Enlightened One-Party Rule? Ideological Differences between Chinese Communist Party Members and the Mass Public

Date01 September 2020
Published date01 September 2020
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18UZo9v0BT6lT2/input 850342PRQXXX10.1177/1065912919850342Political Research QuarterlyJi and Jiang
Political Research Quarterly
2020, Vol. 73(3) 651 –666
Enlightened One-Party Rule? Ideological
© 2019 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
Differences between Chinese Communist https://doi.org/10.1177/1065912919850342
DOI: 10.1177/1065912919850342
Party Members and the Mass Public
Chengyuan Ji1 and Junyan Jiang2
A popular view of nondemocratic regimes is that they draw followers mainly from those with an illiberal, authoritarian
mind-set. We challenge this view by arguing that there exist a different class of autocracies that rule with a relatively
enlightened base. Leveraging multiple nationally representative surveys from China over the past decade, we
substantiate this claim by estimating and comparing the ideological preferences of Chinese Communist Party members
and ordinary citizens. We find that party members on average hold substantially more modern and progressive views
than the public on issues such as gender equality, political pluralism, and openness to international exchange. We also
explore two mechanisms that may account for this party–public value gap—selection and socialization. We find that
while education-based selection is the most dominant mechanism overall, socialization also plays a role, especially
among older and less educated party members. Our findings caution against the simple, dichotomous characterization
of political regimes and underscore an important tension between modernization and democratization in developing
ideology, mass-elite comparison, modernization, item response theory, authoritarian regime, China
with a reactionary, traditional view of the world are seen
as natural partners of regimes that restrict political free-
Understanding the similarities and differences between
dom and civil liberty in the name of order or national
preferences of political insiders and the general public is
interests (Adorno et al. 1950; Altemeyer 1996). According
essential to the study of all political systems. In democra-
to this view, the principal political cleavage within an
cies, assessing the level of opinion congruence between
authoritarian regime is one between an illiberal ruling
voters and politicians on key issues is an important way
elite and an enlightened citizenry in favor of liberal dem-
to evaluate the strength of electoral linkages and the qual-
ocratic values, and establishment of democracy will bring
ity of representation (Achen 1978; Converse and Pierce
social and economic progress by putting a more modern-
1986). Similar comparisons can also be relevant for
minded group into power.
understanding systems where competitive elections are
In this article, we challenge this perception by propos-
absent. Many influential theories of social movements
ing a more nuanced understanding of political regimes’
and political transitions, for example, are premised on the
value orientations. In particular, we argue that not all
existence of certain forms of preference divergence
authoritarian regimes should be seen as intrinsic ideologi-
between regime elites and the public (Acemoglu and
cal rivals of liberal democracies. Drawing on an older
Robinson 2006b; Kuran 1991; O’Donnell and Schmitter
body of literature on political institutions and moderniza-
1986). So far, however, systematic comparison of elite
tion (Apter 1965; Huntington 1968; Shils 1966), we argue
and mass attitudes outside liberal democracies is still
rather limited.
One popular view of authoritarian regimes is that they
Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China
2The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, Hong Kong, China
are intrinsically hostile to liberal democratic values.
Many studies have argued that autocracies of both left
Corresponding Author:
and right tend to draw support mainly from the less
Junyan Jiang, Department of Government and Public Administration,
The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Room 316, T. C. Cheng
enlightened segment of the society (Acemoglu and
Building, Shatin, New Territories, Hong Kong, China.
Robinson 2006a; Lipset 1959; Moore 1966). Individuals
Email: junyanjiang@cuhk.edu.hk

Political Research Quarterly 73(3)
that there exist a subset of autocracies that emerged as a
appears to be the most dominant mechanism, explaining
political response to the challenges of modernization in
about three-quarters of the observed value gap between
backward societies. The modernizing imperatives compel
party and nonparty members. The effect of socialization,
those regimes to adopt relatively progressive policies and
on the other hand, is also present but exhibits notable
to form alliances with the more modern and productive
variation across subgroups: it is most salient on the older
sectors of a society. Instead of being ideological enemies,
and the less educated party members, but is much weaker
therefore, followers of those regimes may actually share
on the younger and highly educated ones.
considerable agreement with citizens in liberal democra-
Our study contributes to the literature on the compari-
cies in terms of preferences and beliefs.
son of mass and elite ideologies. Beginning with the sem-
We substantiate these claims with evidence from
inal work of Converse (1964), a large body of research
China, a country that is increasingly being portrayed as a
has been dedicated to measuring and explaining the rela-
leader of the recent global wave of “authoritarian resur-
tionship between mass and elite preferences in advanced
gence” (Nathan 2015). To many political analysts and
liberal democracies (Converse and Pierce 1986; Dalton
practitioners in the West—the United States in particu-
1985), especially the United States (Bond and Messing
lar—a rising China under the Chinese Communist Party
2015; Jennings 1992; M. K. Miller 2014). The general
(CCP) poses not only a geopolitical but more importantly
findings from this literature are that elites typically pos-
an ideological threat (Runciman 2018; U.S. Senate
sess more coherent, and also more polarized, attitudes on
Committee on Armed Services 2019). Coverage of the
social and political issues than does the general public
CCP in the Western media typically emphasizes its illib-
(e.g., Ansolabehere, Rodden, and Snyder 2006); these
eral practices and hostility toward “Western values.”
patterns are often explained with reference to electoral
While we certainly do not intend to glorify the regime or
competition under a two-party structure (Jacobson 2000;
to defend some of its problematic policies, our argument
Rohde 1991). Some more recent studies have explored
nonetheless cautions against the tendency to regard the
these issues in the context of emerging democracies in
party as the main culprit of illiberalism in the Chinese
Eastern Europe (A. H. Miller, Hesli, and Reisinger 1995,
society. Drawing on seven nationally representative sur-
1997; Reisinger et al. 1996) and Latin America (Lupu and
veys covering more than eighty thousand respondents,
Warner 2017; Saiegh 2015). Systematic comparison of
we carry out a systematic comparison of ideological val-
mass and elite attitudes in nondemocracies, however, is
ues between CCP members and the general Chinese pub-
still rare. Our analysis sheds light on this issue by provid-
lic in three key domains—gender and family relations,
ing evidence from China and suggests new avenues
political institutions, and international outlook. through which value differences between elites and
Surprisingly, we find that, contrary to the popular percep-
masses can arise.
tion of the party as the champion of illiberal authoritari-
Findings from this study also help advance our under-
anism, CCP members are actually the relatively more
standing of not only the CCP but also a broader class of
liberal and enlightened group in the Chinese society:
autocracies that assume a modernizing role in transitional
compared with the average survey respondent, CCP
societies. Although ideology is a key focus of earlier gen-
members show greater support for equal treatment of
eration of research on communist or fascist parties
men and women, putting checks-and-balances on politi-
(Arendt 1973; Schurmann 1968), the contemporary dis-
cal power and learning from foreign ideas. This relatively
cussion of authoritarian regimes typically views them as
enlightened mind-set can be seen in both party members
nonideological entities, focusing instead on their ruling
serving in government and those with nongovernmental
techniques and institutional characteristics (e.g., Gandhi
jobs. Using a series of additional tests, we further show
2010; Magaloni 2008; Svolik 2012). This study cautions
that this finding is robust to many alternative explana-
against the tendency to treat all nondemocracies as either
tions, including the possibility that party members are
ideological vacuums or the embodiment of a coherent set
deliberately falsifying their preferences (Kuran 1997).
of “authoritarian” values, and highlights important varia-
We also probe two mechanisms that may give rise to
tions in value orientations within those regimes.
the value difference between CCP members and non-
Our study is also related to two strands of literature in
members. The first...

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