Social Change and the Chinese Communist Party: Domestic Problems of Rule

By Ferdinand, Peter | Journal of International Affairs, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Social Change and the Chinese Communist Party: Domestic Problems of Rule


Ferdinand, Peter, Journal of International Affairs


The Chinese Communist Party has become in many ways the victim of its own economic success since 1978. The introduction of market reforms has thrown Chinese society into increasing turmoil. Moreover, the speed of development has exacerbated the problem, as the economic reforms launched by the leadership continue to undermine many of the former principles and methods Communist party rule.

Contrarily, society has become freer in terms of daily life for large numbers of people. Citizens can change jobs and move from one part of China to another with a freedom which was unimaginable twenty years ago. Personal relationships too have become freer as reflected in the increasing statistics on divorce and in the limited success of the regime in enforcing its birth-control policy on the other. This is evident by the fact that Chinese population passed the 1.2 billion mark in early 1995, five years earlier than the date of 2000 which the government had laid down in the early 1980s.

From the perspective of its rulers, China has become a more complex country to rule. The Chinese Communist Party has confronted a paradox. As the success of economic reforms have grown, the problems of rule have multiplied and the power of government has declined. In part this stems from the increasing powers of provincial and local governments to retain local resources so as to develop their regional interests. In part, however, it also stems from the increasing complexity and interconnectedness of economic, social and political reforms.

Before 1978, the Party maintained a monopoly of wisdom and willpower in running the country Official ideology outlined the future direction of society's development and served as the basis for administration. As imposed by the leadership, ideology could be relied upon to provide basic answers to the dilemmas of decision-makers. As long as Party and state officials were kept in line through periodic rectification campaigns, state bureaucracy could be kept relatively small.

Since 1978, however, official ideology has become increasingly irrelevant as a source for the future direction of society. The leadership of the Party has no clear vision of the shape of the long-term future for the regime, apart from arguing that it will be based upon the Four Principles laid down by Deng Xiaoping, i.e., the socialist road, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the leading role of the Communist party, and Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong thought. Since 1989, they have discouraged and prevented others from utilizing ideology, at least in public. Former Party general secretary Zhao Ziyang once described the process of rule through Party ideology as analogous to that of using stepping stones to cross a river, one step at a time, but it is never clear in China what one will find on the other bank.

As a result, Party and state officials have been cast adrift as far as day-to-day policy making is concerned. Increasingly, individuals count and more depends upon their discretion. The state paradoxically finds that it needs more bureaucrats to cope with this increasing complexity, which in itself only spirals into further intensified complexities. On the other hand, the Party is also committed to reducing their numbers for reasons of economy. So the state apparatus goes through regularly alternating cycles of growth and cuts, which disrupt the smooth running of the administration. In addition, diverging interests between institutions of government have become more salient and the issues of social and economic policy making more divisive.

Social change has widened the gaps between the numerous interests and within the Party. Even before the events of 1989, commentators both inside and outside the People's Republic of China raised the question about the compatibility of rapid economic reform and political immobility. What has received less comment has been social change as an intermediate variable, intensifying the pressure on the Party to adapt. …

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