Is China’s Social Contract Sustainable?

The government has provided security and economic prosperity for China’s growing middle class. In return, it expects absolute loyalty. How long can this system last?

The West assumed that China’s embrace of capitalist economic policies would set the stage for democratic reform. Almost three decades later, hope for political freedom continues to wane. While China unquestionably faces many threats from groups of people within its borders, the idea of a downturn in the Chinese economy remains a very legitimate threat.  As the Chinese government has radically modernized, it’s economic policies over the past two decades, completely reversing their initial Marxist or Maoist aversion to providing monetary compensation for labor.

These reforms are responsible for the significant growth of the Chinese middle class, which perhaps has the potential to be the most influential in China when looked at in regards to socio-economic status.  This is because the middle class is considerably large, and has come to understand the CCP as being responsible for its growth.

China has undoubtedly experienced the effects of the recent and ongoing global economic crisis; it has certainly fared much better than the majority of the world.  However, it is becoming increasingly difficult in China for college graduates to find jobs, the volume of goods China exports is dropping, and tens of millions of workers are out of work.  “The financial crisis is challenging Beijing’s ability to hold up its end of the deal with the country…leading to a potential threat to the continued rule of the Chinese Communist Party.

Since the inception of Jiang Zemin’s ‘Three Represents,’ designed towards attracting private entrepreneurs towards party membership, the middle and upper class have looked at the party as being responsible for their economic well-being.  Arguably, while it is individuals are responsible for the creation of personal wealth, the Party made that production possible.  If the Party cannot guarantee jobs to the people, there remains the little reason for the people to tolerate the strict control that the Party has over the state.

If the government cannot provide economically, it is violating a sort of contract it has with the educated middle class.  The government provides an environment for a healthy, regulated economy, to encourage the creation of private wealth and property, and in return has its rule legitimized by its people.  A threat exists when the government is not able to guarantee a healthy economy, prompting discontent from the middle class.

However, the Chinese government has become particularly adept at maintaining or regaining control over its people via means of physical repression, censorship, and through the creation of an environment where fear of speaking out is a legitimate means of control.  Certainly, the likelihood of an economic downturn eliminating the CCP’s influence is little. “Rising social discontent may not be enough to force the party out of power, but it might be sufficient to tempt some members of the elite to exploit the situation to their political advantage,” thus leading to internal instability within the party, further contributing to its weakening.

While the CCP has an extraordinary ability to suppress dissent, the fact remains that it can only contain it for so long.  Economic downturn is a very severe threat to the rule of the CCP, and while the party may not be entirely forced out if its people decide to act upon their economic suffering, the likelihood that the CCP would emerge unscathed is small, as a political impact would be “likely—and any change is apt to come from the top rather than the bottom.”

One does notice a persistent desire for increased democratization in local and regional affairs, along with calls for an end to the one-party policy from Chinese intellectuals. Also, continued civil unrest on the part of groups desiring independence from CCP rule as a result of religious suppression and ethnic inequality illustrates critical threats to the ability of the CCP to maintain complete power in China, the most significant threat to the power monopoly held by the CCP is a pronounced economic downturn.  Not only would it create very a substantial amount of public dissent, but also it has the potential to encourage a struggle for power within the ranks of the Chinese elite.

Party officials seeking to take advantage of such a violent situation might break away from the party to seek public approval to gain more authority and power for themselves.  In addition to being a large threat, the likelihood of an individual taking advantage of a situation like this is higher than the overthrow of the party, as the mobilization and subsequent organization of a majority of the massive Chinese population, with a common goal is very unlikely.

Editor at Global Security Review

Joshua Stowell is the editor of Global Security Review. Joshua’s work has been featured in Real Clear Defense, Small Wars Journal, and Het Financieele Dagblad. Joshua holds an M.A. in International Relations from The University of St Andrews.

Get the Global Security Brief
National Security & International Affairs Analysis in Your Inbox
You may opt-out at any time.
You might also like