a powerful explanation for the absence of widespread bourgeois support for democratic political reform.

How does this relate to the argument between Minxin Pei and Dali Yang?

It’s just another way of looking at the same issue. Pei says that Chinese communism is doomed because it is anti-historical. That is, it seeks to prevent, at all costs, economic development from generating irreversible pressure for democratic political reform. By contrast Yang says, ‘Well yes, but the Chinese have altered the very dynamics of development by creating a more adaptable and responsive version of authoritarianism that is actually working, one that doesn’t necessarily lead to a democratic future.’ Now, into this thicket wades Kellee Tsai, along with a handful of other scholars, including Bruce Dickson and Margaret Pearson, who have carefully studied the political attitudes and values of China’s new business elites. They suggest that Pei’s implicit faith in the democratising impact of economic development is misplaced. And they make a very compelling argument: because it was the Communist Party itself that oversaw the reform of the state-owned sectors of the economy, it was able to dictate the terms of private sector survival, competition and profit. Only those entrepreneurs who collaborated with the state really had an opportunity to prosper in the new economy. The result has been the marriage of state power and private affluence. You simply cannot be a successful player in the Chinese economy if you do not have the proper bureaucratic contacts and inside access. Here, Tsai helps to explain the otherwise puzzling resiliency of China’s communist regime, in an era marked by the sudden disappearance of Leninist regimes elsewhere. In so doing, she nicely complements Yang’s rather different explanation for the Chinese regime’s observed resiliency. Taken together, these two phenomena – private sector co-optation and administrative adaptation – go a long way toward accounting for the unexpected survival of Chinese communism.

So entrepreneurs support the political system because they’ve learnt to play it to their own advantage. Is that the argument?

Yes, it’s the ‘get along, go along’ mentality. Successful businesspeople are seduced, for example, by offers of participation in party-dominated consultative bodies such as the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, or they are encouraged to run for office in local People’s Congresses. Successful entrepreneurs are thus brought into the web of the state through inducements rather than intimidation, through blandishments rather than threats, and this creates a strong and diffuse network of mutually supportive relationships between state and bourgeoisie.

I thought quite a few Chinese entrepreneurs ended up in prison, though.

Yes, but only when things go pear-shaped, running out of control. Normally, the system tends to protect its own. When things run off the tracks, however – for example, when a major corruption scandal emerges that cannot be swept under the rug – some sacrifices must be made, some villains must be offered up to assuage the anger of the masses. But these tend to be scattered, individual cases; and as Pei argues, the structural sources of endemic corruption that inhere in the patron-client relationships between state officials and business elites have thus far remained largely immune from systematic cleansing. To do so would require a fundamental institutional overhaul, which the party-state, fearing instability and the loss of its own power, has thus far shown no inclination to initiate. Hence Pei’s characterisation of a ‘trapped transition’.

Now, the close alliance between private wealth and public power may create a ‘win-win’ situation for the state and for the bourgeoisie, but there are major ‘losers’ as well – principally China’s voiceless rural peasants and migrant labourers. These are the people whose low-cost labour and lack of basic welfare support have fuelled the spectacular export growth of the Chinese economy since the 1980s. Although Tsai is well aware that the pent-up grievances of these victims of rapid, collusive development create a potential challenge to regime legitimacy, she doesn’t really concern herself with their potential for undermining the stability of the authoritarian party-state in China.

So which side does Tsai ultimately come down on? 

In the main, her analysis of the opportunistic alliance between state and business in post-reform China tends to complement Dali Yang’s argument that China is forging a uniquely viable pathway to authoritarian modernity, effectively bypassing democratic reform. Yet in her awareness of the great and growing gulf between haves and have-nots in China she displays an implicit, cautionary scepticism that is more akin to Pei than to Yang. So – like me – she seems to be ambivalent, vacillating between the two poles of optimism and pessimism.

The next book on your list is about the peasants, Will the Boat Sink the Water? by Chen Guide and Wu Chundao.

Where Pei, Yang and Tsai all take note, in passing, of the long, uphill struggle of China’s underclasses to share in the material benefits of economic reform, Chen Guide and Wu Chundao focus exclusively on the travails of the rural poor. As a counterweight to Yang’s generally upbeat assessment of recent administrative improvements in peasant welfare, Chen and Wu, a pair of veteran Chinese investigative reporters, present a rather grim view of contemporary rural reality. This book was officially banned in China shortly after its publication in 2003, but subsequently sold almost ten million copies in an underground Chinese language edition. It’s recently been translated into English, and the book presents a series of investigative reports documenting how ruthless village officials and their local entrepreneurial allies use their power and resources to coerce, intimidate and ride roughshod over the peasantry.

The authors argue that much of China’s impressive economic growth has been achieved on the backs of peasants who are routinely victimised by the highly skewed, pro-urban distribution of wealth and power in post-reform China. Indeed, China is one of the most income-polarised societies on earth, much more so even than unofficial Gini coefficient statistics would seem to indicate. [The Gini coefficient measures the degree of polarisation of wealth and income in any given society.] According to some recent estimates, if you add the personal gains from corruption by upper-income Chinese officials and their entrepreneurial clients to the standard calculations of legal income, China’s Gini coefficient would rank right up with the most corrupt African and Latin American countries in terms of the gap between rich and poor. In this respect, Chen and Wu’s book is a chilling reminder that as successful as China’s economic reforms have been in generating unprecedented overall GDP growth, much of that growth has come at the expense of the toiling masses in the countryside.

That is why I picked Chen and Wu’s book – as a corrective to those observers who paint too rosy a picture of China’s urban economic miracle, neglecting its rural underside.

Do Chen and Wu argue that the peasants pose a threat to the regime?

Although they paint a bleak picture of continuing rural poverty, corruption and exploitation, they do not specifically point to potential political consequences of such dysfunctionality. They are reporters, not political commentators. Still, implicit in their investigative reportage is an awareness that mounting rural discontent is a source of major anxiety to China’s ruling elites. Ironically, it is this anxiety that has led the regime in recent years to take a series of measures to relieve the suffering of the rural poor, as noted by Dali Yang – including abolition of predatory agricultural taxes and fees, provision of tuition-free primary schooling, labour protection for rural migrant workers and affordable rural health care.

From time to time party leaders have gone public with their worries about rural unrest. In 2004, for example, President Hu Jintao openly acknowledged the existence of a serious crisis in the party’s ‘ruling capacity’. And he warned that ‘if we don’t take this crisis seriously we may find ourselves cast out by history’. Since that time, protest demonstrations and ‘mass incidents’ in China have actually increased at a rate of around 20 per cent a year. In 2008, the last year for which statistics were made public, there were 127,000 such incidents throughout the country – an average of almost 350 per day.

What kind of protests are these?

They are mostly localised protests against unregulated local commercial-bureaucratic power. One of the major problems posed by the unholy alliance between money and political power is that the state looks the other way on questions of just how, exactly, entrepreneurs make their money, and at what cost to ordinary people. For example, in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake of March 2008 in Sichuan province, many observers noted that hundreds of schools in the quake zone collapsed, while nearby government offices survived intact. When some residents began asking questions about shoddy schoolhouse construction, suggesting that payoffs may have been made by contractors to local officials to overlook the use of shoddy building materials, the central government ordered newspaper reporters not to write about such allegations and ordered all outside journalists to leave the area. Thereafter, the local government began to harass citizens who raised complaints against construction companies and corrupt local officials, and began to intimidate and even arrest lawyers who agreed to represent these citizens in lawsuits.

And you’re saying that even if it wanted to the state can’t address these issues?

To a considerable extent, it can’t. The state appears to be a victim of its own success – it has created such a web of alliances and coalitions and mutual dependencies that if it ever really attacked the roots of corruption, and the roots of clientilistic favouritism, it would very likely pull the thread that would ultimately unravel the entire system. It is in this sense that I agree with Minxin Pei’s diagnosis of a ‘trapped transition’ – the party-state is damned if it does reform, and damned if it doesn’t.

But the government is constantly launching anti-corruption campaigns.

Yes, but the campaigns are neither sustained nor systematic. They are aimed at specific bad guys, for limited periods of time, with the intent to publicise individual acts of egregious immorality and greed, rather than to acknowledge the systemic, institutionalised sources of corruption. And that, incidentally, helps to explain why the CCP is promoting a campaign to resurrect Confucianism in China today. By embracing the paternalistic model of ‘benevolent authoritarianism’ promoted by the Great Sage, the party-state is able to preach the virtues of ethical behaviour and a ‘harmonious society’ without requiring fundamental political reforms. For if individuals, rather than institutions, are the source of immoral acts, then there’s no need to reform the institutions.

In the book Will the Boat Sink the Water? does it show the peasants really having the language to ask for democracy and political change?

No, they really don’t have either the information, or the language, or the organisational capacity to demand political change. One interesting thing is that the regime has consciously played upon its knowledge that most people’s grievances are against local agents of political authority, ie, venal local officials. That’s the only part of government that most people ever see in their lifetime. So that when there is a corrupt police chief, or when a well-heeled industrial polluter pays a bribe to local officials to look the other way while the village’s drinking water is poisoned, the blame is focused exclusively on the local government, rather than on the institutions that permit – indeed encourage – such behaviour to flourish. The central government thus self-consciously cultivates the notion of ‘don’t blame us, blame them’. So there’s very limited awareness among peasants of broader, systematic structural flaws in the system. They may know they’re being screwed, but they don’t know where the responsibility lies, where the buck stops.

And of course there is no horizontal organisation or vertical integration permitted among kindred occupational or interest groups across China that might bring such grievances to the attention of a larger audience, that might clarify the linkages between what is happening to peasants in one place and what’s happening elsewhere. The party-state has very carefully prevented any kind of mobilisation across geographic boundaries, making such trans-local organisation illegal and unauthorised. All interest groups and NGOs in China must have local state sponsorship in order to exist, and they must confine their activities locally. When mass incidents break out and groups of people begin to express legitimate, deep-seated grievances against local authorities, the central government will step in to troubleshoot – often bringing suitcases full of money to pay off the aggrieved masses. Then, once they’ve disarmed the mass base of the protest, they will often quietly arrest its leaders, who are generally labelled ‘troublemakers’. That’s the way it works: because there is no trans-local organisation that can amplify discontent or focus broad national attention on it, it is readily contained at the local level.

But with major historical political upheavals, like the French Revolution, there are always so many reasons it can’t happen, but then somehow it does.

That’s right. And I see some evidence of that happening in China – though I do not foresee a violent mass uprising against the Communist Party. Rather, I see an embryonic ‘civil society’ beginning to emerge, one that that is challenging the traditional ‘forbidden zones’ and authoritarian prerogatives of the party-state. I see the rise of civil society in China taking place hand-in-hand with the emergence of the so-called new electronic media – cell phones, text messaging, and the internet. These new media are facilitating the free flow of uncensored information in a way that was never possible before.

Recently we had the remarkable example of the famous ‘nail house’ in Chongqing. In essence it was the old, familiar story of a local government colluding with real estate developers to buy up plots of urban land on the cheap, to develop profitable high-rise residential and commercial complexes. In cahoots with the local government, developers offered to pay the displaced residents pennies on the dollar to get them to move off the land. For the past two decades, local governments throughout the country have used the implied right of ‘eminent domain’ to evict residential dwellers and then lease the land to commercial developers at a very high profit. But it’s only in the last few years that there’s been a public backlash growing against such practices.

The Chongqing nail house is a prime example. One family, whose house was located squarely in the middle of the proposed new commercial development in downtown Chongqing, refused to accept the paltry settlement that the developers offered them for their little parcel of land. The family held out for more equitable compensation. And before the developers could bring in local toughs to physically evict the family – which is what often happens if you resist an ‘approved’ compensation offer – local residents started taking pictures of the development site with their cell phones. The construction company had already dug a deep excavation pit all around this single house, which was called the nail house because it protruded upwards from the base of the excavation on a very narrow spit of land. The developers put a big fence around the excavation so no one could see what was going on inside. But people could see over the top and through the cracks with their cell-phone cameras. Playing to swelling crowds of gawkers, the holdout family posted large banners outside their besieged home calling attention to their plight. Pretty soon it became a real ‘social networking’ sensation. People began to send the pictures along with text messages to their friends, and they began posting accounts of the nail-house incident on internet chat rooms. Very quickly the story went viral across China.

Unable to suppress the news, the official media in China began to pick up the story. At that point the central government sent its troubleshooters to Chongqing, who told the local government, ‘Look – settle with these people. This is causing trouble and we don’t want trouble.’ So they ordered the municipal government to pay the nail house holdouts an amount that was several times larger than the original compensation package.

Immediately afterward, a few bold tabloid newspapers in China began heralding the ‘nail house saga’ as the ‘birth of citizen journalism in China’. Citizens armed only with cell phones and computers had forced the government to back down. That kind of thing is starting to happen more frequently now, and it is clearly worrying the government.

Your fifth book is Philip Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow.

This is another book along the lines of Will the Boat Sink the Water? Its author, the Washington Post investigative reporter Philip Pan, presents moving portraits of several victims of China’s corruption-tainted economic growth. Pan also draws attention to the few brave souls – mostly journalists and lawyers – who at great personal risk to their careers, and occasionally to their lives, dared to unmask egregious wrongdoing by local officials and their underlings. Unlike Chen and Wu, whose case studies are drawn exclusively from rural China, Pan selects his vignettes from a broad array of contemporary Chinese settings, from the well-connected real estate tycoon who ordered the eviction of hundreds of Beijing residents in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, to the unscrupulous township officials in East China who forced local women to undergo late-term abortions so they could meet their birth-control quotas, to the bravery of a lone army surgeon who dared to violate a government-imposed curtain of silence about the burgeoning 2003 Sars epidemic in China. In these and other vignettes, Pan catalogues typical abuses of official power in post-reform China, while calling attention to a handful of true Chinese heroes who bravely exposed these misdeeds. In doing so, he vividly illuminates the dark side of China’s developmental miracle, while at the same time helping us to rekindle our faith in the ultimate decency and humanity of those ordinary Chinese who dare to speak truth to power.

There does seem to be a general apathy toward politics among China’s young people, including college students. They say they’re not much interested in it.

That’s the comfortable thing to say. When pain is administered for asking inconvenient questions, most people learn to stop asking them. As I noted earlier, the party-state has been brilliant at buying off, co-opting, or, when all else fails, intimidating systemic opposition to its rule. After the disastrous Tiananmen debacle of 1989, for example, most Chinese college students retreated, shell-shocked, from politics. A few years later, in 1992, Deng Xiaoping offered them a tacit bargain: ‘We’ll give you undreamed of opportunities to pursue a rewarding career, a well-paying job, and all the good things in life; but in return you must agree not to challenge the authority of the party-state or its leaders.’ Not surprisingly, most Chinese students accepted Deng’s offer, opting to enjoy the benefits of this ‘get along, go along’ mentality. And there has been precious little student activism ever since.

What’s your sense of where the whole thing is headed?

I’m caught between these bookends that I described earlier. Some days I wake up and I think Minxin Pei has got it right, and other days I think Yang Dali has got it right. There’s simply no relevant precedent for what is happening in China. To date there has been no example of a successful, evolutionary post-Leninist transition. There have been a number of radical anti-Leninist overthrows and pro-Leninist backlashes, but nowhere else has there been a sustained effort to graft a modern, developed market economy on to the political framework of a one-party Leninist dictatorship. I’m just not sure it can be done.

I don’t want to sound too pessimistic. Maybe China does have a shot at emerging from all of this with a coherent political system that is not recognisably democratic in the Western sense. Maybe a kinder, gentler version of neo-Confucian paternalism can soften the iron fist of Leninism without forcing the party-state to relinquish its power monopoly. But I have my doubts that the current, corrupted relationship between political Leninism and bureaucratic capitalism is tenable in the long run.

Richard Baum died on 14 December 2012. This interview with him was conducted in October 2010. 

December 20, 2012

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Richard Baum

Richard Baum

Richard Baum is a distinguished professor in the political science department at UCLA. He is a specialist on Chinese and comparative politics and foreign relations and a past director of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies. He is the founder and list manager of Chinapol, the world's largest dedicated listserv for professional China scholars, journalists, and policy analysts.

Richard Baum

Richard Baum

Richard Baum is a distinguished professor in the political science department at UCLA. He is a specialist on Chinese and comparative politics and foreign relations and a past director of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies. He is the founder and list manager of Chinapol, the world's largest dedicated listserv for professional China scholars, journalists, and policy analysts.