The Party and the People: Chinese Politics in the 21st Century
Bruce J. Dickson
Princeton University Press, $29.95 (cloth)

Lost Course
Jill Li
Icarus Films

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded a century ago this July, when thirteen men representing six different Marxist reading groups met in Shanghai.

The future of modern China was not quite determined that day in 1921. Participants agreed on little, had no mechanism to resolve conflict, and were interrupted by a police raid, which forced them to flee and conclude proceedings on a boat on South Lake, some sixty miles southwest of the city. What the men did share was a Marxist diagnosis of China’s predicament and the faith that a communist party would lead the masses in violent revolution against feudalist and imperialist forces. When combined some years later with a Leninist organizational apparatus, this ideology would enable the CCP to create an enduring monopoly over what actors could hope for and how they would be able to achieve it. As party theoretician and future head of state Liu Shaoqi put it in his 1939 essay “How To Be a Good Communist,” “Discipline is necessary in the party and should be tightened. . . . [we must] heighten our comrades’ sense of the need to subordinate themselves to . . . the party organization.”

Many have prognosticated the end of the CCP and the advent of democracy in the post-Mao era. So far they have been wrong.

This dual control of social ideals and political life has guided the practices and operations of the CCP up to the present day. After the 1949 revolution that brought the CCP to power and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC), political control was exercised by placing everyone in a position of dependence on the party for basic material needs: it was the party that assigned jobs, issued housing and food, provided education, and made available basic consumer goods. Ideological control, meanwhile, was enacted through a system of rewards and punishments—promotion or demotion, bonuses or fines, extra or fewer goods. These measures shaped interests and guided social action throughout the Maoist period (1949–1976), and Chairman Mao Zedong himself would often invoke the moral incentive to serve the nation in everything from workplace discipline to family planning.

The CCP of today exercises new and more nuanced forms of social and ideological authority. It has a vast network of cells spread throughout government and social organizations, monitoring activities, delivering ideological education, and relaying party policies and decisions. Where physical encounters end, technology takes over. Facial recognition and phone tracking software allow the party to pinpoint the movements of anyone anywhere around the country. A social credit system compiles information on finances and bill payment, along with legal violations and court judgments. Ongoing discussions propose adding work history, relations with neighbors, and online activities to the range of data collected. Already the system is used to deny people credit, close off jobs and promotion, limit the ability to travel, and even influence educational prospects for one’s children.

The party frequently uses such means to weed out and repress dissent, as any reader of the New York Times China coverage knows. But in order to govern and rule today, the party also selectively responds to social demands by specifying the forms through which grievances can be expressed and actions taken. Nonviolent protests are allowed so long as they do not denounce the party; material gains are granted over concerns such as pollution or quality of life; and certain civic groups are sanctioned to partner with the party in the provision of public goods. Village elections are even held under official party slogans to “uphold democracy!” Through such measures the party works not only to maintain power but also to uphold and operate a system of domination over all social and political action. As current President and General Secretary Xi Jinping put it, speaking at the 19th Party Congress in 2017: “Government, military, society, and schools—north, south, east, and west—the party is the leader of all.”

The viability of this one-party state has been increasingly called into question in the face of rising incomes, higher levels of education, and greater civil demands. Indeed, China watchers have often prognosticated the end of the CCP and the advent of democracy in the post-Mao era. Titles such as Gordon G. Chang’s The Coming Collapse of China (2001), Bruce Gilley’s China’s Democratic Future (2005), and Jiwei Ci’s Democracy in China: The Coming Crisis (2019) convey the general conviction that political liberalization is destined to follow the economic liberalization that began in the late 1970s. For these observers, China’s democratic transition is simply inevitable, and some predict its arrival as soon as 2025.

Two recent works—political scientist Bruce Dickson’s new book The Party and the People and filmmaker Jill Li’s 2019 documentary Lost Course—illuminate the deep limitations of these arguments, helping to explain China’s enduring political stability and the continued legitimacy of the party in the eyes of most Chinese. Together they show that the CCP’s durability depends on a strategic manipulation of social activity that reaches beyond formal political processes to constrain social imagination and redefine the very meaning of democracy.

For three decades Dickson has written against the grain of liberal modernization theory, which asserts a causal link between development and democratization. His first study, Democratization in China and Taiwan (1997), predicted that China would not go the way of Taiwan and Korea, contrary to the widely shared view that democracy would be forced by the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and the economic growth of the 1990s. Instead, Dickson argued, the party would generate enough performance legitimacy through economic growth to stave off political transformation—and so far he has been right. His last book, The Dictator’s Dilemma (2016), found an explanation for the party’s defiance of liberal expectations in its cunning balancing act between repression and acquiescence. Opinion surveys Dickson conducted from 2010 to 2014 indicate that the party has been successful in this endeavor: the majority of people support the party and do not desire regime change or Western-style liberal democracy.

The Party and the People extends this earlier work, arguing that the CCP rules not simply through repressive measures, as consumers of the international media might be led to believe, but also by garnering popular support through favorable responses to certain public demands. China is not alone in this form of political innovation. As William Scheuerman recently noted in these pages in a review of John Keane’s recent book The New Despotism (2020), the techniques used by non-democratic regimes to earn popular support are changing: many autocratic states now “parasitically mimic democracy, while in reality eviscerating its core.” In China the method has shifted from the thought-reform camps and ideological confessions of the Maoist period to addressing demands and improving material conditions (though the old techniques are still employed as needed, as seen in Xinjiang today). On Dickson’s account, these forms of sensitivity to the public add up to a “tool kit of party rule,” comprised of both repressive measures and responsive practices to respond to civil needs and demands.

The party’s defiance of liberal expectations has lain in its cunning balancing act between repression and acquiescence.

Such practices take many forms. Readers in the West may be surprised to learn that in 2001 the National People’s Congress (NPC) began posting draft laws online for public comment. In 2014 the party then announced that this type of public consultation on laws was a “primary pillar of governance.” A labor contract draft law drew more than 190,000 online comments and another 150,000 comments in focus groups before passing in 2006. Similarly, a health care draft law garnered over 30,000 comments prior to its adoption in 2009. Whether these procedures do more than produce a simulacrum of democratic accountability—in particular, whether they actually influence legislators or shape the content of legislation—is unclear. The process is not entirely transparent, but a comparison of drafts with final bills can show what was revised. The labor contract law, for example, added provisions to legally bind employers to signing and honoring work contracts and making workers’ pensions mobile, and the 2014 Environmental Protection Law was beefed up with increased penalties for polluters and the allowance of public interest lawsuits. What is clear, studies show, is that the public perception of input and consultation has led to fewer public protests.

The CCP is most responsive to issues of people’s direct material interest that do not directly challenge the party. Take environmental concerns, for example. When confronted with a finding that daily variation in air quality around Beijing correlated inversely to public support for the government, the party acted. It banned leaded gas, moved factories away from population centers, and mandated a reduction in coal. In 2014 the prime minister declared a “war on pollution,” and the next year a new Environmental Protection Law went into effect. Similarly, local environmental protests in Zhejiang led to the closure of factories responsible for pollution, and protests against cancer-inducing paraxylene chemical plants in locations around China have been successful in shutting down projects. The case of Maoming in southern Guangdong is telling. In 2014, plans were announced to build a new paraxylene plant, which prompted local pushback. Wary of successful opposition movements around the country, Maoming officials repressed early organizing efforts with threats and intimidation, but the efforts backfired and further galvanized the public, resulting in violent protests. After a week, the local government relented and announced that the plant would not be built without public support.

The repression-responsiveness strategy is perhaps best illuminated in the party’s handling of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). There are approximately 800,000 registered NGOs in China today and perhaps twice as many unregistered groups. But whether groups are registered with the government is not the most important factor, according to Dickson. More relevant is the distinction between those that work to improve public services and enhance political stability—what Dickson terms Civil Society I (CSI)—and those that oppose the regime, usually pushing some form of democratic change—Civil Society II (CSII). Groups in the former category offer job training, provide medical care, and hold cultural activities; they cooperate with the party to provide services that local governments are ill equipped to provide, and their numbers are growing. CSII groups consists of political activists and organizations critical of the regime and are repressed by the state. One example is the New Citizens Movement, which began calling for public disclosure of government salaries in 2013 under a project designed to increase transparency and transition to a constitutional government. Leaders of the movement were rounded up and sentenced to jail on convictions of “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order.”

This distinction between the two forms of civil society helps clarify the nature of the party’s control of politics in China today. Through repression of CSII organizations, the regime closes off avenues of political protest and circumvents critique of social problems and politics. A striking example can be found in Guangdong. As migrant workers streamed into the southern coastal province beginning in the 1990s to supply cheap labor to industrial factories, NGOs followed, seeking to protect workers’ rights. In 2012 the Guangdong provincial government began cooperating with local labor NGOs—of type CSI—to provide services such as job and life skills training, medical care, and legal education. At the same time, the government cracked down on political organizations protecting workers rights and encouraging labor militancy—groups of type CSII. This strategy, Dickson notes, “shifted . . . focus away from labor rights and collective bargaining toward practical issues such as unpaid wages and compensation for injuries on the job.” The party effectively short-circuited the underlying structural issues—workers’ collective rights, labor’s role in society, independent unions as a political power—by focusing instead on the immediacy of individual problems and humanitarian justice.

For the CCP this strategy is generic: the threat of radical critique is eliminated through shrewd redirection.

How does the CCP interface with the state to achieve these ends? One of the many strengths of The Party and the People is its lucid discussion of the party-state structure. To begin with, the CCP has an institutional monopoly over the state and political resources. “Every leader with political influence . . . is a CCP member,” Dickson explains. “There are no opposition parties and no open competition for high office.”

Ruling China as a one-party state, the CCP both oversees and is intimately integrated with the executive, administrative, legislative, and judicial bodies, creating a division of labor in governance rather than, say, checks and balances. Simply put, the CCP makes decisions on policy and personnel, which the legislature ratifies and the government implements in turn. The judiciary, meanwhile, is not a separate branch of government but falls under the jurisdiction of the legislature and is overseen by the party, most immediately through appointments.

In place of the thought-reform camps and ideological confessions of the Maoist period, the party now maintains popular support by addressing demands and improving material conditions.

The structure of power begins with the party itself. Organized like a pyramid, the party concentrates power and responsibility toward the top among fewer and fewer people. At the base of the pyramid is the National Party Congress, consisting of over two thousand party leaders representing China’s provinces, major cities, and key professions—the military, banks, and state-owned enterprises. The congress meets every five years for the sole purposes of electing the Central Committee, which consists of about two hundred members. The Central Committee in turn selects the Politburo, Standing Committee, and General Secretary and meets once or twice a year to take up policy issues. The Politburo is composed of around two dozen members and meets once a month, and within the Politburo is the Standing Committee of five to nine members (in recent years it has usually been seven): the men who wield most of the power in China. At the top is the General Secretary, Xi Jinping. While this structure may sound democratic—suggesting a successive election of officials from the bottom to the top—it is in fact the opposite. Decisions, candidates, and appointments are first determined in advance at the highest levels and only then handed down to be ratified by the Party Congress and Central Committee.

Parallel to the party organization are the government and legislature. The PRC government is roughly equivalent to a cabinet with a prime minister, vice prime minister, state councilors, and ministers. The law-making body is the National People’s Congress, or NPC (not to be confused with the National Party Congress), which is somewhat akin to a parliament: Most members belong to a party—there is just one, of course—and vote on laws drafted by party departments and government ministries, which may be debated in NPC committees; they revise the constitution, hear from the ministries, and ratify nominations for government posts. Unlike a parliamentary democracy, however, NPC delegates are not elected.

The party operates inside the government and legislature and controls the agendas. Nearly all government positions and legislative delegates are held by party members. (Token non-party members once held office and sat in the NPC, but this has ceased under Xi Jinping.) The prime minister (as head of government) and the NPC chair (as head of the legislature) are also on the Standing Committee, the innermost circle of party leadership. “This is designed to prevent them from becoming sources of opposition to the party,” Dickson says. “Instead they do its bidding.” In addition, the party makes all appointments to leadership positions or key posts, including not just in central and local governments but also in state-owned social and economic organizations such as enterprises, universities, and hospitals. Positions of any significance with decision-making power are staffed by those who are loyal to the party. “So many government officials are party members,” Dickson notes, “that it can be difficult to determine where the party ends and the government begins.”

While this party-state structure ensures control of the state machinery, a well institutionalized process of appointments channels political aspirations to party priorities. Appointments are made through a top-down, Soviet-style nomenklatura system, where each level selects members for the level just underneath it: central leaders appoint provincial leaders, who in turn appoint municipal leaders, who appoint village leaders. This design gives each level a degree of autonomy in making selections but it also holds them accountable for underlings’ performance and locks each level into pre-specified political priorities. Selection and performance criteria are telling in this regard. Each office is assessed every five years, within which time appointees are required to meet certain performance expectations and targets. At the top of the expectations are imperative targets, which entails maintaining social order: the party is most concerned about unrest, and local and provincial officials go to great pains to ensure social stability. Failing to contain protests will almost certainly hinder promotion and could end one’s career. Of similar importance are hard targets, including economic growth in the appointed jurisdiction.

All appointees are subject to these targets, and their actions must align to party goals and priorities. Political entrepreneurship is necessary only to the extent of devising means to translate party directives and policies sent down from the central or provincial levels; it is not employed in the development of an independent vision. Loyalty and responsibility moves upward, from lower officials to higher officials; it is not grounded in the governed, an alternative program, or other social ideals. The appointee must direct all his energy to meet the targets, please his superiors, and move up the ranks. At times that may mean responding appropriately to citizen demands.

The party eliminates the threat of radical critique through shrewd redirection, specifying the forms through which grievances can be expressed.

Dickson recognizes a shift under the current leadership of Xi Jinping. Each chapter of the book ends with a discussion of changes under Xi: repression is becoming more favored over responsiveness; NGOs are under increasing pressure; protests are not as tolerated; and appointments and promotions are less transparent. Xi has also upended routine politics through acts such as failing to designate a successor, taking control of appointments, consolidating political power in almost every party and government sphere, and changing the constitution to allow him to sit as president for life. This is not so much a structural transformation as a concentration of power and a tightening of his authority over the party—“reviving and strengthening Leninist aspects of the CCP that had atrophied during the reform era,” as Dickson puts it.

Why now? Dickson doesn’t say, and if there is a weakness to this insightful book, it is here. Xi appears throughout as a deus ex machina, isolated from the networks and factions that define the party and drive his policies. Indeed, apart from brief asides, the CCP comes off as more coherent and hegemonic than it is, devoid of the internal fissures that inhere in party politics and plague decision-making. We don’t know exactly why Xi Jinping is amassing power, tightening controls over civil society, rolling back economic autonomy, weeding out some corrupt officials and keeping others, and violently suppressing Hong Kong, but we do know that it has a lot to do with internal party factions. Dickson provides an excellent and convincing explanation of the structure and operations of CCP power in China but offers little on how social relations shape that structure itself.

Jill Li’s astonishing 2019 documentary Lost Course offers a concrete object lesson in the party dynamics Dickson describes. The film chronicles years-long unrest that broke out in Wukan, a fishing village on the southeastern coast of Guangdong, in 2011, when villagers alleged that the local government and party apparatus had illegally sold village land to developers, depriving residents of their farming livelihoods without adequate compensation. Villagers marched on party offices and drove out their local officials; when security was sent in villagers blocked roads. Images of a smashed, overturned police bus dotted international media.

Neither the corruption nor the protests are unusual. Throughout China, underpaid local officials, eager to meet growth targets, sell off village land for vast sums to developers. Faced with not just the soaring inequality but also the deprivation of their rightful property and livelihood—all village land in China is communally owned by the village—villagers often revolt. In 2005, the last year the Chinese government reported protest figures, there were 87,000 protests nationwide—up tenfold from the 8,700 reported in 1993. More recently, Dickson notes that independent Chinese researchers estimated 180,000 protests in 2010, a number that experts agree has only gotten larger over time.

More unusual is what happened next: the party conceded to villagers’ demands for new leadership. As Li chronicles, the Guangdong provincial deputy party secretary traveled to Wukan with a small entourage of high officials and publicly announced to a crowd of protesters that villager grievances were reasonable and that the local government was to blame. “We undertake to respect the demands of the people,” he said, promising not to arrest or prosecute anyone. As the delegation bus pulled away from the crowd, the camera caught a glimpse of municipal party secretary Zhen Yanxiong. He waves out the window—an innocuous act that now appears ominous, for his success in handling the Wukan case got him promoted to chief of security in Hong Kong in 2020, where he has been responsible for repressing Hong Kong political freedoms, earning him a U.S. sanction.

The majority of people support the party and do not desire regime change, or Western-style liberal democracy.

Lost Course makes us privy to inside conversations and developments that illustrate how the party monopolizes the fine texture of politics and society. At one point early in the film, around the time of the provincial visit, Li shows two of the key activists discussing strategy. Xing, an energetic and idealistic twenty year old with a strong sense of justice, says that the village is in a strong position and the central government will consent to whatever demand they make. “No, no,” interrupts Lin Zuluan, the wizened village elder, who, we later learn, has been a party member since 1965. “The main problem now is . . . how to establish a democratically elected village committee.”

On the surface this seems like a radical proposal: grassroots democracy in communist China. But as Dickson reminds us, village elections have been a staple in China’s countryside since the 1980s, when village heads and committees were elected by villagers to fill voids left by the dismantling of communes. Procedures for nominations and election processes were codified with a draft election law in 1987 and finalized in 1998. According to these rules, elections are to be held every three years on a secret ballot with at least two candidates per office, nominations for which should come from villagers themselves. All this had occurred in Wukan, but still it resulted in mismanagement, corruption, and the wrath of the some ten-thousand odd villagers.

The party response was to oust the previous leaders and let the village elect new ones. Unsurprisingly, the activists swept the election. Lin Zuluan was elected village head and was later made village party secretary, molding the party and government into one. Xing did not run for a seat but hovered around the new leaders and assisted Lin. For three years they worked on the land case, but their continued failure put village anger on a slow burn until new protests erupted in 2014, the fury now directed at the new village leadership. Speaking to a protesting crowd outside the village government offices, Lin Zuluan is shown in a bind: he says the issue is complicated and that it will be very hard to reclaim the land, although not for lack of trying. As yet another election approaches, Li shows villagers expressing disillusionment. Xing suspects corruption, noting that government salaries are not enough to support a family. Others express frustration. “The new leadership has not gotten us one square of land! How can we re-elect them?” says one villager, standing outside what looks to be an old concrete shack reinforced with tarps. “I won’t vote. It’s pointless. They are all corrupt: the old officials sold our land and the new ones sell sand [for construction]. They are all useless; they steal what they can.” Such views of village democracy are not uncommon in China today, and they are only compounded by increasing party intervention.

Ultimately, Li shows how the party continues to shape politics. On the eve of the second election after the protests, the party began targeting the activists-become-politicians. In order to discourage candidates and stack the village leadership with loyalists, the party engineered charges against the activists in office and arrested them on corruption charges. Voting rules were changed, too: party candidates were placed at the top of the ballot, and family heads were allowed to cast votes for all the family members. Still, Lin Zuluan was re-elected as village head, though vote counts fell significantly, by as much as 20 percent. (“Voters quickly learned that their votes counted for little,” Dickson writes of the general problem of village elections.) Back in office, Lin Zuluan tried yet again to recover village land, but the effort came to an end in 2016 when he was arrested, sparking three months of protest among villagers who demanded his release. In response, the party finally mobilized its security apparatus, raiding the village, arresting villagers and village leaders, and extinguishing the protests. The entire affair came full circle, as the party put the original officials back in charge of village affairs.

One clue to the activists’ ultimate failure can be found in the remarks of a village elder sympathetic to the protests. “I can understand high level officials,” he says toward the end of the film as the crackdown winds up. “Villagers everywhere are demanding land. If the whole country is like this and follows Wukan it will be complete chaos. So the central leadership wants to silence us. I think this makes sense. If I were a leader I would do the same.” Just as Liu Shaoqi said the good communist is one disciplined to party standards, the good official today is one who pleases his superiors. Despite outward forms of responsiveness, the party is ultimately accountable only to itself. If Wukan had been allowed to succeed in its demands—if Lin Zuluan had solved the case and gotten back village land—the system would surely have begun to crack, inspiring other villages cheated out of land to rise up against their local officials and demand justice be done.

Deeply embedded in the fabric of social imagination, the party comprises a system of social domination that structures not just political processes but also social ideals.

There are weaknesses to Li’s film. Although she follows up on the main protagonists in the story, we never find out what really happened in Wukan. Given the support of the provincial government, why didn’t the affair turn out better? Did higher-ups give the new village leadership the space to work, or did they try to coopt them in different ways? And why couldn’t the new committee resolve the land problem? One gets the sense that various personal connections—among elites and party superiors—are ultimately to blame. Lin Zuluan was obviously well connected among the villagers, for example, but his party ties seem to be weak, and he was unable to strengthen them. One wonders if he could have won the villagers back their land had he had the right connections or gotten into the right faction. In this way, the nature of personal relations throughout the party, state, and society are not just subject to the system of social and political relations but are the very grounds of it, structuring and reproducing it.

Still, Li’s film shines a powerful light on the entanglement of repression and responsiveness at work in contemporary Chinese politics. Deeply embedded in the fabric of social imagination, the party comprises a system of social domination that structures not just political processes but also social ideals. At one point late in the film, a journalist asks Lin Zuluan what might happen if the interests of the party conflict with the interest of the village. “The party acts for the village,” Lin replies. “Their interests are the same.”

Will this system hold? The answer seems to be yes, at least for the foreseeable future. After being released on bail over charges of corruption, Yang Semao, one of the original Wukan activists elected to office, pondered the state of politics in contemporary China. “In an emerging superpower with five thousand years of civilization everyone now plays it safe. This is not good,” he says in Li’s film—before adding a qualification: “But this powerful party cannot work with moderate reformers from outside the system. . . . It is not yet time for cooperation.”

Neither Li nor Dickson offers a more sanguine assessment. Li closes her film with the charges and sentences of the Wukan activists listed under mugshot-like photos. Lin Zuluan was sentenced to three years and a month on corruption; his elected deputy head got two years. Other protest leaders received even more severe punishments: Han got ten years and six months for “gathering crowds to disrupt public order,” “illegal assembly and protest,” and “obstruction of justice,” and Yang Jinzhen was sentenced to six years for similar charges. Dickson, for his part, notes how easily responsiveness tactics have succeeded in coopting radicalism. By simulating bottom-up participation—treating citizens as meaningful stakeholders instead of rigidly excluding them from any form of political activity—the CCP helps bring would-be critics into the party fold.

The party’s success in raising incomes and living standards has further cinched its durability. As Dickson showed in his previous book, people have responded favorably to rises in their real and perceived income. As long as they notice the benefit to their wallet, continue to have economic opportunity and social mobility, and experience better quality of life through the provision of public goods, most people seem willing to support the party, despite the corruption and inequality. As Dickson puts it, the tumultuous economic and political events of the Maoist period, especially the Cultural Revolution, has made the Chinese public “more concerned with material issues of wealth and security than normative goals of equality and freedom.” The party has engineered a radical economic transformation from which most have benefited.

For most Chinese today, democracy is something that one receives—improved quality of life, economic growth, or parity with the West—rather than something one does.

Moreover, most Chinese believe that the country is already democratizing—and that even within their own generation they have seen the growth of more social and political freedoms. The state is less intrusive and the party more responsive, the thinking goes; there are more economic opportunities and more room for social mobility. As Dickson notes, numerous and repeated surveys show the majority agree that “China has become increasingly democratic during the post-Mao period and has already attained a relatively high level of democracy.” Chinese thus seem to understand democracy less in terms of elections and representatives, or rights and the rule of law, than in terms of outcomes. For most, democracy is something that one receives—improved quality of life, economic growth, or parity with the West—rather than something one does. At least most Chinese have proven willing to look away from infringements on personal freedoms (as with social credit scores) and humanitarian atrocities (as with the Uyghur genocide) in return for middle-class stability and great power status. Even Wukan protesters and candidates emphasized their love for the party, leading chants of “Long live the CCP!”

These phenomena illuminate key aspects of how the party maintains its grip on power. The party, the state, the monopoly on political and social action: all converge to structure social relations in contemporary China and dictate the horizon of not just political but also social imagination. In analyzing the operations of the party and the limitations of people’s reactions, these two fine works give us glimpses into the nature of social and political authority—and how the CCP is set to continue to rule, proving the many rumors of its imminent death greatly exaggerated. Those concerned about the future of China—and the future of democracy—will need to reckon with the party’s evolving relationship with the people.