Boston Review: When the Chinese Government Will Throw Away the Communist Hat?

Helen H. Wang

This article is part of China’s Other Revolution, a forum on political and social change in China.

No one in China believes in communism anymore. The Communist Party has abandoned Communist ideology. A friend of mine joked that the Chinese government wears a Polo shirt and Nike shoes, but still has a communist hat. The Party is simply a ruling outfit that practices what seems to be quasi-capitalism.

To a certain degree, I agree with Edward Steinfeld that China has gone through profound changes in recent years. However, China’s political system is ill fitted to address the needs of an increasingly pluralized society. The government has not allowed any political opposition that could become a rival of the Communist Party.

With or without its defining ideology, the Party has shown no sign of loosening control. Even the increased efforts to recruit members from private and foreign-owned companies don’t reflect outreach so much as assertion of power. Party organizations were traditionally strong in state-owned enterprises, and with the growing presence in China of private and foreign-owned firms, the Communist Party was concerned about losing support from young people. So it has sought out the best of them: the Party has been adamant about qualifications, such as academic achievements or career credentials.

Young people recognize that Party membership offers significant advantages, such as opportunities for career advancement, social status, and government connections. China: the Dragon’s Ascent, a 2003 History Channel documentary, provides some illustrative anecdotes. In it an ambitious young student at China’s highly regarded Fudan University said, “I really want to do something for the country. I want to join the Communist Party so that I can better serve my country.” Another student, who was planning to go overseas to study, said, “If I go abroad, I won’t join the party. But if I cannot go overseas, I may join the party.” Other students agreed with him that if he stayed in China, he should join the party and reap the benefits.

One of the critical conditions of democracy is present in China: a large and stable middle class.

The campaign to recruit new members has proved successful. According to The Economist, by the end of 2006, party organizations had been established in more than two-thirds of private enterprises and foreign companies. If the Communist Party can still recruit the best young people, how will a viable opposition grow, who will lead it, when will it arrive? There are no strong opposition parties in China to make democratic reform a reality.

Nonetheless, I agree with Steinfeld that China’s rise does not necessarily threaten the West. For better or worse, westernization is everywhere in China. As Steinfeld points out, China’s new generation of leaders all seem to have postgraduate degrees, often from the United States. I have met many young Chinese who adopt English names and pride themselves on being westernized because they associate the West with sophistication and advancement. A young vice president at the Internet company BlogBus proudly showed me her office, where a model of Capitol Hill—not the Forbidden City—stood on her desk. Bill Gates is a greater hero among Chinese youth than he is in the United States. Young people celebrate Christmas more than Chinese New Year.

China even has its own wildly successful American Idol-type TV show. The 2005 edition of Super Girl drew an audience of 400 million, and the media covered it like an American presidential campaign. Thousands of young talents competed for votes as well as the spotlight. The top three performers received eight million votes by text message, and the winner, 21-year-old Li Yuchun from Sichuan province, became one of the most popular stars in China.

Despite recent crackdowns on dissidents, many people in China told me the trend toward democracy is unstoppable. That democracy probably won’t emerge from the views of imprisoned dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei, who represent what many Chinese consider an unrealistic solution. But one of the critical conditions of democracy is present in China: a large and stable middle class. Currently the middle class is estimated at up to 300 million people. This comprises less than 25 percent of the population, but as the middle class continues to grow, it is only a matter of time before opposition to the state arises.

Evidence from elsewhere, such as South Korea and Taiwan, suggests that countries begin to democratize when average income reaches somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000 per year. In 2010 China’s per capita income was about $4,300. If this rule applies to China, it will not be long before we see some sort of democracy movement there. However, Chinese democracy may look very different from the version we know in the West.

Moving forward, I see two possible outcomes: either the Chinese government will gradually be forced into political reform, or change will come more radically because of an economic breakdown. It depends on when the government will have the courage to throw away the Communist hat.

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