Chinese embrace change to stay in power

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Hyua-yu Li

Once upon a time a few months ago, the Hummer was the very symbol of American excess in car manufacture: the brand is now the property of a Chinese company. As of October, China was reported to have 130 billionaires, second in the world only to the United States.

Such developments are no longer even surprising. China is not only adapting to changing conditions but leading the pack in many areas, particularly business. The question for OSU political scientist Hua-yu Li is this: How is such adaptability possible in a political party rooted in Stalinism and still deeply ideological?

The answer, she will argue in her new book, is rooted in a redefining of socialism that began in 1978 under Deng Ziaoping.

“In place of ideological indoctrination, the party has increasingly emphasized professionalism, dedication to organizational goals, job efficiency, and career advancement in the training of party members,” said Li, a Center Research Fellow and author of Mao and the Economic Stalinization of China: 1948-1953 (2006).

Li’s book-in-progress focuses on the evolution of the party under a succession of leaders, beginning in 1941 with Mao Zedong and followed by Deng Ziaoping and those who succeeded him. Her two prime areas of interest are party building and the management of party members.

Several key questions are driving the study. What motivates a political party to change and adapt? How far can a ruling party go in changing its goals and still retain its identity and legitimacy? And, given its historical and ideological baggage, how has the Chinese Communist Party been able to justify the changes it has carried out, especially since the late 1970s?

In the early 1940s, Mao imposed a Stalinist ideology and a highly-centralized leadership structure aimed at creating a Bolshevik party that could vie for national power. Beginning in 1978, under Deng Ziaoping, the party abandoned some of its most damaging Stalinist ideals—including the political purge—and began the process of redefining socialism.

“Other major changes have occurred, since 1991 in response to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and since 2001 in response to the increasingly complex society that has emerged following the economic reforms,” said Li. As part of this ongoing adaptive process, in November 2007 the leaders redefined the country’s political system as a multi-party cooperation system under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.

“Emerging from the study are two major findings. First, that the Chinese Communist Party has shown a remarkable ability to adapt politically in order to survive, seize power, and then maintain its rule.

“And second, that the party has managed, under the leadership of Deng and later reform-minded leaders, to move away from the Stalinist roots, originally imposed by Mao, and institute pragmatic changes, often reinforced by traditional values, in pursuit of national development goals.”

While some China scholars predict that the nation will democratize because of its inherent democratic values and emerging middle class, Li does not intend to make predictions about the prospects for democracy in China.

Her focus is on long-term historical patterns of political evolution and change, sources of change, and the party’s capacity for change.

The party, like ruling parties in general, is striving to stay in power “but its drive to retain power is reinforced by the belief of its party elites that the party is entitled to rule because of the sacrifices it endured in achieving political power. . . The party has also turned to traditional Confucian ideas, such as the goal of creating a harmonious society.”

Recent opinion polls show that the party enjoys widespread support among the Chinese people. “In many ways, the fourth generation of party leaders is in tune with traditional values and the expectations of the people. Chinese tradition is presently on the side of the party, as it provides strong, benevolent central leadership as well as peace and prosperity—a set of conditions that has traditionally created dynastic legitimacy, stability, and longevity.

“Circumstances, however, can change suddenly and support can disappear quickly once the ‘mandate from heaven’ is lost. The party is trying to keep a grip on the divine mandate by carrying out the changes necessary to maintain popular support and stay in power.”