A Rising Wave
by Ariav Amittay
During the past century, China has endured a staggering amount of social, political, and cultural change. The vast majority of its citizens have borne great suffering at the hands of various rulers throughout the last hundred years. The one consistent aspect of China’s governance has been its lack of legitimacy and credible rule. During the reign of the Chinese Communist Party and its predecessors, corruption has plagued the people of China and greatly handicapped their chances for political evolution. Bitter resentment is widespread throughout China as political transgressions of the past and present continue to go unaddressed. During the past fifteen years, this problem has become more visible on both the national and international level, and China’s long-standing social instability has achieved a new level of volatility. The calls for change are growing louder, and it seems only to be a matter of time until they are answered. As China stands on the brink of what will surely be one of the most complex periods of her development, it is crucial to obtain an understanding of the roots of her present problems. The causes of rampant corruption and misrule that afflict the country today can be found through a chronological analysis of the Chinese Communist Party, its leadership figures, and its strategy of governance. Utilizing this knowledge to understand the present political climate, it is then possible to forward some hypotheses concerning China’s future and the possibilities for democracy in the coming years.
When Mao Zedong successfully led the Red Army to victory over the nationalist armies of the Kuomintang in 1949, the future seemed bright for China. Mao’s charisma, intelligence, and strong ideological connections to the countryside all indicated that China had found a leader to end the cycle of brutal misrule that had served as the political status quo for decades. The almost mythical stature of the new Chairman would insure that he would receive the cooperation of his fellow citizens in whatever projects for change and reform he chose to pursue. It was time for China to assume her place among the modern powers of the world. Unfortunately, all of these positive indicators became meaningless when Mao’s administrative abilities proved inadequate with respect to his ambitions, and the power of his personality served to overwhelm the possibility for productive disagreement within the Communist Party. The Korean War in combination with the economic instability inherited from the Kuomintang regime convinced Mao that the revolution would have to temporarily halt in its progression towards complete socialism. The promising early reforms of the revolution had included rent cuts, tax exemptions, and the elimination of landlordism. Under the national burden of rampant inflation and the pressure to modernize, the progressive early Maoist era quickly devolved into a Soviet style totalitarian regime. Feeling pressure from the United States’ imperial activities in the Pacific, and in response to a refusal of alliance on the part of the Americans, Mao aligned himself with the USSR and their developmental model . Thus, China took its first step on the road to political disaster.
Mao’s desire to build China into a modern superpower could not be satisfied without making fundamental changes to the economic institutions of the country. In order to fulfill his industrial aspirations, Mao knew that he would have to optimize the output of the masses. Collectivization and eventual state regulation of grain storage and distribution was the answer that he arrived at . What Mao did not understand was that the burden placed upon the depleted land by the massive population of China was already too great to allow for survival strictly through subsistence farming, let alone accommodate the use of “surplus” crops for trade . As a result, Mao did not question the relatively minor successes of the early stages of collectivization, and felt that advancing to higher levels of organization could only improve the national yields. Even when the agrarian production was reduced during the period of transition between agricultural production cooperatives and the commune stage, Mao did not alter his plan. None of his advisors would dare to contradict the man whose word was truth in China . Once all the peasants living in China’s countryside had been organized into communes, the problems inherent to the system became quickly apparent. The unavoidable lack of resources would be a key motivating factor for the early development of corruption and would lead directly to the disastrous events of the Great Leap Forward period.
The organization of the countryside into communes was an effort that would fail miserably because of the complete lack of effective administration that existed on every level of the CCP chain of command. Mostly responsible for the lack of successful leadership by officials was the rampant corrupt practices that flourished within the communal system. It was during this time that many of the practices of corruption and exploitation that would become traditional in party politics were established within the CCP power structure . Within the communes, the people were completely under the control of the party officials responsible for regulating the grain production of that village or township. The mounting pressure of an increasing lack of food throughout the countryside led to an all-out fleecing of the common people by party members. This cruel plunder would contribute to the deaths of millions of citizens . A critical issue with the Party’s organizational system was the lack of any disciplinary body designed to regulate official activity. This complete absence of a means of holding party leadership accountable for their actions or punishing them for misdeeds was a striking fault that the Party still possesses to this day. The CCP quickly began to lose legitimacy as a ruling body as officials at all levels engaged in selfishly motivated exploitation of the commune and its institutions. This early ideological imbalance within the party would undermine the founding principles of the Communist Party. The desire on the part of officials to pursue selfish interests first, the interests of other party members second, and the interests of ordinary citizens as a distant third is another irresponsible and dangerous political trend that would endure for the rest of the century and beyond.
With his nearly unquestioned power during his reign in China, it seems that Mao Zedong would have been fully capable of crushing the early epidemic of official corruption that would become a lingering malaise within the party. Instead, Mao chose to fall into the general pattern of party behavior that would epitomize its ineffective and exploitative rule. During the period of collectivization within the communes, Mao expressed concerns that party members and others should share the burden of hard labor in the fields equally . This ideology meant nothing when lower level party officials were permitted to execute commune policy in whatever way they saw fit. Mao’s failure to establish any sort of entity to regulate the behavior of party officials at even the most basic level led directly to the years of inappropriate party abuse of power. Incentive for a later establishment of internal regulation of the party was non-existent. There was no reason for those in power to facilitate the control or observation of their behavior when they could use their position for great personal gain. Mao’s decision to quell the Hundred Flowers movement, which allowed for public expression of political concerns, was another decision that would have had negative consequences for the foreseeable future . The abolishment of this forum (and with it the principle of intellectual freedom) would simply encourage the early trend of opaque rule by the party, whereby there was a complete absence of “democratic or transparent controls” on the party and its policy .
As a result of these early failures to combat corruption, party members and officials have continued to use their positions for personal benefit throughout the second half of the 20th century. Examples of corruption in contemporary China are abundant. The use of public funds to modernize and improve private residences of party officials is one obvious instance of corruption . Another is the preferential treatment of the political elite and their associates by the Chinese judicial system . Both of these violations of ethical and legal conduct are obvious to others in society. It is easy to understand the popular sentiments of anger and resentment that such behavior causes. Rather than using tax money to improve the lives of the common people, party members choose to use it for personal benefit. The Communist Party is designed to be an instrument of the people’s will, not a means of economic profiteering. The examples of judicial leniency towards the elite are a direct insult to those outside of the power network. It is fully understood that one’s connections, family, and position are often enough to achieve a favorable result in court regardless of the most obvious evidence. The populace must question why they should continue to support systems of taxation or justice that simply do not act in the best interests of the majority forced to support them.
During the 1990s, a general trend of exposure of official corruption has engendered a rise in the always-powerful forces of public protest and unrest. The economic reforms instituted after Mao’s death encouraged the corrupt party practices established during the earliest years of CCP rule and provided more opportunity for official profiteering . Deng Xiaoping introduced additional reforms in the early 1990s that would only have improved the outlook for corrupt practices . When these changes are combined with the mounting instability of the party, as is perceived by officials, it creates a general mindset of benefiting as much as possible while in a position to do so. The response of the party leaders has been to encourage reports of official corruption and subsequent punishments in order to give the impression that action is being taken against offenders . This course of action seems to have a dual effect, as it also serves as a constant reminder of the presence of corruption and its proliferation. In response, public protests are at an extremely high level and public pressure on the government to execute meaningful reform is mounting. The development of modern technology and the effects that it has had on public access to information inside and outside of China is another means of increased awareness of the problems with the current political system . It seems to be only a matter of time before the current situation reaches a crisis of critical mass that will somehow result in profound political changes for China, namely democratic reform.
Aside from the increased levels of popular protest movements that were epitomized by the Tiananmen protests of 1989, there are multiple other factors that favor a theory of impending democratic reform of Chinese politics. Recent public movements encouraging increased transparency and accountability within the Communist Party express decidedly democratic ideals . As the old guard of the party moves out of politics, they are replaced by more pluralistic and pragmatic elements that would be more receptive to the possibility of democratic transition in the future . In fact, Deng Xiaoping himself has hinted that once the last of the party veterans are gone, China may face immediate and significant changes . This watershed moment cannot be too far away. In addition, China has entered an economic state that is indicated historically as favorable towards the sort of social and political reform that would be necessary to institute electoral democracy . While a revolution led by progressive elements within the CCP is possible, if a solution is not forthcoming from within the party, there are other options for achieving democratic reform.
After the famine of the Great Leap Forward, the CCP lost the mandate of heaven and the trust of the Chinese people. They have never recovered either since. In fact, the party has never even attempted in any way to apologize for the incredible levels of suffering inflicted upon the people as a result of misrule. As a result, intense feelings of resentment and anger still fester among the majority of China’s citizens . These sentiments should not be underestimated as a possible motivating factor for revolutionary actions. Any instance of minor social upheaval has the potential to erupt into a major disturbance or even rebellion . If the CCP continues to ignore the need for changes, then the populace might feel that there is no option aside from violent revolution in order to rectify the wrongs of the Party’s rule. As was demonstrated during the Tiananmen protests, there are large amounts of Chinese citizens who do not shrink from the possibility of a violent coup in order to achieve their goals.
Since the public desire for democracy in China is so strong, and changes aimed at moving China in that direction seem inevitable, it is relevant to question whether the longstanding tradition of corruption would be disrupted or ended in the face of a newly democratized political system. Democracy would provide several possible means of curtailing or ending this pattern of exploitation by political figures. In a democratic republic, the free press would be able to report on all activities without interference. As a result, there would be even greater public awareness of any political scandal than there is currently in China . This increased awareness would allow the citizens of China to make electoral choices based on free information and greatly increased transparency of the political workings of the country. While democracy has by no means eliminated corruption in such countries as India or the United States, there is certainly a lesser amount in such nations than there has been in China. Historical evidence certainly indicates that democratization would greatly help to address the corruption that has for so long been a major concern for the exploited peoples of China.
Although it cannot be known how China’s reform will come until it is upon us, understanding the long suffering that has been endured by the people under the Chinese Communist Party can help illustrate why such change must be inevitable. As long as the ugly history of the party continues to trouble the minds of the millions that have endured its rule, China cannot move forwards. Some change must be made in order to allow the wounds of the past to begin to heal. Whether or not democracy does come to China in the immediate future, if some change is not made then, the pattern of social upheaval and struggle will continue indefinitely. The time has come for the privileged regime of the Communist Party to relinquish its death grip on the political sphere and realize that the sooner a change is made, the more quickly China can become a successful world power with a government worthy of its population.
Ariav Amittay (’07) is a second year student at Brandeis University majoring in East Asian Studies.