China and the Question of Legitimacy

9 May

China’s government have faced wave after wave of criticism from the West regarding its authoritarian practices, and many academics point to its style of governance as its Achilles heel. But as Martin Jacques explains, democracy in itself does not guarantee legitimacy.

In the West, multi-party democracy have only provided the foundations for the rich to legitimize their behaviour against the exploited, the revolving door between business and politics continue to distract the government from representing its people.

This is something acknowledged by the political elites in China when discussing the issue of democracy in 1970s, but unfortunately the Tiananmen Square protests caused a crisis of legitimacy which supplanted the party’s moral rationale towards a distinctly economic one. In the words of Deng Xiaoping in 1991:

‘To win the support of the people, economic liberalization must continue for another 100 years.’
(Kissinger, 2011:424).

This is somewhat paradoxical considering the Tiananmen Square protests originated from problems caused by economic liberalization in the first place, and thus market expansion became the only source legitimacy for the Chinese Communist party-state until recently, when they realized to gain support of the public, they must redirect their attention to society itself. It is with hope that the party continues to focus on serving the people rather than returning to its obessession with economic growth.


Kissinger, Henry (2011) On China. Allene Lane. London.


One Response to “China and the Question of Legitimacy”

  1. cw12g11 May 9, 2013 at 10:57 pm #

    Martin Jacques rightfully questions whether a politician, elected to power with a majority of electoral support is a more legitimate choice than a politician elected by a small minority. In China the process by which the recently appointed Politburo Standing Committee was appointed was considered by many to be opaque and even secretive with the process predominantly taking place behind closed doors. From a Western-centric view one would argue that this is simply undemocratic – a country embarking on a journey to become a global hegemonic power still elects its leaders behind closed doors. Contrastingly, you could easily argue that Britain and America for example with their tens of millions turning out on voting day have a more legitimately democratic government than those in China. Jacques incidentally argues that democracy in itself does not guarantee legitimacy. Take Italy for example, known worldwide to host numerous elections yet their state has a history of corruption, thus reducing the state’s legitimacy i.e. after the Berlusconi affair. Meanwhile, the Chinese state actually enjoys greater legitimacy than any Western state. In China, the source of the state’s legitimacy lies with the idea that China is a civilisation state. The legitimacy of the Chinese state lies above all, in its relationship with Chinese civilisation. In fact, in a survey by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government 80-95% of Chinese people were either relatively or extremely satisfied with their central government. Additionally, a further 91% of Chinese respondents thought that the government’s handling of the economy was good. While this may reflect a peaceful state, home to a cordial relationship between the state and the people but there have also been some conflicts – namely the wave of strikes in the Guangdong Province for higher wages in 2010 and 2011. The Chinese idea of the state is very different to that in the West whereby those on the Left favour state intervention and those on the right favour less governance etc. The Chinese state in fact is seen to be a member of the family, the head of the family usually. The Chinese see the state as an intimate member of the family. They perceive the state not as external but as an extension or representation of themselves. Indeed, since the early 80s, the debate about the state in Britain has largely been conducted in terms either of what bits should be privatised or how it can be made to mimic the market. While we at times in the west think of the state as a hindrance to our lives, in China, they see their state as their greatest strength. It is their state that has pulled the strings along their road to modernity, it is the state that has seen their economy increase rapidly in the past 30 years and it will be the state that takes this emerging power onto bigger and greater things.

    Jacques, M. (2012) When China Rules the World. Oxford: Penguin. Pp 16-49.

    Hsu, I. (2000). The Rise of Modern China. Washington: OUP USA. Pp 56-74.

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