The Impact of Western Political Thought in Chinese Political Discourse on Transitions from Leninism, 1986-1992

By Sullivan, Michael J. | World Affairs, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

The Impact of Western Political Thought in Chinese Political Discourse on Transitions from Leninism, 1986-1992


Sullivan, Michael J., World Affairs


Since the 1989 Beijing massacre, discussions on transitions to post-Deng China among Chinese intellectuals and China specialists have centered on three general scenarios. Some have been exploring scenarios for democratization, such as the establishment of a democratic federalist political system.(1) Others envision the increasing significance of ethnic and regional cleavages, perhaps even leading to political disintegration much like that of the former communist states in Eastern Europe and Russia.(2) Finally, there are those who perceive China moving in the direction of the so-called "soft" authoritarianism of Japan and the East Asian newly-industrializing countries (NICs).(3) Despite their differences, thinkers of each persuasion are applying new conceptualizations that do not rely on Marxist-Leninist thinking.

This article analyzes the impact of Western political theory on Chinese neo-authoritarian and neo-conservative thought from 1986 to 1992. Neo-authoritarianism (1986-1989) and neo-conservatism (1990-1992) both promote the third scenario mentioned above in that they argue for enlightened authoritarian rule during the dual transition away from Leninist politics and an efficient state-run economy. An enlightened, modernizing-oriented political elite would wisely use state power to first transform the state-run economy into a stable market-oriented economy. After reaching a high level of development and creating a middle class, this political elite would then liberalize the political system, allowing greater political liberties and democracy. Politically, neo-authoritarianism and neo-conservatism represent an attempt to forge a middle position between conservative political elites advocating limited reforms and liberal reformers advocating democratic political reforms.(4)

Neo-authoritarians and neo-conservatives have relied on Western political thought to formulate non-Marxist-Leninist and non-democratic approaches to transform China's political and economic systems and to justify proposals for authoritarian transitions away from Leninism. Chinese neo-authoritarians justified their ideas with references to Western political development studies, especially Samuel Huntington's Political Order in Changing Societies [hereafter POCS].(5) Chinese neo-conservatives have also referred to conservative political thinkers, especially Edmund Burke. This focus on the rule of Western political thought in Chinese political discourse on transitions to the future does not imply that neo-authoritarians and neo-conservatives relied solely on Western political thinkers. What is significant about their reliance on Western political thought concerns how such thinking has gained increasing predominance at a time when the legitimacy of the regime's Marxist-Leninist ideology has quickly waned.

This article examines the impact of foreign ideas on recent Chinese political discourse on economic development and political modernization from a perspective grounded in Chinese reality.(6) This perspective emphasizes both the specific interpretation given to a specific theory and the role foreign ideas play within China's intellectual and political environment. Once entering a different political-historical context, theory often plays a role in the transformation of that society and the theory itself is also recreated. This perspective allows us to examine the role of Western political thought in the construction of neo-authoritarianism and neo-conservatism. These theories have directly and indirectly influenced Chinese political discourse by introducing concepts and approaches that do not rely solely on ossified Marxist-Leninist thinking.(7) The increasing reliance on and interpretation of non-Marxist-Leninist texts among young and middle-aged intellectuals and policy advisors deserves attention and critical reflection. It is conceivable that a post-Deng political elite may implicitly or explicitly rely on such thought to legitimize authoritarian rule. …

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