chapter  10
Fine- tuning legitimation, co- optation, and repression in the People’s Republic of China
Pages 23

The stability of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule is even more remarkable when one considers that many political scientists warned of the imminent collapse of China’s one-party authoritarianism. China seemed to fit the mold of many other authoritarian regimes that did not survive the “Third Wave” of democratization: market liberalization encourages GDP growth, which in turn is followed by political liberalization and, eventually, a country’s transition to democracy. After the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, totalitarian rule was replaced by an authoritarian regime that allowed gradual economic liberalization but severely restricted political participation.3 Student protests commenced in 1987, at the same time that semi-democratic elections were introduced at the village level. These developments were read as indicators of a “bottom-up” democratization of China.4 The early 1990s saw an increase in the number and intensity of protests by China’s rural population against over-taxation, which once more lead pundits to proclaim the “coming collapse of China.”5 However, skeptics were proven wrong. China was one of the few self-proclaimed socialist countries that survived the “extinction”6 of Leninist regimes when the Soviet Union collapsed. What has China done right that others seemingly did wrong? What explains the remarkable performance of China’s one-party authoritarian

regime? In line with the general theme of this book, the present chapter examines the development of the Chinese one-party regime from the vantage point of legitimizing narratives (normative legitimacy) and outputs (performance legitimacy), the co-optation of social forces by “opening up . . . career opportunities” and granting “other material and immaterial advantages,” and the repression of dissent. The analysis will focus mainly on the years after 1992. As will be seen, the popular uprising that escalated into the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 4 June 1989 represented a critical juncture for the Chinese regime elites, a crisis that allowed them to depart from previous practices. Decisions on the measures that the CCP should adopt were subject to an intense struggle within the Chinese leadership that took three years to resolve. Most of the reforms that make today’s China stable were initiated at that time and through these debated measures. Still, these developments will be analyzed against their historical context, since this allows us to identify both the cause and the momentousness of China’s political reforms. My argument goes as follows: the departure from totalitarian rule after the death of Mao Zedong manifested itself in the discontinuation of massive interference by Party and state institutions in the private lives of the Chinese people. The resulting power vacuum ensued from the transition to authoritarianism and created exactly those challenges to the regime that the reforms from 1992 onward sought to remedy. Totalitarian regimes seek to control individuals fully and are characterized by an extremely high degree of repression and ideological indoctrination. The Mao regime can best be characterized as a personalized totalitarian dictatorship. Mao increasingly isolated himself from erstwhile allies, and when the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, the country descended into near-anarchy. As a result, the degree of co-optation was low during these years. After Mao died, repression and indoctrination ceased to be the pillars upon which China’s one-party regime rested. Co-optation and performance legitimacy also remained low. The resulting power vacuum allowed the forming of social resistance against increasing corruption, rising inequality levels, and high inflation. This beginning social resistance culminated in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989. Although the protests were initiated by students, other population groups, most notably urban workers, soon joined the demonstrations. On 4 June 1989, the government violently cracked down on the demonstrations. It cleared the square with tanks, leaving an estimated 3,000 people dead. After the crackdown, the regime once more stepped up ideological indoctrination, co-opted important groups into the regime, but also sought to improve its performance legitimacy. Sparingly, the regime took preventative repressive measures to build up its formidable powers and to subvert social unrest. These measures have considerably increased the resilience of the Chinese one-party state.