How the CPC Seizes Modernity

The functionality of the Communist Party of China (CPC) is far from outdated and directly drives China’s embrace of tomorrow

Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was known as the chief architect of China’s reform and opening-up drive, and his inspection tour of southern China in 1992 ushered in a new chapter of history characterized by “three sustainables”: sustainable economic development, sustainable social stability, and sustainable institutional support and leadership. Fundamentally, the “three sustainables” deftly balanced relationships among economic, social, and political entities. Enterprises represent economic entities, the people are the social entity, and the CPC is the political entity.

How exactly has the CPC promoted the modernity of China?

First, the CPC has been a mission-oriented political party.

The original aspiration and the mission of the Chinese Communists is finding ways to bring happiness to the Chinese people and rejuvenation to the Chinese nation. The purpose of its governance has always been to fulfill this mission. This is why you hear so much emphasis from the CPC on “staying true to our original aspiration.”

Some say that political parties in other countries always follow “public opinion.” It seems to be the case on the surface, but reality needs deeper discussion. Which is more effective, a political party that always follows the whims of contemporary public opinion or one that sticks to long-term plans? A political party should represent the informed public opinion of the majority, rather than being led by the public opinion narrative created by a minority. Former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once opined that policies in the long-term interest of the country must move forward despite some opposition from a minority. The ruling party has to take action. This is what makes a good political party. If a political party acts without regard for public opinion, it ceases to represent the people. If it always follows public opinion, the party is tailing the people like a fan. Neither will work. The CPC has done very well in this regard and stayed mission-oriented. Of course, this mission has to remain a mission endorsed by the people rather than one endorsed by a certain individual or a certain group.

Today, the CPC utilizes many mechanisms to stay mission-oriented like five-year plans, tenyear plans, “three-step” economic development strategies (moderately prosperous society in all respects by 2020, modern socialist country by 2035, and strong, democratic and prosperous country by 2050). China makes and follows long-term plans. This year marks the centenary of the founding of the CPC as the party is proudly leading the country towards the second centenary goal of building China into a prosperous, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious, modern socialist country. Consider the long-term plans of political parties around the world and see which is looking furthest ahead. The CPC is unique in this regard.

Second, the CPC is an open political party.

An open political party is an inclusive political party. I describe the Western institution as external pluralism. If you don’t like a political party, you can join other political parties, or create another political party. The number of political parties could increase infinitely. This kind of external pluralism, though open, may result in many problems—for example, a lack of political entities. I would describe the Chinese institution as internal pluralism. All different socioeconomic interests can be incorporated into such an open system as the Communist Party, which can solve problems through internal consultation. That has indeed been an effective way for China to solve problems of economic and social disparity.

Even more important, a feature of this Chinese internal openness is “political meritocracy,” meaning that any person of outstanding ability and merit can participate in this system and solve problems within the system. I think this feature is related to the historical openness of Chinese civilization. Chinese secular civilization has tended towards inclusive while Western religious civilization has been more exclusive. The political power of the CPC is inclusive and collective in nature and can be expanded within the scope of “intra-Party democracy.” Openness and inclusiveness are the main features of the CPC’s political power. I personally believe that “an open one-party system” is theoretically far more efficient than a multi-party system.

The CPC Central Committee talks about the concept of “a political ruling group,” which I think is very important. The CPC is currently the ruling class, the equivalent of the Confucian elite group in the traditional society. Of course, it is not a simple clone, but a ruling group with modernity—a political ruling group with openness. From a historical perspective, the effectiveness of the political ruling group has depended on its ability to accommodate talent “regardless of origin or background.”

Third, the CPC cherishes participation.

We need to first define “participation,” because at present political participation is essentially the same as election participation in public discourse. Much of the American political left wing argues that participation in presidential elections hardly matters compared to participation in policy-making at any level affecting people directly—that policy participation is more important. When we talk about economic democracy, factory affairs democracy, and things like that, we have to be clear about methods of political participation. Election participation may not be the most effective way to enact the will of the people. In the 1990s, Taiwan’s per capita GDP was similar to that of Singapore. What is it like now? In Singapore, per capita GDP has reached US$60,000 while in Taiwan, the figure has fallen to US$26,000.

In China, the people’s participation in policy-making is very important. There is a big difference between policy participation and political participation, and I think policy participation is even more important than political participation. For ordinary people, it is difficult to judge whether a political figure is good or bad for their interests because of so many irrelevant factors that have nothing to do with policy participation. China’s policy participation could be described as participation on a daily basis. China’s most recent major decisions have been more complicated than those in the West. For example, how many years did it take for the Civil Code to be enacted last year? And how many years did it take for the Property Law to be enacted earlier?

During a recent visit to Zhejiang Province, I realized that the application of social media and big data has created new avenues for the public to get involved in policy participation, which is very interesting. I learned the term “digital management for a matrix of urban communities” from local authorities. While in Singapore, I didn’t  know much about such management. Westerners see the method as control over society, which is not accurate. What we’re actually talking about is a platform: a platform for the government to interact with the people and a platform for community-level self-governance capable of providing targeted services. A few years ago, I read an article in The Economist, which argued precisely that since the CPC is the only ruling party in the country, it attaches far more importance to public opinion than ruling parties in any “democratic” countries. There is a lot of truth to this logic, and the author presented sober deliberation.

Villagers vote to appraise the performance of village Party members in Xunling Village, Fujian Province, on June 3, 2018. (ZHANG GUOJUN)

Fourth, the CPC is a political party of learning.

This is important because only learning facilitates progress. I truly believe that the CPC has become an optimal learning political party since reform and opening-up. We have to be clear on this: Mutual learning is not about copying and seeking to become each other, but a means for each to become better. That is the ultimate purpose of learning. Deng Xiaoping was against bourgeois liberalization since the beginning of reform and openingup in China, but he was a staunch advocate of learning from the West, including the United States and Europe. In the 1980s, China learned a lot from Eastern European countries and Japan. It also learned from small countries such as Singapore.

The CPC has been learning, but it has never indiscriminately copied anything from any other country. It has always studied other countries’ successful experience and best practices and sought to apply them to the realities of China.

Fifth, the CPC is a self-reforming political party.

Earlier, I talked about the openness of the CPC and described it as a political party built specifically for openness. But what happens within the Party? In recent years, the CPC has stood by the idea of “staying confident in the path, theory, system, and culture of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” I think staying confident in Chinese culture is most important. The CPC also introduced the idea of “the fourpronged comprehensive strategy (comprehensive moves to finish building a moderately prosperous society in all respects such as deepening reform, advancing lawbased governance, and strengthening Party self-governance).” I think strengthening Party self-governance is most important. So, to fully understand the current situation and future of China, one must focus on both “being confident in Chinese culture” and “strengthening Party self-governance.”

Why is that necessary? Based on a transformation of the Chinese civilization and tradition, a Chinese system characterized by intra-Party “division of labor and cooperation” has formed. We have extensively studied Western political literature on separation of power between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. There are also “three branches” in the Chinese system: decision making, implementation, and supervision. This system can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). The Western system is the separation of power in realms while the Chinese system is separation of power over a timeline: decision making, followed by implementation, and then supervision. This is what Max Weber defined as the process of rationalization in his Theory of Bureaucracy. The Chinese system of “division of labor and cooperation” was disintegrated in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Dr. Sun Yat-sen tried to add two branches of traditional Chinese power, examination and supervision, to the three branches of the Western system to form a Chinese system of government with five branches (“Five- Power Constitution”). He had intended to combine the two systems in theory. But in practice, it has to be either the Chinese system or the Western system. The Chinese Communists have been exploring this balance.

After the 18th CPC National Congress, China began experimenting with the power of supervision in Zhejiang, Shanxi, and Beijing. After the 19th CPC National Congress, the Chinese separation of power was officially put in place. It has evolved into a system featuring internal “division of labor and cooperation,” which rather than a return to tradition, represents a creative transformation. This Chinese system of internal “division of labor and cooperation” should not be underestimated. Now is the time to study the system further. This system emerged during the process of the CPC’s innovation and reform.

Studying the relationship between the modernity of the CPC and the modernity of the Chinese state requires a close look at the three political entities—the Party, the people and enterprises—and the relationships among them. Key to studying these relationships is consideration of three Chinese traditions: “long-term tradition” of thousands of years, “medium-term tradition” of modern times, and “short-term tradition” since reform and opening-up. With these traditions in mind, one can reflect on handling the relationships between the three entities, which will lead to a good understanding of the history of the CPC as well as the whole world.

(Excerpts from a thematic presentation titled “The Communist Party of China and the Modernity of China” by Professor Zheng Yongnian at Shanghai Jiaotong University on April 7, 2021.)

By Zheng Yongnian

About the author Zheng Yongnian is a renowned scholar and former director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore.  

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