Few scholars have looked into the inner workings of China’s Communist Party like Sebastian Heilmann, founding president of the Mercator Institute of Chinese Studies (Merics) in Berlin, a government professor at the University of Trier and author of China’s Political System. Journalist Ian Johnson interviews him on the success of the party for the New York Times.
A key question you pose is how much of China’s success can be ascribed to this political system. What’s the answer?
There are several important elements. One is the party successfully sets long-term political goals, such as the modernization of industry or technology, or infrastructure planning. As Deng Xiaoping made clear in the 1980s, it can concentrate resources in priority areas. I see this as a strength in the initial phase of development, from say the 1980s to the mid-2000s.
Another crucial element is experimentation. This is something we ignore in the West — how unexpectedly flexible China’s deeply bureaucratic system can be. This flexibility has been demonstrated in the ability to set up pilot projects in special economic zones, in local tests — such as for housing reform or bankruptcy in state enterprises. Very difficult measures were regularly tested in pilot projects for several years before national laws were enacted.
You show how this flexibility arose from the Communist Party’s revolutionary experience.
This is very important. Because we have to ask ourselves, how did a socialist bureaucratic system get this kind of adaptability that you didn’t see in Eastern Europe? It’s due to the specific historical experiences of this party [in the 1930s and 1940s before coming to power]. It controlled very spread-out and not contiguous districts. So when it tried something like land reform it was done experimentally and in a decentralized fashion. This was fundamentally different from the Soviet Union….
Toward the end of the book you offer several scenarios for how China might develop, and poll Merics staffers for their views. Most support the first scenario, which is a “centralized and disciplined party and security state (the Xi Jinping system).” You are less sure, arguing that the risks are greater than people realize.
I’m not sure that the party can achieve everything it’s set out to do. It’s tried to keep a lid on all changes in society, but I doubt this can work over time. There are different lifestyles and forces in society. I’m not sure they can be unified. I’m very skeptical.
Also, we shouldn’t forget that hierarchical systems are susceptible to shocks. If Xi Jinping became seriously ill, what would happen to the political system? The system has been tailored to him. Or, if there are military skirmishes, how will the nationalistic forces in society react?
This system is built for expansion, especially economic expansion, and setbacks are very hard to justify. It’s easier in Western systems because you can change the government. But in China you can’t. So the potential for disruption is greater than people imagine.
Are you looking for more political experts at the China Speakers Bureau? Do check out this list.
Ian Johnson will publish his much anticipated book The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao in April.