As the CCP tightens its grip on the Chinese people, what does this mean for the future of China and its freedoms?
Since the creation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1921, the influence of communism in China has been hard to ignore. The current regime controls most aspects of Chinese citizens’ day to day lives and are tightening their control. The Chinese Communist Party has tightened its control over the state bureaucracy, the media, online speech, religious groups, universities, businesses, and civil society associations and has already undermined its more moderate legal reforms regarding civil rights and government jurisdiction. Xi Jinping, the current leader of the CCP and the president of the People’s Republic of China has consolidated power and triggered rising discontent among elites within and outside of the communist party. The internment of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region paints a vivid picture of conditions in China for those not in the favor of the regime in power. These legal reforms along with increasing discrimination and internment of the Chinese Uighur population have illustrated a bleak picture for the future of China in terms of its freedom for citizens and autocratic consolidation. With rapid economic development occurring across the country, especially in its large urban metropolitan areas, there has been generation of increasing demands by citizens to participate in decisions that affect their lives and for authorities to respond more fairly to their grievances. It will be interesting to observe into the future the responsiveness of China’s government to increasing grievances and whether this system of authoritarian communist government can continue to exert its will on the people of one of the most powerful and populace countries in the world.
Background on CCP
The Chinese Communist Party is the founding and sole ruling party of the People’s Republic of China. It was founded in 1921 by revolutionaries including Li Dazhao, Chen Duxiu, Mao Zedong, and others. Many Chinese had turned to Marxism after the Bolshevik victory in the Russian Revolution of 1917, and they tried to implement similar government in China. The CCP enjoyed early success from organizing labor unions in cities. However, in 1927, the Nationalist Party which was originally allied with the CCP turned violently against the communists and drove the CCP underground. After many struggles and the intense conflict of World War Two with Japan’s invasion, the civil war between the CCP and the Nationalist party recommenced in 1946. In 1949, the Nationalists were decisively defeated and were forced to retreat to Taiwan where they remain, allowing for the CCP and its allies to create the People’s Republic of China. After its victory the CCP began adopting the Soviet model for development and closely allied itself with the Soviet Union with their Communist governmental structure. Through a largely capitalist economy with communist government and a ruling party of the CCP controlling the economy, China has consolidated authoritarian control in and through the CCP.
Authoritarianism in China
In the late 1970s, Deng Xiaoping led the Chinese leadership and launched a modern reform period where they relaxed economic and ideological controls, fueling an unprecedented 30 year economic boom. Due to these lax reforms and Xiaoping’s neutral mindset towards capitalism, seeing how it could serve the needs of a communist regime, China has experienced a ten-fold expansion in GDP, has overtaken Japan as the second-largest economy, and has emerged as a world power. However, central government leaders currently remain adamantly opposed to fundamental political reform by rejecting notions for free speech and representative democracy. In China, the CCP’s authorities choose key figures in executive and judicial institutions with subordinate government officials being selected through competitive civil service exams. The CCP and government authorities regularly reject a democracy consisting of multiple parties representing the people as a “Western” concept that does not fit China’s political conditions. The CCP has been known to repress peaceful protest with brutal force such as with the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and shut down all minority opinion through censorship of media and repercussions for those trying to enable free speech. The CCP and the government have prioritized party control at the expense of building autonomous legal and political institutions.
A recent case that showcases China’s autocratic consolidation involves the ethnic Uighur group living in China. Human rights groups believe China has detained more than one million Uighurs against their will over the past few years and placed them in internment camps that the state has labeled “re-education camps”. Uighurs are being forced to do labor and women are being forcibly sterilized. There are about 12 million Uighurs in China, who are mostly Muslims, living in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Several countries including the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands have accused China of genocide, interning Uighurs in labor camps and for forcibly mass sterilizing Uighur women to suppress the population and break up cultural traditions of the group. Xinjiang is now covered by a substantial surveillance network including police checkpoints and cameras along with mobile apps to monitor people’s behavior. China has denied all allegations and said in 2019 that they had released everyone from their “re-education” camps, though testimonies suggest that there are many still detained, and that people are continually being transferred to these camps to this day. China claims that the crackdown is to prevent terrorism and Islamic extremism and that these camps are effective in suppressing such dangerous attitudes. The CCP and the Chinese government have suppressed an entire ethnic group and are asserting their will on the masses through autocratic consolidation that the people have no say over.
As China progresses into the future and as the world becomes more globalized it will be interesting to note how increased grievances and desire for free speech and representation will interact with the strict, authoritarian CCP. During the more progressive and laxer rule of Deng Xiaoping, China was able to assert itself as a global economic power. With Xi Jinping’s more authoritarian and oppressive social policies it will be interesting to observe how China progresses into the world stage and whether their citizens call for political reform. China through the CCP and strict leadership has consolidated authoritarian control and suppressed democratic ideals and thinking in China as an extremely influential global actor.
I think Xi’s autocratic tendencies are really interesting to consider in the context of China’s overall trajectory compared to the United States as well as China’s history of strongman leaders. Hal Brands (distinguished professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies) and Michael Beckley (associate professor of political science at Tufts University) theorized about China what they called the “peaking power trap”. According to their theory, Xi is likely to continue to grow more and more authoritarian. China is facing decreasing economic growth, natural resources, and food and water along with a quickly aging population the which will mean vastly increasing spending on healthcare and social security. Xi feels the need to appear as a strong leader. The decreasing economic growth and other changes are already happening no matter what he does, but are exacerbated by the autocratic crackdown you talk about. Following the “peak power trap theory”, Xi will react to this sense of decline with a further autocratic crackdown and trying to project power more domestically and internationally. This could easily mean shows of power in Hong Kong, Taiwan, or the South China Sea and expansion of Chinese autocratic power into these areas. I think that if Xi is able to continue to appear as powerful as he currently is and maintain economic growth, it is unlikely that the people will revolt because it won’t feel possible.
Your comment is interesting because it actually contradicts the predictions of former political scientists about democratization and modernization, namely that with economic growth and the expansion of the middle class, the likelihood of democratization of an authoritarian regime becomes higher.
However, I agree with you. The reality in China is that ideological education is affecting young people in a panoramic way. At the same time, all forms of social movements, march, or civil society are being severely suppressed by the government. China is more likely to go further and further down the road to dictatorship than a ground where democracy could be born.
I learned many facts about the current state of China from reading this. It is a very informative post. Looking at China’s lack of democracy is always rather interesting because China is such a unique case. For how long China has been authoritarian, it seems to face little authoritarian backlash in the present day. While in some instances, nationalist sentiments can lead towards a state’s population criticizing their government like in the case of the Meiji restoration in Japan, nationalism and support for the CCP seem to be positively correlated. COVID-19 might have helped strengthen nationalism in China thanks to the backlash that China received due to being the country that coronavirus originated from. Comments such as Donald Trump calling COVID-19 the “China Virus” received large backlash in China and most likely fueled nationalism amongst Chinese citizens. As we can see with many far-right parties in the West, nationalism is directly related to democratic erosion and autocratic consolidation. It is hard to see China becoming more democratic in the future as the vast majority of Chinese citizens support the CCP despite it being an autocratic government that commits many human rights violations. Social media plays a huge role in the continued support for the CCP as the Chinese government frequently censors anything the regime does not agree with. Controlling the media is a form of stealth authoritarianism, but China’s iron grip over the media is outright authoritarianism. Even the Uighur situation in Xinjiang province is heavily censored in China, so many Chinese citizens do not believe the allegations of torture and genocide that have been reported. It is also unlikely that China will be pressured into transitioning to democracy by democratic states as China has become extremely powerful both economically and globally as you stated.
Hello Morgan, great post! I learned quite a lot about China’s authoritarian practice by reading this post. I think it is important you highlighted the treatment of the ethnic group Uighur. While I had previously heard about the internment camps, I had not heard about the forceable sterilization of the Uighur women. The practice is a disgusting one to disrupt the population and their culture. Something I learned this semester in my politics and technology class was the social credit score in China. Your social credit score can go down for things as simple as jaywalking. And the consequences one can face for a low social credit score have yet to be fully determined. The system is run by artificial intelligence. Elites can program the system in a way that benefits them. It is possible to get a lower score for practicing certain religions, talking about the government negatively, engaging in banned cryptocurrency, etc. Another thing I recently learned about China is it is in its final stages of developing a central digital currency. The digital currency would replace the Chinese Yuan. It could link to the social credit score. Money could expire, be locked, or only be approved to pay for certain goods and services. I feel like these two key technologies and the powerful economy of China will grow the authoritarian grip Jinping has on the regime. Are democracies too economically dependent on China to stop these practices? Do democracies want to stop these practices? The United States is currently working with MIT to develop its own central bank digital currency. So are the majority of nations with the technology to do so. Will we see democratic backsliding across the board due to this technology?
I would like to say a couple of things. First of all, the brief history lesson was nice, especially for those who do not know much about China. However, I would like to point out that the CCP and the Soviet Union’s relationship was not as close as the post makes it out to be. Actually, the Chinese knew the flaws of the Soviet system and did not want to emulate that 100%, thus they created what they call “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.”
Also, although there is violation of human rights, it must also be stated that we must look at why such a thing is occuring. Yes, you have mentioned that they are doing this to prevent terrorism and that it is still not justifiable. I would agree with this, however, as a government that must protect its people, what other options do they have to combat terrorism.