Just some quick reflections here about the above article – mainly to get this blog going again.
(1) China’s Communist Party has tried many tools of “social control” – this may be a loaded term in many’s eyes – the most famous of examples being the hukou system, a household registration system that controls where you can live, the danwei system which assigned social welfare benefits and limited occupational mobility – Andrew Walder’s significant piece on organized dependency written in 1983 sheds much more light on this. They’ve developed the new shequ (community) system which aims to restore some of the functions the danwei had in urban management. For a quick introduction, I’ve put a link to an excerpt of David Bray’s book here.
Where the surprise may perhaps come from is that given the overarching narrative of how, given the move towards market reform, isn’t China supposed to move towards more democratization, just like the West? Given liberal reform, many would think that democratic “consciousness” would develop and China would slowly move towards democratization. Many scholars – Kellee Tsai and Jie Chen just to name a couple – have explained why this myth has not succeeded – close political ties of the middle class to the state, repressive capabilities of the Chinese party-state etc.
But that isn’t to deny that Chinese society is becoming more pluralistic in its demands. We’ve seen that with decentralization, more and more formal and informal groups – religion, clans, ethnic – have started to emerge at the lower levels.
(2) Xi Jinping has been trying to centralize party control, moving away from efforts of decentralization associated with the market reforms of 1978. The People’s Daily even goes as far as to suggest that the Party should “closely unite around the CPC Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core.” It is in this vein that we should view his huge drive against corruption – to ensure more power remains in the center.
(3) Western scholarship tends to highly value the democratization benefits that are associated with the development of the Internet. I’m not denying that this value doesn’t exists. We’ve seen how with the development of the Internet, the Chinese state media has been forced to more open with their reporting of the news. But when the state still holds significant control over it and censorship powers, that effect is limited.
My whole point is that, given all that, should any of this be REALLY that surprising? Again, that might seem like a loaded question. My aim isn’t to place a value judgment on the actions of the party-state either.
If anything, the only “surprise” or rather, interesting development, is how the CCP has moved to adopt technology to assist (some might prefer a more ‘loaded’ word here) governance. For instance, the CCP has sought the assistance of the private IT sector to develop big data apps to help assess the performance of its lower-level cadres. But state adoption of technology, albeit different in stated purpose, is also common in Singapore and South Korea, fellow Asian states. What would be interesting is how and whether this new “method” of governance will “work”. My whole point is that the notion of social management with the potential of social benefits and status, is nothing new in Chinese society, nor is it surprising given recent political developments in China.
Here, I quote my friend Kieran – the challenge for the CCP, then, given all of the above, is to increase transparency and trust in CCP institutions. (On a side note, his article on the use of China’s civilian economy in cyber auxiliary deserves a read.)
Part of the solution that the CCP has adopted is the co-option, implicitly or otherwise, of potential challengers and others into the system, giving them a stake in its management and survival. We need to look no further than the introduction of “red capitalists” in Jiang Zemin’s Three Represents Theory of 2002 as the continued Chinese model of governance. And until an “opposing force” gains significant mass to challenge the state authority, one can continue to assume this will be one of the main ways the Chinese party-state will continue to roll with – incorporating technology into its governance, bringing different parts of society into its fray to maintain its one fundamental truth – that the CCP should and will remain as the only political force in China.