“Its Not The Economy, Stupid!” What Wealth Can’t Explain About Chinese Politics

“Shanghai Celebrates the New Republic,” from Dongfang Magazine, vol 8, no. 12 (1911)

Image Source: Wikimedia 

Political scientist Jay Ulfelder has an interesting piece up at Dart Throwing Chimp that questions the  importance of ‘legitimacy,’ a concept social scientists have long used to explain the rise and fall of governments and political regimes. This is not new territory for Ulfelder, but a new Brookings report on wealth, health, and happiness in China prompted him to return to it. To quote Mr. Ulfelder’s post:

Well, here is a fresh piece of empirical evidence against the utility of this concept: according to a new Global Working Paper from Brookings, the citizens of China who have benefited the most from that country’s remarkable economic growth in recent decades are, on average, its least happy. As one of the paper’s authors describes in a blog post about their research:

  • We find that the standard determinants of well-being are the same for China as they are for most countries around the world. At the same time, China stands out in that unhappiness and reported mental health problems are highest among the cohorts who either have or are positioned to benefit from the transition and related growth—a clear progress paradox. These are urban residents, the more educated, those who work in the private sector, and those who report to have insufficient leisure time and rest

These survey results contradict the “performance legitimacy” story that many observers use to explain how the Chinese Communist Party has managed to avoid significant revolutionary threats since 1989 (see here, for example). In that story, Chinese citizens choose not to demand political liberalization because they are satisfied with the government’s economic performance. In effect, they accept material gains in lieu of political voice. [1]

 I first wrote about the relationship between Chinese economic growth and popular support for the  Communist Party of China (CPC) back in 2013 shortly after I returned from a stint in Beijing. I stated then that the idea the CPC’s legitimacy rests on high growth rates “makes intuitive sense. But – and this is a big but – I have never seen anyone present evidence that this assertion is true.… Until then we should recognize this idea for what it is: a part of the received wisdom that is uncritically repeated because so many others seem to think it sounds right.” [2]

 I stick by this passage. Two years have passed and I have yet to find any convincing evidence that a large percentage of the Chinese populace supports the regime because it has made them personally richer or happier. I still have not seen any survey data that could support such a claim, nor have I personally met a single Chinese man or woman who cites increasing personal wealth or happiness when asked to explain why they support or like their government. As far as I can tell, this is a just-so-story pulled from a weird mix of 17th century social contract theory and popular Cold War rhetoric that has been applied to a country and a people unmoved by either.  

 Ulfelder is right to see the Brookings report as another nail in this story’s coffin. It is convincing evidence that the “wealth per capita brings political legitimacy to the Party” narrative is flawed. I am less convinced that ‘legitimacy’ itself is a flawed concept. Xavier Marquez describes one of the more compelling theories of legitimacy in the following terms:

Beetham (1992, 2013) attempts to improve on Weber’s narrow model of legitimacy by explicitly abandoning the idea of beliefs in legitimacy and instead speaking primarily about the congruence between shared beliefs and public justifications. On Beetham’s model, to ask whether a political system (for example) is legitimate is to ask not about whether people take the public reasons for action offered by a discourse of justification as their own private reasons for action, but (in the first instance) about observable features of the system that show congruence between shared beliefs and public justifications, such as whether the publicly recognized rules authorizing action are followed (and hence whether action is in accordance with valid authority norms), whether the justifications of the norms regulating authority appeal to widely shared beliefs (and hence whether action is in accord with valid evaluative norms), and whether those subject to authority publicly express their recognition of the relevant authority norms (thus providing evidence of their validity).

The key point in Beetham’s account is that legitimate relationships of domination tend to generate the evidence for their own justification. In his view, the justifications for the norms that govern a relationship of domination are not merely the manipulative rhetoric of the powerful – indeed, Beetham thinks explicit manipulation results not in persuasion but in cynicism, as happened in the communist states of Eastern Europe in the 1980s – but rather claims that are justified by the social facts generated by the system itself. For example, if the powerful claim that their position is justified because of their superior education or political intelligence, then to the extent that the relationship is legitimate, the system in which it is embedded will tend to differentially provide the powerful with greater education and opportunities to develop political intelligence than the subordinate; if the powerful claim that it is only by following the rules that the subordinate will get ahead, the operation of the relationship will make that claim credible. Legitimacy is institutionalized persuasion because legitimate systems manufacture credible claims. (Emphasis added) [3]

 Marquez has serious reservations about whether this conception of legitimacy has convincing “explanatory value,” but I’ll save these concerns for a later discussion so that we can focus on Ulfelder’s more basic critique. One might restate this critique in reference to Beetham’s theory of legitimacy as follows:

1. There is no ‘congruence’ between the claims the Party makes to legitimize its rule to the Chinese people and the social goods the Party actually provides.

2. Despite this fact, the Party’s grip on Chinese society is as strong as ever.

3. “Legitimacy” therefore fails to explain China’s political stability.

The problem with this critique is that it equates the “wealth per capita brings political legitimacy to the Party” narrative with the concept of legitimacy itself. The narrative is complete crock, of course, and any attempt to explain the Party’s success with it is crock as well. This is because this is not the narrative the Chinese government or people use to legitimize the Party. When asked to explain why they support the Party or what they like about the Party’s national leaders, the Chinese people do not speak about their personal wealth or happiness, but about the Party’s efforts to fight local corruption and injustice, or its role in helping China, as a country and a nation, become wealthy, powerful, and respected on the international stage. Both criticism and credit are given to the Party for what it has done for Chinese society as a whole, not for what it does for individual Chinese. These same themes are also at the center of the Party’s own propaganda campaigns and official literature.

This assessment is based off of my personal experiences in China, inferences from studies on Chinese political attitudes like Yang and Marquis’s 2013 Weibo study or Pan and Xu’s 2015 study on China’s political spectrum, and work on Chinese censorship and media control, like that done by Daniela Stockman. I would like to see it rigorously tested by proper opinion surveys specifically designed for this purpose. [4] Any investigation of the “legitimacy” of the Party should begin with what actual Chinese people have to say about the legitimacy of their government. We cannot assess whether popular narratives and attitudes play a meaningful role in Chinese politics until we have a more accurate picture of what these attitudes are. The most popular Western narrative about the legitimacy of the Party is certainly wrong. But we can’t nix discussions of legitimacy and the CPC until we discover whether or not Chinese narratives are any better.


[1] Jay Ufelder, “From China, Another Strike Against Legitimacy,Dart Throwing Chimp (14 June 2015).

[2] T. Greer, “Notes From Beijing: About that Chinese Social Contract…“, The Scholar’s Stage (24 August 2013).

[3] Xavier Marquez, “The Irrelevance of Legitimacy,”Political Studies (pub. online April 2015). An earlier version not hiding behind a pay-wall can be found here.

[4] Recents attempt to equate legitimacy with various political beliefs do not go into these specifics, and never discuss China’s international standing or sovereignty. See, for example, Niel Munro, Jane Duckett, Kate Hunt, and Matt Sutton, “Does China’s Regime Enjoy “Performance Legitimacy”? An Empirical Analysis Based on Three Surveys from the Past Decade,” paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association (Chicago, 2013).

I find this particular mysterious, for historians usually cite popular frustration over the governing regime’s inability to protect and preserve Chinese sovereignty as one of (if not the) central reasons behind every major social protest or revolutionary movement (with the June 4th movement and perhaps the Cultural Revolution excepted) of the last 150 years of Chinese history. It makes sense for this to work in reverse, and patterns in Chinese censorship suggest that it might. The relationship between China’s international standing and popular support for the regime is such a rich and obvious target for research that I can barely believe how little has been done with it.

Leave a Comment

No Comments Yet