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Greenville Business Magazine

Myth of China: Dictatorship

Nov 01, 2017 01:22PM ● By Emily Stevenson
By Xiaobo Hu

The Chinese system is not of dictatorship because no single leader in China can dictate. In a previous issue, we discussed “democratic centralism,” the supposedly ruling principle of China, which renders its top decisions made through “collective leadership.” In this collective leadership, each of the seven to nine top leaders has the veto power. Such a system has been termed as “decision by consensus” by a former U.S. assistant secretary of state and China expert, Susan Shirk, in her influential research. No decision is made until everyone agrees. It surely makes its decision-making difficult and usually through lengthy negotiations and compromises. It was only after four years that the current president of China, Xi Jinping, finally received the “title” of the core of the leadership in China, which means he is the first among the equals of the top leaders and his veto power would carry more weight than other Politburo members.

More fundamentally, China has become more decentralized since the death of the last paramount leader, Mao Zedong. The decentralization reform since the late 1970s and early 1980s has largely transformed the Chinese political system. Even during the Mao times, China was not considered a dictatorship or totalitarianism by China experts in the United States.

In general, there have been two leading paradigms in analyzing contemporary Chinese political system in the United States, as summarized by another senior China expert, June Dryer. They are: factionalism and pluralism.

Under the factional paradigm, there are four schools of analysis. The first is the central-regional school, which emphasizes the division between the central and local governments in China. For this school, each has its own policy agenda and there also exists a power struggle between the central government and provincial governments over their control of the economy and other matters valuable. The second is the political-culture school, which examines the constant policy struggle between westernization versus indigenous development in China’s modernization drives.  The third is the bureaucratic politics school that recognizes the different interest groups based in or supported by different bureaucracies within the government – “the underlying premise of this line of analysis is that Chinese political behavior is the result of inter-organizational bargaining for budgets, status and power.” The fourth is the palace politics school that sees Chinese politics and policy changes being dominated and shaped by internal struggles among different elite groups within the highest level of Chinese leadership. While each of these schools may capture part of Chinese reality, none regards China as a dictatorship ruled by a dictator or a unified single party.

Under the pluralist paradigm, there are two schools of analysis. One is the theory of “communist” neo-traditionalism, which characterizes China with competition and conflict at all levels, whereby people do have choices to pursue their own interests, although some of these choices are limited by authoritarian state controls. The other is the theory of fragmented authoritarianism, which emphasizes China’s policymaking through protracted bargaining between the top leaders and their bureaucracy. The post-Mao reform in the last four decades has given local officials ever-increasing abilities to resist the central authorities. Ignoring central fiscal and environmental regulations, local governments have accumulated dangerous levels of debts and produced devastating environmental hazards.

Indeed, there were analyses describing China as a totalitarian regime during the 1950s and early 1960s when American scholars had little information from inside China. After four decades of post-Mao decentralization reform, marketization reform, and privatization reform, we would miss much of the reality (and possibly opportunities) if we still perceive China as a dictatorship. China has been much more plural than we usually think.