Studying China’s Politics Now: The Main Issues Before Us

Suzuki Takashi


This essay, while keeping the current situation of China’s politics in mind, tries to comment, one, on the trends in, and challenges faced by, Japanese and American research on China’s politics, and, two, on several points of contention that I judge will become important in the years to come as we look ahead to the future of China’s politics.


Main text

Original text in Japanese, translated by RICAS


What should be done to cope with the ascendance of China? As has been pointed out by a number of well-informed people, this question presents one of the major tasks confronting the international community in the 21st century. It is well known that the People’s Republic of China, under the continuing one-party dictatorship of the Communist Party of China (CPC), has achieved rapid economic growth in the past 30-odd years. Furthermore, as symbolized by China’s hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, the international community has felt the strength of China’s presence to an increasing extent. These accomplishments have gone a long way to soothing the national pride of China, which suffered aggression from the West and Japan during China’s “modern history of humiliation.”

However, China’s domestic politics in recent years has been characterized by a plethora of contradictions in the political, economic, and social spheres. With the long spell of rapid economic growth having finally run its course, China now needs to free itself from the growth model that it has been accustomed to for years. Social conflicts continue to increase. A number of problems, such as political corruption, the widening gap between the rich and poor, and environmental destruction, have worsened in the shadow of development politics. The result has been that ordinary people, whose lives and property are affected by these problems, are becoming acutely conscious of their rights and have become increasingly dissatisfied with their government. Incidents of civil disorder, called “mass frustration” or “mass incidents” in Chinese, have been increasing rapidly. Whereas there was a total of 8,700 such incidents in China in 1993, the number swelled to nearly 130,000 in 2008. In addition, 2008 and 2009 saw ethnic conflicts explode in Tibet and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. These escalated into large-scale riots, but the central government does not yet have the slightest idea of how to open a dialogue to resolve these conflicts.

At the same time, while popular nationalistic sentiment has been stoked to serve as a vent for the expression of such social dissatisfaction, dissension with China’s neighbors is also gathering intensity, for instance, over maritime rights and interests, as well as over territorial claims. Japan-China relations have become especially volatile, with the Japanese government’s nationalization of the Senkaku Islands in 2012 touching off a series of large-scale anti-Japanese demonstrations in various parts of China. Although this is to some extent a reflection of the general state of rivalry among powers in the political theater of East Asia, Japan-China relations are on the threshold of a very difficult period.

Research on China’s Politics in Japan and the United States

With regard to the increasing political risks that China faces, researchers are trying hard to make sense of China’s politics by availing themselves of various methodologies. In what follows, I would like to comment very briefly on the recent trends in, and challenges faced by, research on China’s politics in Japan and the United States. One characteristic of studies on contemporary China in the United States and in Korea, as Korean scholars in China studies are eagerly absorbing American methodology, is a quantitative and statistical approach, which is typically adopted in social surveys and studies on voting behaviors. This methodology is beginning to have the greatest influence on China studies. Some of the studies taking this approach compare favorably in terms of methodological sophistication with analyses of election results in the advanced countries. Even though these studies are hindered by the limited availability of primary source materials and other pertinent data, the analytical procedures they use in handling their statistics are very sophisticated. 1

By contrast, among Japanese researchers in this field, the quantitative approach is still in its developmental stage. I, however, am skeptical about the current state of China studies in the United States, which is flooded with statistical analyses, as this methodology reflects the excessively optimistic view connected to scientism and positivism. Indeed, as the English word “positivism” suggests, American scholars of China studies seem to view China on the basis of their own ethics and norms, and therefore they adopt a “positive,” even, I would say, a “bright,” view not only of the behavior of the individuals actually living in the political world of China but also of the directionality of history. I am afraid, however, that in taking such an intellectual approach one might end up repeating the same mistake committed by some China experts both in Japan and the United States when they predicted the future of China at the time of the “Great Cultural Revolution” or the Tiananmen Incident in 1989. I am of the opinion that we Japanese scholars who study contemporary China should open up a new and viable path for our research by looking into the difference between the American and Japanese approaches.

Old but New Points of Contention (1): The “Politics of Scale” and Social and Political Changes

Research themes that need to be given greater importance in the future in this regard may be deemed old but new. Below I would like to present several pertinent points of contention that have lately “weighed heavily on my mind,” drawing lessons from both vertical studies of the history of China and from horizontal international comparative studies.

Let me begin with the points of contention over international comparisons. A majority of people would agree that China’s vast territory and its massive population are the defining features of China’s politics when viewed from the standpoint of international comparisons. Nonetheless, it is extremely difficult to analyze the “politics of scale” in an academically convincing way without relying on an unrefined and impressionistic discourse (as you will quickly understand once you start to try and undertake such an analysis yourself). For example, why is it that the CPC has been able to remain in power in spite of the failure of the “Great Leap Forward,” which is reported to have forced tens of millions of people to starve to death, or the wholesale devastation of political and social lives that was brought about by the Cultural Revolution? Or, again, is there indeed a high probability, as is widely talked about, that the popular uprisings erupting at a high frequency will bring about democratic change in China’s politics in the future? As noted already, the total number of mass incidents reached nearly 130,000 in 2008, which translates into an extraordinarily high average of 360 incidents per day. And yet, we cannot but pay heed to the solid fact before our eyes that the Communist Party continues to remain in power. Why is this possible? In disentangling this conundrum, interested readers are advised to read very interesting and suggestive papers by Kadozaki Shinya from the perspective of the “politics of scale.”2

I myself have not given full consideration to these questions. To state a hypothesis, however, I find it imperative to ascertain with care both the cause and the nature of social movements, including the mass incidents. In my own understanding, existing studies on this question are proposing two opposing views: A) one thesis asserts that the frequent popular protests are but a short-lived sign of instability, which is an inevitable accompaniment to rapid social change; and B) the other thesis asserts that such activities are a manifestation of structural contradictions that are inherent in the authoritarian political regime. Even though the two theses are not explicitly named, Thesis A seems to be very close to China’s official position, while Thesis B is widely shared by outside observers and seems to form the undercurrent of news reports, for example, in Japan and the United States.

However, logically speaking, these two theses can produce completely opposite conclusions on the question of the sustainability of the Communist Party’s rule. Thesis A, which regards social fluctuations as a short-lived sign of instability, would assert as follows: one, social instability is a phenomenon that is commonly experienced by many countries on their way to modernization, as in the case of Japan, where the period from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s saw a wholesale politicization of society spearheaded by student movements; and, two, if the social system undergoes vast and rapid changes, ripples, large and small, cannot help but be created, however, as society regains stability with the passage of time, and as the “politics of productivity” takes root in society, the overall situation gradually stabilizes. If the ongoing political instability of China moves in line with this scenario, the CPC’s monopoly rule will remain sustainable in the future. If, however, social fluctuations are inherent in the authoritarian regime, as claimed by Thesis B, then it follows that any attempt to deal with such social commotions by implementing one policy measure or another is bound to prove futile. The problem will then never be settled, and social stability will never be restored, without regime change. Needless to say, on the actual scene of a mass riot, both the factors underlying Thesis A and those underlying Thesis B may be intricately intertwined, thereby working jointly to intensify social conflict, but there is a dearth of empirical studies on which of the two factors is more crucial, and how the two factors bond with each other as the problem unfolds.

Old but New Points of Contention (2): Power Struggles and Factional Politics

Looking back at history, the reform and open-door policy, which went into full swing during the 1980s and subsequently rode the waves of market-oriented economic reform and globalization during the 1990s and the 2000s, has run its course for now. With the foregoing cycle having reached maturity, China today is burdened with a heap of political and economic problems, namely, a three-piece set of “power struggles,” “state-owned enterprises” and “the widening gulf between the wealthy and the poor, as well as rampant graft and corruption.” In other words, the “solid rock of politics,” which is inseparably related to the essential nature of an authoritarian political regime and a socialist economic system, remains intact.

With regard to the issue of a power struggle, one of the three-piece set mentioned above, there is no denying that the academic community in Japan has been putting power struggles in China’s political circles to one side of its academic research agenda for more than 20 years. Many researchers of my generation have been consciously shunning the old school of Pekinology, to which many researchers of the older generations had belonged, and have looked down on it as outdated and old-fashioned, so to speak. But if we face up to the reality of Chinese politics, we must admit that, despite the passage of time, Pekinology can still serve as an important source of insights. We are faced with an important question of how we can possibly bring the old technique of power analysis to life again and make it academically viable and suitable for analyzing China’s on-going power struggles.

It seems worthwhile pointing out in this connection that the political connotations of the words widely used by the mass media nowadays, such as the “conservative faction” and the “reformist faction,” will have to be examined and redefined more specifically. For example, should we regard Xi Jinping (General Secretary of the CPC, and the President of the People’s Republic of China) as belonging to the conservative faction or the reformist faction? Or, should we rather take the view that, from a tactical perspective, Xi may be resolutely carrying out progressive economic and social policies despite his continual conservative remarks and actions, while, strategically, he is in fact working toward the conservative goal of maintaining the present regime by implementing such apparently progressive policy measures? In short, the policies of realpolitik are characterized by extremely complicated interplay between conservative factors, on the one hand, and progressive or reformist factors, on the other, and, as such, they are far more difficult to assess than economic policies.

Stated differently, this points to the fact that in dealing with China’s politics today, in which confrontations between rival policy lines have grown much more obscure than in the past (e.g., the 1980s, when the debate on reform policies was at its height), it is very difficult to classify and identify individual factional groups even on the basis of a full understanding of what group or factional politics actually means. How will it be possible to understand the political dynamics of the factions in a new manner that is both different from that of the old Pekinologists and, furthermore, through its academic perspective, distinct from the ways of journalism? Studies driven by the awareness of the importance of these issues will be in greater demand in the future.

But this is easier said than done. Take, for example, the patterns of political behavior around power in China, which at times manifest themselves in a form of collective violence. Many Japanese scholars from the older generations who witnessed the Cultural Revolution first hand may be able to perceive these patterns without much difficulty, but those of us who belong to the younger generations lack first-hand experiences of witnessing political actors who can sometimes be extremely ruthless and violent. The anti-Japanese demonstrations of 2012, which involved massive violent actions, made us aware of the difficulty we have as researchers in dealing with these incidents. After all, we are not warranted, when talking about China’s politics, to use merely neat and tidy academic terminology, such as “institution,” “system,” and “path dependency.” We must think about how we can look at the political actors in China and their collective behavior patterns from the perspective of a comparative politics, not simply by employing conventional concepts of political science but also by going a step further so that we can pay due attention to the plainer aspects of human lives and emotions. This is indeed a very pressing task not only for us but also for researchers from the coming generations.

Concluding Remarks: Political Reforms and Leadership, as Additional Points of Contention

Before concluding this essay, I would like to briefly present a sketch of the political prospects for China in the years to come. It is extremely difficult for us who live in the age of globalization to foretell how the politics and economics of any country are likely to develop. Making such a forecast for China is all the more difficult, because, given the country’s sheer size, which affects both the magnitude and the pace of any social change, the state of things in the country can often develop in ways that radically contradict predictions made either by policy makers in China or by outside observers.

To state my personal view, while paying heed to these points of concern, I find it difficult to envisage a scenario for a regime change or thoroughgoing political reform in China solely on the basis of China’s social movements, even if we include those involved in the popular upheavals mentioned above. The success or failure of social and political change depends crucially on whether a movement “from below” is joined by a sympathetic action “from above.” Especially important among the various prerequisites that need to be met in order for such a sympathetic response “from above” to materialize are the existence of political cracks within the CPC leadership and the emergence of politically ambitious “tricksters.” In this regard, Bo Xilai (the former member of the CPC Central Politburo and the former secretary of the CPC’s Chongqing branch), who was ousted from power in 2012, was a potential trickster of very rare talent. Indeed, with many years having passed since Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and other great charismatic figures, who had led the Revolution and China's state-building but who have now left the stage, it is “bureaucratic” leaders, not “revolutionaries” or “statesmen/politicians,” who comprise the overwhelming majority in China’s political circles. The emergence of politicians in the true sense of the word, and those who are ambitious for better or worse, will prove instrumental not only in facilitating political change in the short run, but also in securing healthy political development in the medium- to long-term.

The emergence of such ambitious politicians also has a bearing upon a series of issues, including that of the political leadership in China, the procedure of political recruitment, and political socialization. A series of naïve questions crosses my mind in relation to these issues. Unlike Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and so on, who survived wartime destruction and worked hard to build a nation, the leaders of the same generation as Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, who grew up within the order that had been “in place” ever since they could remember – Jiang Zemin, born in the 1920s, belonged to the in-between generation – climbed the ladder of success by gaining experience and performing well as local or provincial bureaucrats. During this process, they were certainly “bureaucrats.” Upon being appointed to a specific official position at whatever level (e.g., secretary of the CPC’s provincial branch, member of the Central Committee, member of the Central Politburo, or member of the Politburo Standing Committee) does a Chinese leader transform him-/herself into a “statesman”? Or is it instead the case that Xi Jinping and the other leaders of his generation, who experienced difficulties and hardships in their youth during the Cultural Revolution, were not “bureaucrats”? If not, what about the middle-ranking leaders who are younger than them? What meaning, after all, does this qualitative transformation from being “a bureaucrat” to becoming “a statesman” carry in a country with no democratic elections? Or is it an established fact that with formalistic and inflexible leaders of the “bureaucrat type” now occupying the majority of China’s political circles, the prospect of more creative and ambitious leaders of the “statesman type” seizing the initiative are now growing thinner and thinner?

It should be kept in mind that all these questions are raised with the situation within the Communist Party in mind. Not a few prospective future leaders equipped with a “statesman type” quality of leadership and high aspirations, people who are still unknown to us, may perhaps be found among obscure individuals who are not closely affiliated with the ladder of political success. It seems to be high time for us to stop paying attention only to young and middle-ranking leaders within the CPC. We should start to pay due attention and give proper political consideration to such a reserve army of counter-elites as well.

1 On recent trends in China studies in the West, see, for example: Allen Carlson [et al] eds., Contemporary Chinese Politics: New Sources, Methods, and Field Strategies (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
2 Kadozaki Shinya, “Chugoku no Seijitaisei to ‘Guntaisei-jiken’” [The Chinese Political Regime and the “Mass Incidents”], in Suzuki Takashi and Tanaka Amane, eds., Tenkanki Chugoku no Seiji to Shakai Shudan [Changing Politics and Social Groups in China: The Challenges of Transition], (Kokusai Shoin, 2013); and Kadozaki Shinya “‘Taishu Rosen’ to ‘Koso Seiji’: ‘Daikikin’-go ni okeru Noson Tochi Yoshiki no Henyo, 1960-62-nen” [The “Mass Line” and “Contentious Politics”: Changes in the Pattern of Governing Villages after the “Great Famine,” 1960-62], in Kokubun Ryosei and Kojima Kazuko, eds., Gendai Chugoku Seiji Gaiko no Genten [Origins of Contemporary Chinese Politics and Diplomacy], (Keio University Press, 2013).



Suzuki Takashi
Associate Professor, Department of Chinese Studies, School of Foreign Studies, Aichi Prefectural University