Social change and the Chinese Communist Party: domestic problems of rule.

Author:Ferdinand, Peter
Position:Contemporary China: The Consequences of Change

The Chinese Communist Party has become in many ways the victim of its own economic success since 1978. The introduction of market reforms has thrown Chinese society into increasing turmoil. Moreover, the speed of development has exacerbated the problem, as the economic reforms launched by the leadership continue to undermine many of the former principles and methods Communist party rule.

Contrarily, society has become freer in terms of daily life for large numbers of people. Citizens can change jobs and move from one part of China to another with a freedom which was unimaginable twenty years ago. Personal relationships too have become freer as reflected in the increasing statistics on divorce and in the limited success of the regime in enforcing its birth-control policy on the other. This is evident by the fact that Chinese population passed the 1.2 billion mark in early 1995, five years earlier than the date of 2000 which the government had laid down in the early 1980s.

From the perspective of its rulers, China has become a more complex country to rule. The Chinese Communist Party has confronted a paradox. As the success of economic reforms have grown, the problems of rule have multiplied and the power of government has declined. In part this stems from the increasing powers of provincial and local governments to retain local resources so as to develop their regional interests. In part, however, it also stems from the increasing complexity and interconnectedness of economic, social and political reforms.

Before 1978, the Party maintained a monopoly of wisdom and willpower in running the country Official ideology outlined the future direction of society's development and served as the basis for administration. As imposed by the leadership, ideology could be relied upon to provide basic answers to the dilemmas of decision-makers. As long as Party and state officials were kept in line through periodic rectification campaigns, state bureaucracy could be kept relatively small.

Since 1978, however, official ideology has become increasingly irrelevant as a source for the future direction of society. The leadership of the Party has no clear vision of the shape of the long-term future for the regime, apart from arguing that it will be based upon the Four Principles laid down by Deng Xiaoping, i.e., the socialist road, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the leading role of the Communist party, and Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong thought. Since 1989, they have discouraged and prevented others from utilizing ideology, at least in public. Former Party general secretary Zhao Ziyang once described the process of rule through Party ideology as analogous to that of using stepping stones to cross a river, one step at a time, but it is never clear in China what one will find on the other bank.

As a result, Party and state officials have been cast adrift as far as day-to-day policy making is concerned. Increasingly, individuals count and more depends upon their discretion. The state paradoxically finds that it needs more bureaucrats to cope with this increasing complexity, which in itself only spirals into further intensified complexities. On the other hand, the Party is also committed to reducing their numbers for reasons of economy. So the state apparatus goes through regularly alternating cycles of growth and cuts, which disrupt the smooth running of the administration. In addition, diverging interests between institutions of government have become more salient and the issues of social and economic policy making more divisive.

Social change has widened the gaps between the numerous interests and within the Party. Even before the events of 1989, commentators both inside and outside the People's Republic of China raised the question about the compatibility of rapid economic reform and political immobility. What has received less comment has been social change as an intermediate variable, intensifying the pressure on the Party to adapt.

This article will firstly outline some dimensions of the changes which have taken place in Chinese society, focusing on geographical and social mobility and the rise of social problems, including criminality. Secondly, the essay will examine the effects of these changes on the Party and address the question of how homogeneous the 55 million Party members, the related issue of Partly discipline? Thirdly, the article will discuss the extent to which alternative styles of rule, for example, greater reliance upon the rule of law, are taking the place of the older styles of Party domination. Fourthly, it will discuss the relationship between the Party and the armed forces as adjuncts of Party rule, followed by the implications for Party rule in the future.

Geographical and Social Mobility

Before Mao Zedong's death, the People's Republic of China had been subject to occasional, if enormous, movements of population, above all during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. During both, young people and cadres had been urged or even forced to move closer to the grass roots of society by going into the countryside and taming wilderness areas, especially in the Western provinces. On occasion, millions had been relocated. So the People's Republic of China had certainly experienced substantial geographical movements of population before the 1978 reforms. Yet, these had always been under the control of the Party leadership. Even though large numbers of Party officials had been forced to take part against their will, the Party leadership initiated the policy and reimposed stability once political priorities changed. Millions of young people were left stranded in out-of-the-way regions once the Cultural Revolution ended, with no prospect of being able to return to their homes in urban areas of the East.

Some controls over the population were actually the product of national poverty. Because of the shortages or agricultural products, ration cards were issued for grain and cloth to registered residents of cities. Without a ration card, it was impossible to obtain sufficient food and clothing on a long-term basis. Money, even if available, was not able to purchase goods that were supplied according to administrative rather than economic, priorities. Thus people could not move away for long from their registered place of residence. When contemplating the increasingly complex social changes with which they have to deal now, some Party leaders have a nostalgia for those controls which they previously enjoyed.

Since 1978, however, the Party's economic reforms have weakened much of the administrators' control over social and economic changes. Having done so, it is incapable of reimposing stability, as it did before 19Y6, since a return to the days of ordering people around the country would undermine the spirit of the reforms. Weakened control by the Party also applies to geographical mobility. Large and increasing numbers of people have left the land for urban areas. According to figures based upon official registration of residence, the proportion of China's population living in urban areas has risen from 18 percent in 1978 to over 28 percent in 1993. In gross terms, this means that where seventeen and one quarter million people were living in urban areas in 1978, the equivalent figure in 1993 was 33 and one quarter million...

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