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Trends in the Study of Political Elites and Institutions in the PRC*

  • Avery Goldstein

This essay provides a brief sketch of continuity and change in the study of political elites and institutions in the PRC. Rather than a full literature review, it offers only a few illustrative references to some prominent scholarship. The first sections contain an extended discussion of the study of political elites and institutions in China, considering the way recent work resembles or differs from earlier work on the subject. This is followed by brief suggestions of several reasons for some of the changes in current scholarship. Finally, some implications for the research agenda in the coming years are offered.

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1. For the purposes of this essay I rely on a crude division: the literature is separated into that produced during the Maoist (1950s–70s) and Dengist (1980 onward) eras. The earlier work establishes the benchmark against which studies from the 1980s, especially those since the mid-1980s, are compared. Previous reviews of Chinese political studies have suggested a variety of other ways to periodize the field. See, for example, Johnson, Chalmers, “What's wrong with Chinese political studies,” Issues and Studies, Vol. 18 (June 1982); Harding, Harry, “From China with disdain: new trends in the study of China,” Asian Survey, Vol. 22 (October 1982); “The study of Chinese politics: toward a third generation of scholarship,” World Politics, Vol. 36 (January 1984); Goldstein, Avery, “The domain of inquiry in political science: general lessons from the study of China,” Polity, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Spring 1989).

2. A Scalapino, Robert (ed.), Elites in the People's Republic of China (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1972).

3. See Whitson, William W., The Chinese High Command: A History of Communist Military Politics, 1927–71 (New York: Praeger, 1973); Scalapino, Elites in the People's Republic of China.

4. Pye, Lucian W., Mao Tse-tung: The Man in the Leader (New York: Basic Books, 1976); Dittmer, Lowell, Liu Shao-ch'i and the Chinese Cultural Revolution: The Politics of Mass Criticism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974).

5. Nathan, Andrew J., “A factionalism model for CCP politics,” The China Quarterly, No. 53 (March 1973); Pye, Lucian, The Dynamics of Chinese Politics (Cambridge: Oelgeschlager, Gunn & Hain, 1981); Tsou, Tang, “Prolegomenon to the study of informal groups in CCP politics,” The China Quarterly, No. 65 (March 1976); Whitson, William, “The field army in Chinese Communist military politics,” The China Quarterly, No. 37 (March 1969).

6. See for example, MacFarquhar's review of the Hundred Flowers/Anti-Rightist episode that emphasized a competition between Mao assisted by his protégé Deng, and Liu assisted by his protégé Peng Zhen. Macfarquhar, Roderick, Contradictions Among the People, 1956–1957 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974).

7. Dittmer, Lowell, “Bases of power in Chinese politics,” World Politics, Vol. 31 (October 1978).

8. Harding, Harry, “Political development in post-Mao China,” in Doak Barnett, A. and Clough, Ralph N. (eds.), Modernizing China: Post-Mao Reform and Development (Boulder, Co: Westview Press, 1986).

9. Dittmer, “Bases of power.”

10. See, for examples, Lee, Hong Yung, From Revolutionary Cadres to Party Technocrats in Socialist China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Li, Cheng and Bachman, David, “Localism, elitism, and immobilism: elite formation and social change in post-Mao China,” World Politics, Vol. 42, No. 1 (October 1989); Cheng, Li and White, Lynn, “Elite transformation and modem change in Mainland China and Taiwan: empirical data and the theory of technocracy,” The China Quarterly, No. 121 (March 1990); Cheng, Li and White, Lynn, “The army in the succession to Deng Xiaoping: familiar fealties and technocratic trends,” Asian Survey, Vol. 33, No. 8 (August 1993); Zang, Xiaowei, “The Fourteenth Central Committee of the CCP: technocracy or political technocracy?Asian Survey, Vol. 33, No. 8 (August 1992).

11. See for example the rich variety of Chinese sources cited in the special volume of The China Quarterly, No. 135 (September 1993) that offers a pre-mortem assessment of Deng Xiaoping's legacy. Compare this with the sources available to contributors to the early post-mortem assessment of Mao Zedong. Wilson, Dick (ed.), Mao Tse-Tung in the Scales of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977). The most colourful, if not sensational, of the elite studies to draw on personal recollections of those close to key Communist elites is Salisbury, Harrison E., The New Emperors: China in the Era of Mao and Deng (Boston: Little, Brown, 1992).

12. Compare for example, Teiwes’, Frederick interpretations of the Gao-Rao affair contained in Politics and Purges in China: Rectification and the Decline of Party Norms, 1950–1965 (White Plains: M. E. Sharpe, 1979) and Politics at Mao's Court: Gao Gang and Party Factionalism in the Early 1950s (Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1990). Consider also the deeper understanding of the dynamics of elite politics, including factionalism, provided by post-Mao Chinese and foreign descriptions of once obscure personnel and bureaucratic arrangements. Compare, for example, Lucian Pye's general model of factionalism contained in The Dynamics of Chinese Politics and the more detailed analysis of intra-elite dynamics in his article on the previously underestimated role played by the mishu (personal political secretaries). Li, Wei and Pye, Lucian W., “The ubiquitous role of the mishu in Chinese politics,” The China Quarterly, No. 132 (December 1992). The unprecedented details possible in more recent scholarship are also reflected in Barnett, A. DoakThe Making of Foreign Policy in China: Structure and Process (Boulder: Westview Press, 1985).

13. Li and Bachman, “Localism, elitism and immobilism”; Li and White, “Elite transformation and modern change in Mainland China and Taiwan”; Li and White, “The army in the succession to Deng Xiaoping.”

14. Xiaowei Zang, “The Fourteenth Central Committee of the CCP.”

15. Ibid., esp. pp. 801–803.

16. Shirk, Susan L., The Political Logic of Economic Reform in China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

17. See Segal, Gerald, China Changes Shape: Regionalism and Foreign Policy, Adelphi Paper 287 (London: The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1994).

18. Ibid. ch. III.

19. See Halpern, Nina P., “Information flows and policy coordination in the Chinese bureaucracy,” in Lieberthal, Kenneth G. and Lampton, David M. (eds.), Bureaucracy, Politics, and Decision Making in Post-Mao China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

20. Goldman, Merle, China's Intellectuals: Advise and Dissent (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981); Goldman, , Literary Dissent in Communist China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967); Moody, Peter R., Opposition and Dissent in Contemporary China (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1977); Ryckmans, Pierre, Chinese Shadows (New York: Viking Press, 1977).

21. Bachman, David and Yang, Dali L. (trans, and eds.), Yan Jiaqi and China's Struggle for Democracy (Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1991); Chan, Anita, Rosen, Stanley and Linger, Jonathan (eds.), On Socialist Democracy and the Chinese Legal System: The Li Yizhe Debates (Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1985); Nathan, Andrew J., Chinese Democracy 1st ed. (New York: Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 1985).

22. Chan, Rosen and Unger, On Socialist Democracy.

23. Initially called on to “seek truth from facts” and to participate in the reform and modernization of the country's political-administrative as well as economic system, some of China's youth have gone well beyond what the current leaders anticipated. It mattered little to the nervous CCP that their appeals for change have most often been framed as patriotic appeals for reform rather than revolution. Though the Party's harsh reaction to this relatively powerless group was clearest in May and June 1989, this was preceded by the crackdown on young activists in the winter of 1986–87, and less dramatic repression of reformist impulses earlier in the decade. For the contrasting perspectives of the regime and demonstrators in Spring 1989, see Oksenberg, Michel, Sullivan, Lawrence R. and Lambert, Marc (eds.), Beijing Spring, 1989 (Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1990). On the uneasy relation between democratic reformers and the reformist authoritarians in the early to mid-1980s, see Nathan, Chinese Democracy.

24. For example, are the views of Fang Lizhi, Liu Binyan, Yan Jiaqi, Su Shaozhi, Wei Jingsheng and Han Dongfang representative of the political preferences of China's scientists, journalists, political scientists, political philosophers and labour leaders? Under current circumstances one cannot know.

25. This is not to suggest that political behaviour in various contexts is wholly unpredictable. Patterns of behaviour develop, and practices may persist long enough that actors learn the “rules of the game.” Elsewhere, I have argued that these patterns can be explained by the structural constraints facing actors. Goldstein, Avery, From Bandwagon to Balance-of-power Politics: Structural Constraints and Politics in China, 1949—1978 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991). As Kevin O'Brien pointed out at the roundtable discussion in Washington, some may prefer to label as “institutions” such settled patterns and practices that develop and persist for any length of time. Though partly a semantic dispute, to me there is still an important distinction between a system like that in the PRC and those in which formal organizational distinctions are more meaningful. I reserve the term institution for those durable organizational practices that undergird the structure of a stable political system.

26. Barnett, A. Doak, Cadres, Bureaucracy, and Political Power in Communist China (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967); Schurmann, Franz, Ideology and Organization in Communist China 2d ed., enl. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968); Harding, Harry, Organizing China: The Problem of Bureaucracy, 1949–1976 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1981).

27. McCormick, Barrett L., Political Reform in Post-Mao China: Democracy and Bureaucracy in a Leninist State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); O'brien, Kevin J., Reform Without Liberalization: China's National People's Congress and the Politics of Institutional Change (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

28. Barnett, A. Doak, Uncertain Passage: China's Transition to the Post-Mao Era (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1974); Gittings, John, The Role of the Chinese Army (London: Oxford University Press, 1967); Jencks, Harlan W., From Muskets to Missiles: Politics and Professionalism in the Chinese Army, 1945–1981 (Boulder: Westview Press, 1982); Nelsen, Harvey W., The Chinese Military System: An Organizational Study of the Chinese People's Liberation Army 2d, updated, rev. ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1981).

29. Godwin, Paul H. B. (ed.), The Chinese Defense Establishment: Continuity and Change in the 1980s (Boulder: Westview Press, 1983).Joffe, Ellis, The Chinese Army after Mao (l: Harvard University Press, 1987); Wortzell, Larry M. (ed.), China's Military Modernization: International Implications (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988).

30. Compare, for example, Shambaugh's analysis before and Saich's and Li and White's after the Congress. Shambaugh, David, “Regaining political momentum: Deng strikes back,” Current History, Vol. 91, No. 566 (September 1992); Saich, Tony, “The Fourteenth Party Congress: a programme for authoritarian rule,” The China Quarterly, No. 132 (December 1992); Li and White, “The Fourteenth Central Committee of the CCP.”

31. Swaine, Michael D., The Military and Political Succession in China: Leadership Institutions Beliefs (Santa Monica: RAND, 1992).

32. Ibid. pp. 138–39.

33. Ibid. pp. vii–viii, 113–14.

34. Ibid. pp. 9–10, 148–151.

35. Shambaugh, David, “The soldier and the state in China: the political work system in the People's Liberation Army,” The China Quarterly, No. 127 (September 1991), esp. pp. 564–68.

36. Barnett, Cadres, Bureaucracy, and Political Power, Schumann, Ideology and Organization.

37. Lampton, David M. (ed.). Policy Implementation in Post-Mao China (l: University of California Press, 1987), pp. 1617; Susan L. Shirk, “The Chinese political system and the political strategy of economic reform,” in Lieberthal and Lampton (eds.), Bureaucracy, Politics, and Decision Making in Post-Mao China, p. 76.

38. Lieberthal, Kenneth and Oksenberg, Michel, Policy Making in China: Leaders, Structures, and Processes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988); Allison, Graham T., Essence of Decision; Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971).

39. Shirk describes the way in which the reformist strategy entailed delegating authority to the government bureaucracy entrusted with carrying out the new economic policies. Disaggregation was combined with decentralization as the power of provincial leaders, on the increase ever since 1957, was enhanced. As a result central leaders have come to recognize the wisdom, if not necessity, of “playing to the provinces” (Shirk, “The Chinese political system,” pp. 82–85).

40. Krasner, Stephen D., “Are bureaucracies important? (Or Allison Wonderland),” Foreign Policy (Summer 1972); Art, Robert, “Bureaucratic politics and American foreign policy: a critique,” Policy Sciences, No. 4 (1973).

41. Kenneth G. Lieberthal, “Introduction: the ‘fragmented authoritarianism’ model and its limitations,” in Lieberthal and Lampton (eds.), Bureaucracy, Politics, and Decision Making in Post-Mao China, pp. 4–6. One might also wonder whether the new view of a sluggish policy process in post-Mao China reflects a genuine change or simply a lack of access to comparable data on the Maoist era (Lieberthal, “Introduction,” pp. 16–17, 26; Shirk, “The Chinese political system,” p. 72, n. 18).

42. Lieberthal, “Introduction,” pp. 16, 17.

43. White, Tyrene, “Postrevolutionary mobilization in China: the one-child policy reconsidered,” World Politics, Vol. 43, No. 1 (October 1990).

44. Harding, Harry, China's Second Revolution: Reform after Mao (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1987).

45. Although Deng has referred to his reforms as a “second revolution” this clearly is not what he intended. Deng's strategy was intentionally reformist, designed to introduce changes necessary to facilitate China's development without sacrificing the regime's Marxist-Leninist core values. This intent is clearest in the CCP's unwavering insistence on upholding the four cardinal principles as a limit on political reform, and, at least rhetorically, in the CCP's insistence that China's economy will remain socialist.

46. Among Chinese, the term demonstrated a plasticity during the 1980s that would surprise most Westerners. Indeed, as research by Stanley Rosen and Gary Zou points out, from the late 1970s to spring 1989, various strands of neo-authoritarianism were often promoted by those within China who saw it as a stepping stone to political modernization. After Tiananmen, the neo-authoritarian label associated with the purged Zhao Ziyang was supplanted on the mainlaind by a school of thought dubbed neo-conservative, though the central theme of economic liberalization under strict one-party rule persisted. Rosen, Stanley and Zou, Gary, “Chinese discussions on neoauthoritarianism, neoconservatism and the transition to the future,” paper presented to the Annual Meeting of the Association of Asian Studies, Los Angeles, California, 2528 March 1993.

47. The ideal-typical neo-authoritarian ruler might be Lee Kuan-yew. His recent interview with Foreign Affairs in which he emphasizes the need for stability and social tranquility as a prerequisite for rapid economic development sounds not far different from the nervous CCP ot leaders’ repeated appeals for unity and stability in the 1990s. Unlike the Chinese Communists, however, Lee also recognizes the ways in which the invasi veness of Communist rule weakens ist the social forces (spiritual and familial) that nurture economic growth in a well ordered ur society. He also acknowledges the likelihood that economic development will spawn forces for political change. Zakaria, Fareed, “Culture is destiny: a conversation with Lee Kuan Yew,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 73, No. 2 (March/April, 1994), pp. 109126.

48. See Garver, John W., “The Chinese Communist Party and the collapse of Soviet Communism,” The China Quarterly, No. 133 (March 1993); Zhao, Suisheng, “Deng Xiaoping's southern tour: elite politics in post-Tiananmen China,” Asian Survey, Vol. 33, No. 8 (August 1993).

49. Goldstein, From Bandwagon to Balance-of-Power Politics.

50. For example, Li and White note that within the military, school ties may have replaced the old field armies as the basis for informal, personal loyalties that could serve as the trellis iet for factional groupings. Li and White, “The army in the succession to Deng Xiaoping.”

51. Segal, China Changes Shape, p. 3. An unusually obvious example of local disregard arose in the context of the CCP's efforts to cool off a dangerously overheating economy in early 1994. In response to Li Peng's call in his report to the March 1994 National People's Congress that China's growth rate should be a relatively modest 9% in 1994, the governor of Zhejiang frankly told a news conference that he expected his province to exceed this rate (China News Digest-Global, 15 March 1994).

52. In an attempt to deal with its fiscal crisis, the Party Centre has made fundamental revision of the Centre-local tax relationship a keystone of its final plans for a transition to a true market economy. The groundwork for this latest wave of major economic reforms was laid at the Third Plenum of the 14th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party with details revealed over the winter of 1993–94. Whether the fiscal changes and other components of the package will be honoured or circumvented remains to be seen. But the dependence of local governments on revenues generated by investments in their own communities led to aggressive protectionism in some localities in the 1980s and 1990s, including the use of military forces to fend off provincial competitors. Thus it seems most likely that local leaders of will dig in their heels rather than acquiesce to any serious effort at fiscal recentralization.

53. See Segal, China Changes Shape, esp. ch. II.

54. See the special issue on “Greater China” in The China Quarterly, No. 136 (December 1993); also Segal, China Changes Shape, ch. II.

55. A topic raised by analyst Lieberthal and advocate Jiaqi, Yan. Lieberthal, Kenneth, “The dynamics of internal policies,” in China's Economic Dilemmas in the 1990s: The Problems of Reforms, Modernization, and Interdependence, Vol. 1, Joint Economic Committee Congress of the United States (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, April 1991). Bachman and Yang, Yan Jiaqi. Gerald Segal questions the viability of federalism in the Chinese setting where the Confucian political culture has not fostered the necessary “firm legal tradition,” China Changes Shape, p. 63.

* I would like to thank Harry Harding and Jean-Marc Blanchard for their comments and of suggestions.

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