Unfortunately for the Chinese people, the contours of this space are constantly changing. The detention in 2015 of five activists who planned to protest against sexual harassment on public transport is one example. The CCP has long advocated for women’s equality, noting that they “hold half the sky.” But without even realizing it, these five activists had crossed a line. The CCP viewed its effective social media campaign, growing popularity, and coordinated action in a number of major cities as a threat to its regime. Each of them was arrested on charges of “provoking quarrels and causing unrest,” a crime under Chinese criminal law that has been used almost exclusively to silence peaceful protesters. The five feminists were eventually released on bail, but they remain under constant surveillance and are not allowed to leave China.
Religion also plays an important role in the success of local party officials, but only within strict party boundaries. While the CCP remains inherently suspicious of religions, especially those with foreign ties and allegiances like Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam, local officials know that religious groups often provide social services that local government can not provide, such as orphanages, hospitals and homes for the disabled.
For many religious organizations, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed an estimated 69,000, was a turning point. The Chinese government has responded weakly, but local Christian churches, such as the Early Rain Covenant Church near Chengdu, have mobilized their congregations. Their members first treated the wounded and set up pantries, then eventually established a permanent homeless shelter, daycare, and financial assistance program for the families of political prisoners. But these charitable initiatives have become suspect under the current Chinese president, Xi Jinping. In a secret trial in 2019, Wang Yi, the pastor of Early Rain, was convicted of subversion of state power and operating an illegal business. He is currently serving a nine-year prison sentence.
Most Chinese observers the majority between 1989 and 2008 had a dominant view known as the “theory of the modernization of democracy”. The idea was that China’s economic development would inevitably lead it to adopt a more open political system. This is one of the reasons the United States supported China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. American politicians assumed that democracy would naturally follow economic liberalization, such as This is clearly shown by the remarks made in 2000 by President Bill Clinton:
China does not just agree to import more of our products. It is accepting to import one of the values most dear to democracy, economic freedom…. When individuals have the power not only to dream, but to make their dreams come true, they will demand a greater voice.
But as Dickson points out, even in 2001, it was unwise to think that economic development would usher in greater political reform. Well aware of the implications of modernization theory, Deng Xiaoping launched his economic reforms following the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989 with the aim of to prevent other calls for democracy. Fast forward to 2021, and the CCP has survived the modernization theory: political change has progressed gradually relative to its robust economic development. Under Xi Jinping, he actually regressed. But as Dickson notes in his last chapter, “Will China become democratic?” The CCP has a major weakness. Since its legitimacy depends on rising incomes, any slowdown in the Chinese economy could lead to further calls for political change.
There is a slight omission in Dickson’s otherwise excellent book, which falls in his penultimate chapter, “How Nationalist is China?” Here, Dickson examines how the CCP has used nationalism to bolster its legitimacy. (He introduced compulsory “patriotic education” in Chinese schools after the Tiananmen protests in 1989.) Dickson spends time tracking and analyzing the different levels of nationalism among different Chinese generations, but he does not examine a arguably more important problem: the devastating effect that China’s enraged nationalism has on China’s minorities and its neighbors. China is a multi-ethnic country that includes large populations of Uyghurs, Tibetans, and other ethnic groups. But its nationalism privileges the identity of the Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group in China. To what extent has this Han-centered nationalism enabled the party to intern over a million Uyghurs or commit countless human rights violations in Tibetan regions? It would have been good questions to explore.
Like any good observer of China, Dickson refuses to predict the future of the CCP. But it shows that many of the factors that kept the CCP in power – improved economic conditions, limited protests and civil society, the popular belief that the country has become more “democratic” – still exist. For Dickson, Xi Jinping is ultimately the joker. Since taking office in 2013, Xi has implemented reforms that potentially limit the party’s legitimacy in the eyes of the people. He consolidated power, eliminating the collective leadership established after Mao’s death to avoid the dangers implicit in one-man rule. It has stepped up the repression of civil society, protests and religion, reducing the party’s responsiveness to the people. More importantly, he eliminated term limits and did not name a possible successor. China has outlived most other authoritarian dictatorships in large part because of its peaceful power transitions, a tradition that Xi upset with a potentially undefined regime. Could he initiate the downfall of the CCP? For anyone interested in this issue and the future of China, Power and the people is a good place to start.
The Party and the People
Chinese politics in the 21st century
Princeton University Press
$ 29.95 | 328 p.