LUCI/LUCC Seminar Series II

China's Political System: Responding to Giant Crises

The Lancaster University Confucius Institute and China Centre invited Prof. Wang Zhengxu of Fudan University to present a talk on his research into China (PRC)’s political system and how it responds to significant crises (such as the COVID-19 outbreak). The presentation was chaired by Lancaster University’s Prof. Jinghan Zeng of the Confucius Institute.

Prof. Zhengxu introduced himself and his interest in studying the political systems of China and Western nations. In his view, too much focus is afforded to what he classed as the operational elements of a political system—the elections, political parties, etc.—despite these being insufficient to understand such a system. He felt that it was important to look at the ideational level—that is, the norms, values and beliefs espoused by the system (it’s legitimisation), its rules and its political theories.

Discussing liberal democracies, Prof. Zhengxu said that they were legitimised by democracy as an idea or value, and operated according tot he rules of civil rights and liberties, accountability, limited government, etc. The elections, parliaments, courts, free media, etc. were just the operational institutions within this ideational framework.

He then contrasted these with non-liberal-democratic rules, which he stated were not talked about or emphasised in liberal democratic political systems. These included state capacity and the unity of the political community, moral strength of officials and organised hierarchy, amongst others.

With this in mind, he then elaborated on what he felt was the ideational component of the Chinese socialist people’s republic political system. This system, he argued, based on socialist ideals of unity, common welfare and strong state, also incorporated strong democratic ideals such as people’s sovereignty (known as minbenism, based on the Confucian idea that government exists to guarantee the welfare of its citizens), the meritocratic commoner’s road to leadership positions and social responsibilities and the republican ideals of inclusiveness, communitarianism and, most gallingly for a country currently engaged in multiple campaigns of genocide against its own ethic minorities, ethnical harmony/integration.

Prof. Zhengxu said that when Western observers claim that China is undemocratic because it does not have elections, they are falling into the trap of not seeing the ideational wood for the operational trees. According to him, the members of China’s government are of the people, which he feels is a very democratic ideal.

Due to earlier technical difficulties we skipped through the next few slides, which detailed the operational institutions of the Chinese government such as the Chinese Communist Party, the line/bloc dual governance design and the structure of local government in China. However, one slide did describe China’s Party-led constitutionalism as a people’s democratic dictatorship, and the alarming thing is that I think that was supposed to be a positive thing.

Regarding local government in China, Prof. Zhengxu described the system of top-, provincial-, prefectural/municipal-, county-, township/street- and primary-level government as providing a comprehensive local government system, in which lower-level government is free to innovate and adapt whilst also hav[ing] the upper-level government/party to fall back upon (though this came with the caveat that when directives come from the upper-level government, you need to respond). The system is the polar opposite of the democratic confederalism (i.e., radically local and bottom-up) model being pioneered in many areas of Kurdistan, as is my opinion of it.

With China’s political system thus explained, Prof. Zhengxu then moved onto how this system was able to respond to giant crises—everything from the COVID-19 outbreak to hosting the 2008 Olympics and constructing the Three Gorges Dam. Whilst these crises emerge locally, in the event that they threaten to escalate the upper-level (Party-led) government will step in and can mobilise and commit significantly more resources.

As part of this Party response, at least one State/National Leader will be onsite whilst the President/Party Secretary leads. Forceful measures such as the involvement of the armed forces or the rapid construction of hospitals can be deployed, and social forces may join the efforts (under the state/Party leadership which, Prof. Zhengxu noted, included management of information/media).

Prof. Zhengxu demonstrated this hands-on system with photos of the 1998 floods, which left around 4,000 dead and 15m homeless. The photos showed the President and Party Secretary (so, presumably, Jiang Zemin) attending to flood defences alongside the armed forces and delivering a speech to rescuers. He was, Prof. Zhengxu noted, over 1,000 miles away from Beijing, which he contrasted rather bizarrely with George Bush, who might see the scene from out of his helicopter window but wouldn’t be on-scene himself. Considering his non-attendance after Hurricane Katrina was roundly criticised and cited as having largely ruined his political career, I don’t think Bush’s actions are particularly representative. It also seems like an observation that can only come from the perspective of someone who is used to technocratic governance—despite the power of the position, the US President (or UK Prime Minister, or Queen, or whatever) is almost sure to be utterly useless in such a crisis; that’s what the civil service is for.

Prof. Zhengxu concluded by elaborating on the Chinese government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic’s emergence in mid-Decemeber, 2019. By mid-Jan 2020, the Central Leadership had taken over and replaced the local leadership, committed vast financial resources to the effort, locked down the area and closed off the city of Wuhan. They built additional hospitals rapidly (including the Fangcang shelter hosptials, which Prof. Zhengxu identified as vital to turning the tide of the pandemic early on), and apparently compensated those whose businesses had been forced to close.

There then followed a Q&A.

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