A More Targeted Repression

Boston Review, July/August 2011

–By Ying Ma

This article is part of China’s Other Revolution, a Boston Review forum on political and social change in China. Ying Ma responds here to a lead article written by Edward S. Steinfeld, a professor of political economy at MIT.

Over the past three decades, China’s rulers have relinquished a vast amount of political authority in order to pursue breakneck economic development. Unlike Maoist totalitarianism modern Chinese authoritarianism does not demand total submission from its subjects. It has innovated, gained in sophistication, and gathered more diverse tools for repression. Edward Steinfeld overlooks this essence of Chinese authoritarianism as he forecasts its end, and he mistakes its willingness to adapt for its potential for demise.

Conventional wisdom holds that political liberalization in China has lagged behind economic reforms. Steinfeld disputes this claim and contends that numerous shifts underway in China—including the changing composition of the ruling elite, the pluralization of society and politics, and the dynamism of the economy—contain the ingredients for the country’s transition out of authoritarian rule.

Of the political shifts he describes, Steinfeld finds bottom-up changes spurred by economic modernization most impressive. As China’s command economy comes crumbling down, Chinese citizens have increasingly shaken off the state’s control of their most basic daily activities, such as finding a job, choosing a place to live, deciding what to wear or with whom to be friends. These types of changes, Steinfeld declares, are not purely economic, but also “strike at the heart of the relationship between citizen and state.”

In reality the political dimensions of China’s vast transformations, revolutionary though they may be, do not flourish unhindered, but are obsessively managed and, if necessary, suppressed by the regime. In this effort the regime does not need to fear every personal opinion uttered or every personal choice made, but wields its repression in a much more targeted fashion. Instead of all-out suppression at all times, it bribes protestors in addition to crushing them; uses propaganda and fans nationalism rather than banning all forms of offensive speech; responds to public outcries on the Internet even as it tirelessly censors online political content; emphasizes its seriousness about rooting out corruption even though it has refused to grant the judiciary the independence to help; and nurtures and promotes skilled technocrats even as it rejects free and fair elections.

Amid the bottom-up changes Steinfeld describes, the state has continually enforced and refined its repression and even improved its governance in its quest to maintain control. As political scientist Andrew Nathan has written, the regime “is willing to change in any way that helps it to stay in power,” but it will not “relax the ban on autonomous political forces” that threaten its rule.

State control exists not just in the political realm but also in the freewheeling business and economic realms where Steinfeld identifies signs of political liberalization. He marvels at the pace with which China’s economy has seen the replacement of ailing state-owned enterprises by private companies, foreign firms, and modernized state conglomerates. He is even more amazed by the export sector, which, once negligible, now boasts suppliers that serve brand names such as Apple, HP, and Dell.

Yet increased competitiveness in China’s export sector, or in the economy as a whole, does not signal the potential for political change. As China’s rulers eagerly incorporate new knowledge and expertise from the West to promote technological and economic progress, they have been just as eager to thwart the potential for democratic change.

Examples abound. Though the government has embraced the Internet as a vehicle for economic modernization and technological advancement, it has deployed sophisticated censorship technology and a vast army of online police to stem the Internet’s democratizing effects. Individuals seeking to spread democracy on the Web have been arrested, and Internet companies dutifully delete, filter, and censor sensitive content on their sites.

The government has similarly invested heavily in modernizing its financial sector, but the cash-rich Chinese financial system functions as a tool of Communist Party rule. In their book Red Capitalism, Carl Walter and Fraser J.T. Howie point out that state banks may enjoy billion-dollar public listings overseas, but they continue to lend at low interest rates, as directed by the state, to companies owned or favored by the government. Small and medium-sized private enterprises that could garner higher returns face far more trouble securing capital. Meanwhile, as Richard McGregor has chronicled in The Party, China’s publicly listed state-owned companies continue to operate under management selected by the Party on the basis of political criteria.

In this light the changing composition of China’s governing elite looks less like a threat to the ruling regime, as Steinfeld claims, and more like another effort to incorporate new knowledge, new energy, and new ideas to boost the regime’s strength. Steinfeld should not be so excited that the Communist Party officially welcomed private entrepreneurs—once banned and denounced as “capitalist roaders”—into its membership in 2001. Nor ought he overstate the political ramifications of the return of hundreds of thousands of Chinese who had studied and worked at elite Western institutions and now populate senior positions in government.

As political scientist Minxin Pei has argued, by doling out everything from Party membership to senior government positions to financial perks, the state has rendered moot the political threat from potential opposition groups, including intellectuals and the rising middle class. Many of the capitalist roaders co-opted by the Party echo the government’s refrain that China is not ready for democracy. Many other members of the new governing elite—including those who advocate a less corrupt, more responsive government—also do not appear convinced that democracy is the right political model for China.

These complex realities indicate that China’s path to political liberalization will not be straightforward and is not preordained. History and recent events in the Middle East offer a powerful reminder that even long-standing and seemingly stable authoritarian regimes are not immune to popular pressures for political accountability. Even so, Steinfeld’s analysis of Chinese authoritarianism belittles its strengths, ignores the nuances of its repression, and oversimplifies the conditions that might lead to its downfall.

Reprinted with permission from Boston Review.

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