Journal of International Affairs
Social Change and the Chinese Communist Party: Domestic Problems of Rule
By Peter Ferdinand
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.
This article will firstly outline some dimensions of the changes which have taken place in Chinese society, focusing on geographical and social mobility and the rise of social problems, including criminality. Secondly, the essay will examine the effects of these changes on the Party and address the question of how homogeneous the 55 million Party members, the related issue of Party discipline? Thirdly, the article will discuss the extent to which alternative styles of rule, for example, greater reliance upon the rule of law, are taking the place of the older styles of Party domination. Fourthly, it will discuss the relationship between the Party and the armed forces as adjuncts of Party rule, followed by the implications for Party rule in the future.
Geographical and Social Mobility
Before Mao Zedong's death, the People's Republic of China had been subject to occasional, if enormous, movements of population, above all during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. During both, young people and cadres had been urged or even forced to move closer to the grass roots of society by going into the countryside and taming wilderness areas, especially in the Western provinces. On occasion, millions had been relocated. So the People's Republic of China had certainly experienced substantial geographical movements of population before the 1978 reforms. Yet, these had always been under the control of the Party leadership. Even though large numbers of Party officials had been forced to take part against their will, the Party leadership initiated the policy and reimposed stability once political priorities changed. Millions of young people were left stranded in out-of-the-way regions once the Cultural Revolution ended, with no prospect of being able to return to their homes in urban areas of the East.
Some controls over the population were actually the product of national poverty. Because of the shortages of agricultural products, ration cards were issued for grain and cloth to registered residents of cities. Without a ration card, it was impossible to obtain sufficient food and clothing on a long-term basis. Money, even if available, was not able to purchase goods that were supplied according to administrative rather than economic, priorities. Thus people could not move away for long from their registered place of residence. When contemplating the increasingly complex social changes with which they have to deal now, some Party leaders have a nostalgia for those controls which they previously enjoyed.
Since 1978, however, the Party's economic reforms have weakened much of the administrators' control over social and economic changes. Having done so, it is incapable of reimposing stability, as it did before 1976, since a return to the days of ordering people around the country would undermine the spirit of the reforms. Weakened control by the Party also applies to geographical mobility. Large and increasing numbers of people have left the land for urban areas. According to figures based upon official registration of residence, the proportion of China's population living in urban areas has risen from 18 percent in 1978 to over 28 percent in 1993. In gross terms, this means that where seventeen and one quarter million people were living in urban areas in 1978, the equivalent figure in 1993 was 33 and one quarter million, nearly double the earlier figure. 1
In one sense this may suggest a greater degree of change than would be justified, for the official definition of an urban area in China has been expanded in the 1980s. Thus some people are now defined as living in an urban area where previously it was designated as a rural one.
In another sense, however, this understates the magnitude of the change, for it relies upon official registration figures for residence. One problem is that large numbers of additional transients are on the move, commonly referred to as the floating population. Neither the state nor anyone else knows what the true figure for transients is. Articles in the press routinely refer to 100-150 million people as being on the move at any one time. The overwhelming majority are to be found in urban areas, as a random visit to railway terminals in any major city would confirm. Actually, though, this term is used to describe people with a whole host of reasons for being away from their place of official residence: hunting for jobs, away on official business, visiting relatives, on holiday, etc. 2 It would not be reasonable, therefore, to assume that the total regular urban population of China is actually around 150 million.
Nevertheless, at a high-level conference on internal migration held in Xiamen in July 1995, the general secretary of the State Council, Luo Gan, estimated that 80 million Chinese are moving around the country in search of work, of whom only 44 million had registered with the police. 3 Academic estimates have suggested the figure for permanent urban residents may rise to 100-120 million by the year 2010. This in itself will be a major change for China, but it is important to stress here the impact upon official systems of control of the population of this increasing geographical mobility. One of the chief mechanisms for social control in urban areas was the street committee. Frequently these relied upon the voluntary labor of retired workers, often women. By organizing authority at a level where members of committees could know and regularly visit residents on their street, it ensured that personal persuasion could be added to official authority to ensure that residents complied with official policies. It was, for example, a key element in the effectiveness of the regime's one-child family policy in urban areas.
After 1978, the street committees have been facing increasing difficulties. They no longer enjoy automatic respect from everyone in their area. In addition, as housing costs rise, retired people may find that they have to do more to make ends meet, so they do not have so much time to give to street committee work. The increasing numbers of transient urban dwellers also make their task of keeping track of all their doings much more complicated. In addition, large numbers of new dwellings are being constructed to accommodate new urban dwellers, and in these new areas, it is more difficult to organize effective street committees.
A large part of this movement of population is intra-provincial, i.e., individuals moving from rural to urban areas within the same province. The problem is further compounded by the fact that there is increasing mobility between provinces. The cities on China's coast are facing a particular influx from inland provinces, with large numbers of predominantly young people attracted by the prospects of a better life off the land.
The newcomers often feel unfairly or unequally treated by the natives of the cities. They complain that the established residents look down on them and discriminate against them. 4 They find it more difficult to obtain work, except for the more menial tasks, and many turn to trading to make ends meet. Some estimates suggest that 60 percent of all streetmarkets in China are run by people from out of town. These foreigners from other provinces frequently congregate in the same areas, so as to provide mutual support and assistance, e.g., the town of dwellers from Zhejiang province which has sprung up on the outskirts of Beijing. They run their own affairs, and the Beijing Public Security Bureau largely relies upon them to keep order. Yet, these changes contribute to the sense held by China's political leadership of a society literally on the move, and no longer amenable to earlier systems of control.
In addition to geographical mobility, the economic reforms have also led to greater social change. In particular, this has affected generational mobility within families. It may not have yet reached anything like levels of mobility in Western societies, but for a society which was traditionally based upon family structure and the roles which each individual family member was expected to observe, even this change is felt to be of major significance. 5 In turn, this has affected traditional family structures. It is thought to have, for example, gradually weakened the authority of parents over children.
As a result of the loosening of more traditional forms of authority, China has begun suffering from an increasing crime wave. In general, it appears that the age of criminals is falling upon China, with more youngsters becoming involved in crime from an early age.
The recent crime wave includes theft and robbery, with some parts of China, e.g., Guangdong province, are increasingly suffering from this. What is particularly disturbing is that theft and robbery may be more prevalent in the more developed parts of the country, i.e. those in the East. find it more difficult to obtain work, except for thePeople have flocked to the cities in search of work, and since not all of them are successful, some have resorted to crime to make ends meet as they are not entitled to any social security benefit. One estimate in the early 1990s was that 80 percent of all criminal offences in Beijing were committed by migrants or vagrants. In general, 40 percent of crime throughout the country is carried out in urban areas, whilst still only under 30 per cent of the population live there. 6
In general, economic crimes are the fastest growing category of crimes in China. Over 600,000 between 1982 and 1992 economic crimes of all categories were brought before the courts. 7 Drug-related crimes are also growing rapidly. In 1983, the Public Security Bureau only arrested 10 people for this and seized only 5 grams of drugs for the whole country. By 1992 things had changed quite dramatically, with 28,292 arrests. In Yunnan alone (the key province for drug production and smuggling, accounting in recent years for up to 90 percent of the nation's drug seizures and arrests), the police seized 3,900 kilograms of heroin, which was more than the total for the whole country in 1991. Throughout the country in 1991, there were 14,800 registered drug addicts in China. By November 1992, the figure had risen to 25,000.
Another dimension to which some have drawn attention is the increase in activity by female criminals and gangs. It is claimed that they employ increasingly masculine tactics in robberies, although others point out that whilst the increase in female crime is worrying, it still represents a very small proportion of all the crimes reported in China. 8 On the other hand, there are reports of increasing numbers of crimes being committed against women. For example, the abduction, buying and selling of women, which had been banned after 1949, began to reappear in the 1970s and has become more prevalent recently as gangs have begun to take it up. Initially, it was limited to the more sparsely populated areas of Sichuan province where men outnumbered women, but it has now spread to many more provinces and has begun to affect women from urban areas as well, and even occasion foreigners. In 1991 to 1992, alone over 50,000 cases of buying or selling women or children were uncovered, with 44,000 women and children freed and over 75,000 people arrested.
Prostitution has also sharply increased. Between 1982 and 1992, over 860,000 people were arrested either for involvement in prostitution or committing indecent acts, and there have been estimates that this represents only a quarter of the total number involved. A consequence of this has been an increase in venereal disease. In 1964, the government announced that this had been wiped out, and in 1977 there were only three people registered as being infected with it throughout the whole of the country. By the end of June 1992 there were 700,000. Where it used to be most prevalent in coastal areas, now it is spreading inland.
By international standards, the levels of criminality in China are not especially startling, but for the leadership they appear more salient because of the sharp rise over recent years, and because most of them can remember times in the relatively recent past when crime was a much rarer phenomenon. This explains why delegates to the National People's Congress session in March 1995 were unusually critical over the report of work by the Ministry of Justice.
What worries the leadership of the Party more than this, however, is the increasing prevalence of corruption, particularly among its own officials. In the early 1980s, the top leadership of the Party warned against the dangers of corruption creeping into the Party's ranks, but their warnings appear to have had little effect.
Between 1979 and 1989, the courts investigated 174,004 cases of corruption and 57,846 cases of bribery of public officials. More worrying than the absolute figures was the fact that the number for 1989 represents a 96-fold increase over 1979. The figures have continued to grow. Between January 1993 and March 1995, 3.1 million allegations of corruption had been made by citizens to official discipline-inspection organizations. 9
The level of Party members officially admitted to be tainted by corruption has risen. In 1988 there were 188 cases of Party officials at the county level being accused of corruption, and in 1989, 875 cases; whilst in the latter year, there were six cases of allegations against Party officials the provincial level. In spring 1995, the anti-corruption movement reached the Party's highest levels with the removal of Chen Xitong, first secretary of the Beijing city apparatus and a member of the Politburo.
Effect of Social Changes on the Party
Of course the incidence of corruption is merely one manifestation of a more general phenomenon, namely the declining importance of ideology as not merely a common core of beliefs of members, but also a predictable guide to action. All Communist regimes have faced this difficulty as they have grown older and as the more obvious and immediate political tasks have been achieved. For China, this was delayed by the long period of Mao's leadership and his own particular obsession with ideology. Today, however, the Four Principles really represent the only guide to action which Party members are enjoined to follow. At the beginning of 1995, President Jiang Zemin tried both to update these principles and also renew their validity by urging Party members constantly to "keep in their hearts" the "strength and prosperity of the state" (guojia), the "rise of the nation" (minzu), and the happiness and well-being of the "people" (renmin). 10 This seems to be an unobjectionable but also not especially memorable clarification.
According to the Hong Kong press, the Party held a closed conference on ideological work in March 1995. There the Party secretary responsible for organizational work, Hu Jintao, reportedly presented a stark report on the identity crisis afflicting the party. The ideological uncertainty within the Party had, he said, been intensified by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The world communist movement no longer existed even in theory, and this meant that no communist development model could provide solutions to the problems of the modernization of China in the future.
According to him, there are still many Party members who reject the adoption of a capitalist model of development, and some still condemned the post-1978 reforms as revisionist. On the other hand, there are numerous reformers in the Party too. Some regard the changes as representing an alienation from socialism and even believe that this is a favourable precondition for economic modernization. Some adopt a Western, capitalist lifestyle and allow this to color their political views. Some Party meetings debate abstract principles of "bourgeois humanism." Others debate whether the Party has become a new ruling class and whether a "new social revolution" might be necessary. Some members doubt the validity of the Four Principles and only pay lip service to them. A few even go so far as to dispute the proletarian character of the Chinese Communist Party and talk of the need to revise the Party rules so as to reflect social changes. Not surprisingly, there seems to be widespread agreement that Party work in ideology and propaganda has become ineffective and could contribute little to the Party's cohesion. 11
One consequence of this increasing diversity of views within the Party is that some members are directing pressure for democratization towards the central leadership, even though the latter have openly rejected it in favour of a policy of stability at any cost. These changing attitudes can be observed at various levels.
At the level of primary Party organizations and villages, the impetus has come from the state's encouragement of competitive elections to village committees, which originated in the 1987 Organic Law of Villagers' Committees, and the Village Representative Assemblies (vras), established in 1990 to monitor the activities of the executive committees. The implementation of the Organic Law has been lengthy and uneven. However, there is evidence that at least in some villages the activities of the vras have not only led to monitoring the activities of the local party branch (although even this was not part of the original explicit intention of the reform), but also to challenging local economic policy. Even more strikingly, in some villages, this has led to greater democratic accountability of local Party cadres and genuine, open elections for Party secretaries at the township level. 12
Above the local level, the 1990s have seen instances of provincial assemblies' assertiveness in refusing to accept the nominations from the centre for the provincial governor. In 1993, this happened in Zhejiang and Guizhou, after the authorities there introduced competitive elections. Following this central leaders decided that multiple-candidate elections should not stopped, but problems over provincial appointments have continued. In 1994, the central leadership faced strong resistance over their proposals to remove Zhu Senlin as governor of Guangdon. 13
Perhaps most surprising of all, however, has been the increasing restlessness in the National People's Congress (npc). At its annual session in March 1995, a surprisingly large number of delegates voted against the nomination the governor of Shandong province as deputy prime minister. Although he still obtained a majority of the votes, he declined to accept the post because he clearly lacked overwhelming support.
At the same session, the deputy chairman of the Congress and a member of the Party's Politburo, Tian Jiyun, openly called for the npc to play a more active part in supervising the work of the government, and for the provincial assemblies to do the same at their level. Admittedly, he was then contradicted by his superior at the npc, Qiao Shi, as well as by President Jiang Zemin. Nevertheless, his proposal echoed those made by Gorbachev from 1987 onwards, as he searched for ways to increase pressure on Soviet government officials to reform. Even though Gorbachev's reforms did culminate in the collapse of communism in the ussr, and even though Chinese leaders are now extremely wary of doing anything which might lead to the same outcome in China, it is striking that Tian should still have proposed this.
The effect of these changes is that the central Party leadership is no longer capable of providing sole direction for reforms, or of ensuring unified, disciplined implementation of its decisions. The Party does necessarily, therefore, have to contemplate incorporating additional or alternative forms of rule.
Towards a Law-Based State?
One obvious alternative which receives increasing attention is to base government administration, and indeed the resolution of social conflict, more upon the operation of an abstract, more impersonal legal system, where Party authority is much less prominent, and where ideally the Party would have no special legal privileges. 14
This does, however, run into two major obstacles. The first is the lack of a developed legal tradition in China, such as is found in the West. The sense that law and justice go hand in hand tends to be absent in China. Law existed in imperial China, but its chief purpose was to impose order. If this was achieved, even lawmakers went about the task arbitrarily, then the basic purpose had been met. Equally, Maoist China was far from believing in impartial, procedure-based law as a vital mechanism in ensuring social stability. There was, and still is, a reluctance on the part of Chinese citizens to turn to the legal system to redress grievances, although individual dissidents have begun to do this even by pursuing lawsuits against the authorities, as dissidents in the Soviet Union began to do in the 1960s and 1970s. 15 Nevertheless, at the end of the 1980s, approximately 10,000 Chinese citizens per year were filing lawsuits against the government alleging violations of civil or property rights, and the figure continues to rise in the 1990s. 16
A second obstacle though is the physical legacy of the lack of a legal system and legal education prior to 1978. Formulating, writing and approving new laws take time, and so too does the training of new lawyers. Although the People's Republic of China has done a great deal since 1978 to develop the infrastructure for a modern legal system, it began from an extremely low level. In 1980 there were reportedly only 1,000 lawyers throughout the whole of China. By 1986 the figure had risen to 14,000 and in 1995 to 82,000. There are now 7,000 law firms more or less independent of the state. The state has estimated that the legal system needs 150,000 lawyers by the end of the decade, and yet only roughly 10,000 new lawyers are qualifying each year. 17 It seems difficult to see how the state can meet its own target for the numbers of practising lawyers, let alone how the legal system can cope with the pressures for an increasingly law-based regulation of society.
One consequence of this mismatch between the need for a developed legal system and the inadequate development of a legal substructure to support it, is the likelihood that the state will revert to Chinese tradition and concentrate upon the use of law to impose order. As a result, the Chinese state will continue to rely upon harsh punishments and sometimes arbitrary justice to temper the social turbulence outlined above.
At its most extreme, this will mean that the Chinese state will continue to employ the death penalty for a whole host of crimes. According to Amnesty International, at least 2,496 death sentences were passed by Chinese courts in 1994, and at least 1,791 people were executed usually on the same day although, because the Chinese state regards the actual number of executions as a state secret, Amnesty International suspects that the actual figure is much higher. 18
Reliance upon the People's Liberation Army
The increasing complexity of the tasks of running China can be observed in the relations between the Party and the People's Liberation Army (PLA).
On the one hand, a natural consequence of these social changes is the Party's perceived reliance upon the institutions of law and order, and especially those of order, to reinforce its control. In particular that means the PLA. The Party leadership's reliance upon the PLA was most obviously demonstrated in June 1989, and it was subsequently lauded by Deng Xiaoping, but the interdependence of interests goes far beyond that. Both the Party and military leadership place great value upon social order, greater value in fact than upon justice. Towards the end of the 1980s, there was an upsurge in interest in theories of "neo-authoritarianism" to rationalize this emphasis, 19 and the conditions for this have in some ways grown stronger in the 1990s. The PLA high command will again be vital for the political succession after Deng Xiaoping dies.
However, within that overall framework, there are also reports of clashes of interests between civilian and military officials, especially at the regional level. Apparently in at least five provinces, PLA units have taken over control of land and natural resources and have repulsed attempts by the civilian authorities to take them back. Some PLA officers have begun to operate like "robber barons." Others have come in for criticism, especially at the People's Congress in Guangdong, over their readiness to engage in smuggling using official vehicles. 20
The armed forces are now heavily engaged in commercial activities to supplement the official defence budget, as they have been for most of the 1980s. In part this means that the military leadership is more inclined to support macroeconomic market reforms out of self-interest. This is a major change from the 1970s when the PLA was also very close to the party leadership, but when its high command saw itself as the most resolute defender of Maoist economic principles.
In part, however, it also means that the military defence industries may attempt to remove themselves from control by civilian macroeconomic institutions so that they can pursue their own interests more directly and successfully. 21
Implications for Party Rule
This article has outlined some of the reasons why the need for stability is a recurring leitmotiv of the speeches of Chinese leaders in the 1990s. This is not merely a reaction against the political challenges of 1989, but also reflects the economic and social pressures upon them.
As mentioned earlier, there are voices close to the highest levels of the Party, that are trying to persuade the Party to embark upon a program of increasing democratization as a way of accommodating those pressures.
On the other hand, there are many who would like to use the authority and power of the party to impose order. Some might wish to do this out of general considerations for state security and continued Party authority. Others, however, do so because they benefit from the existing state of incomplete economic reforms.
Cadres can benefit from their semiprivileged positions to extract payments for "services" rendered. Now that business can operate much more freely than before, individual entrepreneurs are also more reluctant to press for further liberalization in case it antagonizes their "patrons." 22 There are only sporadic examples of entrepreneurs openly pushing for further reforms, as happened in Guangzhou when a group of about thirty of them held a demonstration against official corruption as the head of Hong Kong's Independent Commission Against Corruption was visiting the city. 23 Such incidents are rare.
China security analyst June Dreyer has persuasively suggested that China, at the end of the 1980s, was reminiscent of Samuel Huntington's "praetorian society," i.e., "a politicized society in which not just the military but other social forces, such as students, bureaucrats and the clergy, participate as well." It is a society which lacks effective political institutions, so various social forces use whatever resources are at their disposal other than regular political activity to pursue their goals and interests. A military dictatorship is thought possible, although this is not inevitable. 24 These characterizations continue to apply to China today.
In such a society the lack of adequate institutionalized opportunities for political self-expression can actually provoke political conflict rather than prevent it; though as long as the People's Republic of China manages to maintain annual economic growth of around 10.5 percent as it did in 1995, then the people's willingness to demand fundamental change will no doubt be muted.
Nevertheless, the conundrum is still the following: how to maintain high economic growth together with very limited social change and even less political reform. Six years since the Tiananmen events are not enough for a definitive judgement. Until the Chinese Communist Party appears to have come up with a long-term answer, people will continue to speculate on the Party's ability to do so.
Note 2: For a fuller discussion, see Li Debin, "The Characteristics of and Reasons For the Floating Population in Contemporary China," Social Sciences in China, Winter 1994, pp. 65-72. See also Dorothy J. Solinger, "China's Urban Transients in the Transition from Socialism and the Collapse of the Communist Urban Public Goods Regime," Comparative Politics, 27, no. 2, Jan. 1995, pp. 127-46. Back.
Note 4: For a series of reported complaints, see Li Qiang, "Guanyu chengshi nongmingongde qingzhu qingxiang ji shehui chongtu wenti (On Trends in the Mood of Urban Peasant Workers and the Problems of Clashes with Society)," Shehuixue Yanjiu 1995, 4, pp. 63-67. Back.
Note 9: Wang Tie, "Gongzhi Renyuande de Fubai Duzhi Yanjiu (Exploration of Corruption and Dereliction of Duty among Public Officials and Staff Workers)," Shehuixue Yanjiu, 1993, 3, p. 32; China aktuell, August 1995, p. 674. Back.
Note 12: Susan V. Lawrench, "Democracy, Chinese Style," The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, no. 32 (July 1994), pp. 61-68. For the activities of the village committees, see Kevin J. O'Brien, "Implementing Political Reform in China's Villages," The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, ibid., pp. 33-59. Back.
Note 14: See Minxin Pei, "Creeping Democratization in China," Journal of Democracy, 6, no. 4, Oct. 1995, pp. 68-70; Ronald C. Keith, China's Struggle for the Rule of Law (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1994). Back.