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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

One for all and all for the Party!

Emilie Tran

Texte intégral

1April 2011

2More than 20 years after the crackdown of the Beijing Spring, in the evening of 3rd to 4th June 1989, could China be experiencing another revolutionary Spring, contaminated by the wave of protests and revolutions that has swept through the Arab world during 2010 to 2011?

3Within three decades, China has moved from isolation from the international stage to the status of a global power. In the wake of the 21st century, the 90 year-old Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (one of the oldest political parties in the world, which has been constantly in power for more than 60 years) has undeniably changed its nature compared to what it was at the time of its foundation. In 1921 it was a clandestine party; in 1935, a party on the brink of disappearing, in 1949, the party of the Chinese nation that had triumphed over the imperialist and nationalists forces, in 1966, a party over which Mao had regained control because he refused to let it become a bourgeoisie party so he revived it through another revolution, of the cultural kind and in 1989, a party reaffirming its totalitarian nature to the world with its tanks crushing a youth drunk on democracy whilst the Communist Bloc in Eastern Europe was singing its swansong.

4More than 20 years after the crackdown, the CCP is still leading the country on its own, and maybe even better than ever before. Today it is an organisation whose ideological and structural dimensions have fundamentally changed as political power has kept adapting and renewing itself, not as a survival strategy, but to remain important while heading the country for a long period of time.

5So what is the longevity recipe of the Chinese Party-State? In order to understand the dynamic of political regimes and how they evolve, it is necessary to understand its elite in action and interaction. In China, although the word “elite” covers a particularly changing and complex reality, two main categories can be distinguished: the political elite and the socio-economic elite.

6Once the victims of recurring political campaigns of the People’s Republic (just like other social categories), the political elite are now present within the nomenklatura according to regulations that have been progressively institutionalised to ensure the renewal of top leaders since the start of the reforms in 1978. Nevertheless, these central and local leaders, whether they were entirely or partially trained abroad or in the People’s Republic, are still largely supported according to the same co-optation rules as for their predecessors and they attend the Party’s schools to complement their training, which is a must for any civil servant whose ambition is to be part of the elite cohort of around 80,000 leaders.

7The fourth generation of leaders, led by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, is very different from the three previous leaders, Mao Zedong (1949-1976), Deng Xiaoping (1977-1989) and Jiang Zemin (1989-2002) because the Cultural Revolution marked it. It will be replaced in 2012 by the fifth generation of leaders, probably led by the current Vice-President of the Central Military Commission, Xi Jinping. Although the vast majority of top leaders received academic training in the sciences, usually in an engineering school, there are more and more leaders who now come from academic fields such as economics, law or public administration.

8At the top of the Chinese socio-economic pyramid are the upper socio-professional categories, such as academics and scholars, entrepreneurs, managers of the private sector, artists and lawyers. who have either appeared or made a comeback since 1978. The socio-economic elite is largely composed of urban residents from coastal China. Although they are rather well-off, they have diverse socio-cultural and economic backgrounds. Certain private entrepreneurs have succeeded in business and have become remarkably wealthy despite an education disrupted by the Cultural Revolution, but most of the elite were educated at mainland universities and an increasing number at universities abroad. Although this class is a minority, they have not been given much attention by social scientists. The question is whether Chinese entrepreneurs could follow their British counterparts of the Industrial Revolution and whether the rest of China’s upper middle class could follow in the steps of the bourgeois during the Age of Enlightenment, the former and the latter having been great supporters of democratisation.

9Having (re)established their socio-economic status thanks to governmental policies during the reform era, although this elite has gained autonomy in relation to the Party-State, it is not challenging the legitimacy of the regime in place to which it owes a large part of its social mobility. This is because it constitutes a minority among the very privileged at the top of a very polarised socio-economic structure and does not favour the emancipation of the masses because it fears “social chaos”.

10Thanks to the reform policy and the opening-up to the outside world, public intellectuals held salons (gatherings) such as those that characterised France in the 18th century. The Tiananmen crackdown silenced the opponents to the regime, forcing many into exile. In the following decade, those who still wanted to contribute to a better future had to change strategies and become expert-advisors of the power in place, thus creating think tanks, which have continued to grow in importance ever since, as shown by the Global Think Tank Summit held in Beijing in July 2009, gathering around 900 participants and organised by the super think tank (chaoji zhiku), the China Centre for International Economic Exchanges.

11Although think tanks are nothing new in China (some claiming they can be traced back to Confucius’s time!), from 2000 to 2010, they have become semi-governmental organisations whose predominance and development are unprecedented. The core group composed of public intellectuals – among whom are economists who returned home after obtaining their doctorate in the West – is now joined by an increasing number of highly ranked leaders who are seeking positions in the most renowned think tanks and top universities in China, some of whom are still holding their government positions. Managers from the private sector and state-owned companies are included in this group. In exchange for the financial support that the business community provides to the think tanks, the economic elite can expect to influence certain debates to profit their businesses.

12Thus, these three different elite groups consisting of political leaders (in office or retired), businessmen and women and public intellectuals meet together in think tanks, which combine political and financial power with knowledge. An elite united in plurality or plural in unity is the image conveyed by China. The impact of this close to “incestuous” union on the evolution of politics and policies in China remains to be analysed. For the time being, it can be said that think tanks are very far from the salons of the Age of Enlightenment and those of the 1980s in China. This elite comes together so as to overcome the one-party rule, but to ensure its continuity, by redirecting public policies in order to make the State-Party as reactive and legitimate as possible. After the successful turn to elitism at the beginning of the 2000s that invited private entrepreneurs to become members of the party, as demonstrated by the evolution of the think tanks’ members, the party has made another turn, this time towards Rawlsianism, by trying to regain its social ground, thus following the advice of another school of experts, who claim to belong to the New Left, reducing social inequalities for fairer socio-economic development; compensating for its mistakes and lack of capacity by acknowledging the social work of Chinese NGOs and relying on the latter for certain social issues. All this, done without any significant liberalisation of the political system, is the new social contract that the leading elite has been offering to the Chinese society. All the surveys carried out so far, be they by Chinese or foreign scholars, tend to show that the overall the population support the power in place. The 80 million members of the Chinese Communist Party today, which is still growing steadily (although these members adhere more by interest than by conviction), illustrate the popularity of the party.

13Whether we like it or not, China has forged its very own path of development, different in many aspects from the West. This Chinese model, acclaimed by the vast majority of its elite and people is yet to be distinguished. Without excluding the possibility of insurrection by the millions left behind by economic growth and those who have been deprived by the regime (who would be capable of bringing certain main areas across the country to a standstill), it seems that given the achievement record of the party for the last 30 years, China is not yet ready for a new revolutionary Spring.


60,417 million


61,877 million


63,221 million


64,517 million


64,517 million


66,355 million


70,80 million


73,36 million


77,995 million

Members of the Communist Party of China (source:


Université Saint-Joseph (Macao)

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