Key features of mainland China’s autocratic political system.

The following three key insights can help address this conundrum /1

(1) We need to distinguish between ‘official’ & ‘unofficial’ China.

(2) The CCP relies on the United Front approach, which also explains the distinction between friends & enemies.

(3) To understand how brutal the regime is one needs to look at the CCP’s governing approach /2

The Chinese Communist Party likes to portray the relationship between the party / government / army (党政军) and the Chinese people like ‘fish and water, one cannot live without the other’.

Such a Maoist view of state-society relations deprives Chinese citizens of autonomy /3

But let’s briefly escape the Chinese Communist Party’s proverbial fishbowl /4

China’s political system is an amalgam of party, state and the military. The party is hardwired into all state organs and also controls the military. In Chinese we call this trinity 党政军 /5

Following China’s WTO accession in 2001 outside observes had great hopes that over time the party may disentangle itself from the state (党政分开) and society (政社分开). Many Chinese citizens had similar hopes for a more liberal, democratic and rule-bound polity /6

And sure enough, throughout the 1990s and early 2000s there were promising signs for a diversifying private sector in mainland China. Please note that the illustration below represents an ideal-type, not the real power balance between party-state and private sector /7

After the 1995 Women’s Conference a proto-civil society consisting of women’s groups, environmental NGOs, social enterprises etc emerged. Again, the illustration below represents an ideal-type, not the real power balance between party-state, private sector and civil society /8

In reality, however, the Chinese Communist Party did not allow the private sector to gain sufficient autonomy. Instead the CCP promoted its State-Owned Enterprises at the expense of SMEs. And China’s civil society was firmly coopted and incorporated into the party-state /9

So while mainland China had the potential to disentangle the Chinese Communist Party from both state and society, this didn’t come to pass. Instead the party increasingly stepped out of the shadows. This is why we need to have a realistic understanding of the CCP /10

Having a realistic understanding of the CCP does not mean to accept its totalitarian view of state & society. The relationship between the party and the Chinese people should not be seen as ‘fish and water’. Such unity between the rulers and the ruled does not exist /11

To understand the warped worldview of the Chinese Communist Party we need to briefly wear their shoes, not to walk in them, but to understand their position. To use a term from anthropology, we need to understand their emic perspective /12

The CCP heavily relies on its United Front approach. According to Van Slyke it “divides society in three strata (…) The first group is always the party itself, together with those willing to give enthusiastic support to its leadership in the achievement of this goal” /13

Van Slyke explains that “(the) middle group, numerically the largest, is made up of waverers – those ambivalent or unconcerned about the outcome, and who could go either way.” /14

“The third group is the enemy, who will strenuously and actively oppose the party’s efforts. Since the party and its supporters are a minority, goals and policies must be selected so as to limit of the size enemy and minimize the number of waverers siding with enemy” /15

The United Front approach explains why the Chinese Communist Party subscribes a friend-enemy distinction. Both Chinese and non-Chinese liberal-democrats who believe in the value of open societies hereby are seen as political enemies /16

An example of this friend-enemy distinction is a statement by Gui Congyou, China’s ambassador to Sweden. The Economist cites him as saying that “(we) treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies we have shotguns.” His militant political rhetoric should worry us all /17

The Chinese Communist Party’s governing approach consists of carrots and sticks. In the illustration below you can see the three ways how the CCP employs its ‘rule by bribery’ approach: patronage, co-optation, and by using money to pacify conflict-capable groups in China /18

Those who are unwilling to align themselves with the goals of the Chinese Communist Party get the stick. The personal file system (档案制度) induces self-censorship among Chinese citizens. Those who resist can end up in labour camps, re-education camps, or ‘black jails’ /19

Other ‘rule by fear’ instruments are strike hard campaigns, a constant emphasis on ‘rigid stability’, and the use of mafia elements and thugs to intimidate Chinese citizens. ‘Rule by fear’ and ‘rule by bribery’ can be applied simultaneously /20

I hope that this short thread will help laypersons understand the autocratic nature of mainland China’s political system a bit better. If you would like to learn more I’d recommend you to read a book. In the comment section feel free to highlight good learning resources! /End