Is China’s social and political system unique? by David S G Goodman


All social and political systems are of course both unique and comparable. Analysing and understanding the similarities as well as the differences is part and parcel of the social sciences. In the case of China three models have dominated academic understanding: the Communist party-state; the East Asia developmental state; and the Chinese civilization state, essentially the idea of Chinese exceptionalism. David Goodman goes on to discuss.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) remains self-evidently a Communist party-state. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is its central defining characteristic. With the post-Mao institutionalization of politics this has been recognized with the appointment of the CCP General Secretary as President of the PRC, a practice which did not occur before. The system of governance centres on the CCP Politburo and its Standing Committee, with subordinate hierarchies of government and parallel CCP organization.

There have, though, been changes, not least in the CCP’s ideology with the introduction of market socialism, and the PRC was never a Communist party-state in quite the same way as many of those that existed in Eastern Europe. One clear difference is scale: China is so much bigger in both land area and population than other Communist party-states that political command hierarchies and issues of domestic security are differently structured. The political system was always more decentralized than other Communist party-states, and decentralization has increased still further with the changes of the last four decades. Some four-fifths of government expenditure is now local government expenditure. The PRC’s relationship with the former Soviet Union was always different to that of the Communist party-states of Eastern Europe, even when as in the early 1950s the two were attempting a close alliance, so that subsequent developments were different. Moreover, in the PRC the peasantry were a more significant political factor, not least because of the CCP’s path to power before 1949.

Parallels with the East Asian development state also invite comparison. For most of its first 30 years the PRC pursued an import substitution development strategy. When this changed in the late 1970s it was because not only Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong, but also South Korea and Taiwan had successfully negotiated an export-oriented growth strategy. Behind this strategy lay a withdrawal of direct government involvement in economic entrepreneurs, the corporatization of state assets, and government leadership in the direction of economic development. During the 1980s the greatest change in the PRC’s political economy was government’s withdrawal from the direct management of economic enterprises, as well as decentralization in the responsibilities for government functions. One immediate result was the overall transfer of resources from heavy to light industry which significantly impacted upon the PRC’s export capacity. State-owned enterprises were encouraged to corporatize their activities from the mid-1990s and the number of state-owned enterprises was significantly reduced through asset sales, management buy-outs and various other devices.

At the same time the PRC is not so easily equated with other East Asian developmental states. Although the government through various agencies provides considerable guidance to economic development, there is no single MITI agency in China that has the authority to lead growth and to override other agencies. Most importantly, the PRC is not a capitalist state. The period since 1978 has seen the development of a reforming socialist market economy, not the breakdown of Communist rule and the establishment of a capitalist or similar system. Indeed, to the extent that China’s developmental state resembled that elsewhere in East Asia, the emphasis in its statism was at the local level, in the emergence of local state corporatism, especially during the 1980s and 1990s. There is no land market, and indeed economic activities are often subject to Party–state interference. There is a labour market but it is maintained in its present form by the state’s household registration system which determines the creation of a migrant peasant worker reserve pool of labour. Entrepreneurs pay considerable attention and devote considerable expenditure to their political connections. The state sector of the economy remains dominant in many ways despite no longer producing the majority of GDP. The banking system works to support state owned enterprises overwhelmingly more than other kinds of enterprise.

Moreover, while China’s GDP grew by a factor of 130 between 1978 and 2011, the comparison with other East Asian states falls short economically. GDP per capita remains limited (2014) at US$12,813 (purchasing power parity, PPP). This compares to US$43,600 for Taiwan, US$37,683 for Japan, US$35, 485 for South Korea and US$55,167 for Hong Kong. The PRC’s 2013 GDP per capita was roughly at the same level as the Soviet Union was in 1989 – US$9,211 – at the height of its economic growth.

The apparent paradox of economic openness and growth while maintaining the structures and practices of a Communist party-state has not been lost on many commentators. Appeals to ‘traditional’ Chinese culture have always been part of the explanation of contemporary China. In the last decade, though, there have been attempts to explain recent success in terms of a specific ‘China Model’.

9781782544364China is portrayed as a civilization-state historically determined over several thousand years, leading to a lack of conflict domestically and a dominant position in international affairs. Outside the PRC, the most notable proponent of this view is Martin Jacques in his When China Rules the World. The argument for both Chinese exceptionalism and triumphalism is matched within the PRC by the work of authors such as Pan Wei and Zhang Weiwei. To quote the latter: ‘China is the only nation where a millennia-old civilization fully coincides with the morphology of a modern state.’ While no social and political system can be totally detached from its past, there are some clear problems with taking such arguments as a total explanation of contemporary China. They over-essentialize China’s history in terms of continuity, cultural homogeneity and maintenance of land area. It is also clear that the contemporary nation-state has different functions to the earlier imperial system. Citizens have different expectations to subjects, and government is fundamentally no longer non-interventionist.

David S G Goodman is Professor of Chinese Politics at  Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, China.

The first chapter of David’s new book Handbook of the Politics of China can be downloaded for free on Elgaronline.

Also available for subscribing libraries on elgaronline

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