In his 1950 memoir, Peking Diary: A Year of Revolution, American sinologist Derk Bodde issued a warning to U.S. policymakers. He had just returned from Beijing, where the People’s Liberation Army had marched into the city and easily toppled the ruling Guomindang (Nationalist) government. The lack of popular opposition to the coup was hardly surprising. Constant blackouts, runaway inflation, and rampant corruption had made even ideological opponents of communism eager for the arrival of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, or simply “the party”). It would be a mistake, Bodde cautioned, to assume the Chinese people felt “enslaved” by an illegitimate regime. It was the CCP, not the Guomindang, that was responding to the needs of the people.
Seventy years later, the West still hasn’t learned Bodde’s lesson. Fortunately, Bruce J. Dickson’s The Party and the People offers a needed corrective to the American misconception that the CCP lacks popular support. Hardly some inflexible, iron-fisted regime that governs through fear and repression, the CCP is fairly responsive to the Chinese people and the changing times. As Dickson points out, the party’s adaptability is precisely what has enabled it to maintain its grip on power for over seven decades.
Books written for “China novices,” or readers with little background on the country’s history and culture, tend to overemphasize China’s ancient past as a way of understanding its present. Thankfully, that’s not the case here. Dickson mostly limits his analysis to the post-Mao era (1976 to the present), with each of his book’s eight chapters answering one specific question. Dickson has beginners in mind, but even veteran China watchers will learn something, too.
The first three chapters (“What Keeps the Party in Power?,” “How Are Leaders Chosen?,” and “How Are Policies Made?”) examine the CCP’s inner workings. One important element is the party’s Leninist structure. “If Marx provided the ideology of communism, Lenin provided the organization,” Dickson writes. Under a Leninist party state, the government is indistinguishable from the party; every government position has a corresponding party post, making it easy for the party to enact its policies into law. Also integral to a Leninist party state are the workplace and neighborhood party cells. They directly intervene in people’s daily lives by providing ideological education and enforcing assent to the party line. This Leninist structure—and the party’s complete dominance of politics and society—practically guarantees that the CCP and its policies will always remain in control.
But, Dickson shows, the CCP has also created a promotional structure for its members that encourages attentiveness to the people’s demands. In many authoritarian governments, political promotion is based solely on personal connections. In China, merit plays more of a role. Connections are certainly important, but local party officials have an even stronger incentive to achieve the party’s twin goals of economic development and “social stability.” To keep their posts, they must keep the people satisfied.
But how can a Leninist party even know what the people’s needs are? Dickson attempts an answer in the book’s next three chapters (“Does China Have a Civil Society?,” “Do Political Protests Threaten Political Stability?,” and “Why Does the Party Fear Religion?”). As Dickson demonstrates, the provision of some space for civil society and political protests is essential for the party’s success. Both inform local and central party officials of the people’s demands so that they can adapt policies accordingly. But, as Dickson cautions, civil society and political protests are only permitted to exist within a party-defined space. The party harshly suppresses any unsanctioned organizing activity.
Unfortunately for the Chinese people, the contours of that space are constantly shifting. The 2015 detention of five female activists who planned to protest sexual harassment on public transportation is a case in point. The CCP has long called for women’s equality, noting that they “hold up half the sky.” But without even realizing it, these five activists had crossed a line. The CCP saw their effective social media campaign, increasing popularity, and coordinated action in a number of major cities as a threat to its rule. Each was arrested on the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles,” a crime under China’s criminal law that has been used almost exclusively to silence peaceful protestors. The five feminists were eventually released on bail, but they remain under constant surveillance and are not allowed to leave China.
Religion also plays an important role in local party officials’ success, but only according to the party’s strict limitations. While the CCP remains inherently suspicious of religions, especially those with foreign ties and allegiances like Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam, local officials know that religious groups often provide social services that the local government can’t deliver, such as orphanages, hospitals, and homes for the disabled.
For many religious organizations, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed approximately 69,000 people, marked a turning point. The Chinese government responded feebly, but local Christian churches, like the Early Rain Covenant Church in nearby Chengdu, mobilized their congregations. Their members at first tended the injured and set up food pantries, then eventually established a permanent homeless shelter, daycare center, and financial-assistance program for families of political prisoners. But those charitable initiatives became suspect under China’s current president, Xi Jinping. In a secret trial held in 2019 Wang Yi, Early Rain’s pastor, was convicted of subverting state power and running an illegal business. He is now serving a nine-year prison term.
Most China watchers coming of age between 1989 and 2008 held a prevailing view known as the “modernization theory of democracy.” The idea was that China’s economic development would inevitably lead it to embrace a more open political system. That was one reason the United States supported China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. American politicians assumed that democracy would follow economic liberalization as a matter of course, as remarks made in 2000 by President Bill Clinton make clear:
China is not simply agreeing to import more of our products. It is agreeing to import one of democracy’s most cherished values, economic freedom…. When individuals have the power not just to dream, but to realize their dreams, they will demand a greater say.
But as Dickson points out, even in 2001 it was foolhardy to think that economic development would usher in greater political reform. Well aware of the implications of the modernization theory, Deng Xiaoping initiated his economic reforms in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest in a bid to prevent further calls for democracy. Fast forward to 2021 and the CCP has outlasted the modernization theory: political change has progressed incrementally compared to its robust economic development. Under Xi Jinping, it has actually regressed. But as Dickson notes in his final chapter, “Will China Become Democratic?”, the CCP does have a significant weak spot. Since its legitimacy depends on rising incomes, any slowdown in the Chinese economy could result in renewed calls for political change.
Dickson’s otherwise excellent book is slightly marred by one omission, which falls in his penultimate chapter, “How Nationalistic Is China?” Here Dickson examines how the CCP has used nationalism to enhance its legitimacy. (It introduced mandatory “patriotic education” in Chinese schools after the 1989 Tiananmen protests.) Dickson spends time tracking and analyzing the varying levels of nationalism among different Chinese generations, but he fails to examine an arguably more important issue: the devastating effect that China’s rabid nationalism has on China’s minorities and its neighbors. China is a multi-ethnic country that includes large populations of Uyghurs, Tibetans, and other ethnic groups. But its nationalism privileges the identity of the Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group in China. To what extent has this Han-focused nationalism made it easier for the party to intern over 1 million Uyghurs, or commit countless human rights abuses in Tibetan areas? These would have been good questions to explore.
Like any good China watcher, Dickson declines to prognosticate about the future of the CCP. But he shows that many of the factors that have kept the CCP in power—improved economic conditions, limited protests and civil society, the people’s belief that the country has become more “democratic”—still exist. For Dickson, Xi Jinping ultimately constitutes the wild card. Since taking office in 2013, Xi has instituted reforms that potentially limit the party’s legitimacy in the eyes of the people. He has consolidated power, eliminating the collective leadership established after Mao’s death to avoid the dangers implicit in a one-man rule. He has increased repression of civil society, protests, and religion, reducing the party’s responsiveness to the people. Most importantly, he has eliminated term limits and has failed to anoint an eventual successor. China has outlasted most other authoritarian dictatorships largely because of its peaceful transitions of power, a tradition Xi has upended with a potentially indefinite rule. Could he initiate the CCP’s demise? For anyone interested in this question and the future of China, The Power and the People is a good place to start.
The Party and the People
Chinese Politics in the 21st Century
Princeton University Press
$29.95 | 328 pp.