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China‘s political system. Equipped for the 21st century

Trierer China Discussions took place on 10 December 2014 at MERICS in Berlin

The smog in Beijing is often so dense that one can hardly see the houses on the other side of the road. At the same time with its reform efforts China is spearheading the global environmental movement. Right at the start Professor Michael Jäckel, President of the University Trier, drew attention to this contradiction in China – one of many contradictions that characterise China’s political life.

For the first time the Trierer China Discussions were held at MERICS organised together with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, the Bundesakademie für Sicherheitspolitik and the Alumni Association of Political Studies at the University of Trier. Nearly 100 guests came to the conference with the title “China‘s political system. Equipped for the 21st century?”. Six speakers examined this question from very different angles.

Trierer China Talks

Control potential of the political system in China

Professor Thomas Heberer from the University Duisburg-Essen focused on the question of the control potential of the political system in China. Core thesis of his analysis: although the Chinese state does exert social control it is also at the same time very adaptive. This is a capability that puts them in the position to swiftly and partly unbureaucratically adjust to new situations. Particularly local governments have freedom and room for manoeuvre in order to consider the special local circumstances. On the whole, the majority of the state’s legitimacy results from the positive developments that the party initiates: improved living conditions, stability, feeling of national pride.

Presently the greatest challenge is the reform of the economic and growth model by 2020. Innovation promotion, strengthening domestic demand and nationwide efficiency improvement are central reform targets. In order to achieve these objectives the party is implementing a new mass line movement and comprehensive anti-corruption campaign. From the point of view of Heberer Xi Jinping‘s concentration of power is the result of a consensus within the CPC leadership that it is only possible to realise these reforms with a “strong man”. One main obstacle for China’s controllability was – also according to Chinese academics – the moral decline and the widespread corruption also prevalent in the general population.

How much political influence do entrepreneurs have in China?

Professor Gunter Schubert from the University of Tübingen devoted his attention to the special relationship between companies and officials in China. Contrary to the current state of research Schubert argued that entrepreneurs were increasingly getting involved in Chinese politics like for example in order to push through different projects they were engaging in direct dialogue with local officials. The up to now minimal degree of organisation can deceive how considerable the political influence actually is.

In the meantime entrepreneurs were of great importance for local/domestic development as well as for the co-financing of public assets. Furthermore, entrepreneurs are gaining more influence in local Congresses. Schubert points out that their growing political presence has already aroused the suspicion of State and Party Leader Xi Jinping. Despite the rise in relevance of entrepreneurship the state retains its steering and controlling role over the economic development even though its role towards enterprise has changed.

What expectations does the middle class have in respect to politics?

Can social dynamics challenge the political leadership? Dr. Kristin Shi-Kupfer, Head of the Department Society and Media at MERICS took on this very highly explosive question. Taking the example of media-makers in China she spoke of the increasing disillusionment and an aimlessness as well as loss of values in society. The consumerism of the last years created by rise of wealth (Shi-Kupfer referred to this as “state prescribed substitute ideology”) leaves many citizens with an inner emptiness. Own wishes and needs like the desire for cleaner air or healthy food are falling by the wayside. Increasingly this discontent is leading many to “vote with their feet”: those who are able to afford it move abroad. The “China Dream” which is propagated by the leadership is in the view of Shi-Kupfer in this context not able to provide the necessary value.

Further conflict potential can be found in the government’s understanding of “national interests”. This by no means corresponds with that of the middle class. Quality of life, good education and financial security were more important to this group. An economic crisis or inner party conflicts, which Shi-Kupfer doesn’t rule out, would through this “trilemma” result in “tangible conflicts”. For Shi-Kupfer it is conceivable that in such a scenario it could lead to protests and a large-scale exodus. In conclusion, Shi-Kupfer recommended Germany to open up a dialogue with non-governmental players from the middle class – not only engage with the government.

Why the internet is more of a benefit than harm to China’s leadership

Over the last years the internet has massively changed China’s society. Bloggers and critical citizens undermine the party’s information monopoly and vent their frustration – even though the party does massively censor too open criticism. However, Professor Christian Göbel from the University of Vienna, argued in his speech that despite everything the internet is more a benefit than harm for the party: crucial is how the government utilises the digital technologies in order to take on board the population’s mood and desires – like through open local government petition portals. This way the government conveys to the population a feeling of self-determination and self-confidence. However, the internet also serves as an instrument to control politicians and cadre. Not least it lets politics feel the “pulse of society”, so Göbel: The dilemma of the dictator not knowing what its subjects are thinking doesn’t exist in China,” Göbel stresses. For the exercise of power this is an important prerequisite. The way China's government makes use of the internet challenges established western explanatory models. According to Göbel, in 25 years there would probably be no causal connection verifiable between the rate of income per capita, internet penetration and democratisation.

From the "intended muddle" at the local level

Professor Anna Ahlers from the University of Oslo drew attention to the local level. She examined the performance and adaptability at local level. In order to understand government policy it was important to analyse the local authorities. It was here that regulations and laws were being implemented as well as the so called "output" being created which is decisive for the legitimacy of the political system. Local authorities have the chance to develop innovations, test models and try out experiments: Ahlers argued, that the real reformers were actually to be found at local level. This flexibility enables the political system to swiftly adapt to changing conditions – an ability that is key to the success of the Chinese system as a whole. 

In the view of Ahlers, the local officials assume a "hinge function“. Abstract impulses from Beijing, frequently in form of campaigns or "red lines", provide for "political corridors“ that frame the flexibility and creativity of local political officials. Ahlers stressed, that Chinese bureaucracy represented a type of "meta structure" of local politics. It comprises of traditional elements, modern administrative practices and socialist institutions. This explains the bureaucratic system's capability for reform.

Is China's political system also challenging the west systemically?

Professor Heilmann, Director of MERICS in Berlin, argued in his provocative concluding speech that the Chinese system challenged the West systemically. He questioned how it was possible for China's supposed inflexible system to achieve such extraordinary adjustment performances as one has been able to witness over the last decades. The usual deductions from the traditional Systems Theory were increasingly lacking credibility as these offered no conclusions of the economic and technological performance of the political system.  Also, the actual scope for development in individual living environments were not sufficiently captured. In order to gain an understanding for the unexpected agility of the Chinese political system it is therefore necessary to work with approaches that go beyond the analysis of regime and institutions. This had been exemplary achieved by the other speakers at the Trierer China Discussions.

Heilmann appealed to analyse specific political areas – "Governance in Action" – and consider the specific capabilities of problem solving and correction of the political systems. In order to gain an understanding for the Chinese system it requires as an in-depth analysis Chinese political processes, a special "methodology“ and the rhythm of the "learning authoritative system". Commonly the "western" political analysis of China would underestimate the special role of decentralised reversible experiments in scientific consultation processes and corrective mechanisms.

In 2015 the discussion will continue

Fascinating, provocative theses. The closing discussion focussed on the question whether the pointed illustration of a "systemic challenge" actually doesn't neglect the considerable negative sides of China's political system as well as overestimates the reversibility and learning ability. It became clear that China's political system was no model or exemplary – though it does offer food for thought in regards to deficits of the own system.

A discussion that whets one's appetite for more. In his closing remarks Ambassador Dr. Hans-Dieter Heumann invited all present to come to the Trierer China Discussions 2015 at the Bundesakademie für Sicherheitspolitik (BAKS) in Berlin-Pankow. Then the emphasis was to be put on the international consequences of China's rise as well as on Europe's quest for a central role.

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