Background: The China Focus team had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Dimitar Gueorguiev, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and Director of Chinese Studies at Syracuse University. Dr. Gueorguiev obtained his doctoral degree from the Department of Political Science here at UC San Diego in 2014. His new book, Retrofitting Leninism: Participation without Democracy in Modern China, is a fascinating work that “explores the interface between public opinion and authoritarian resilience through the lens of participatory governance in China.” This phenomenal work provided much-needed clarity on the often-overlooked topic of public participation in China through original fieldwork conducted by the author. Anyone interested in political participation in China will find this book a must-read.
Q: Speaking of the book’s title, Retrofitting Leninism, what are the aspects of Leninism to which you refer? How is it reflected in how the party and state are structured in China?
A: There are three notable features. First, there is a prerogative to separate the party from the state. At the core, the party fears that it could create friction with the public if it gets too close to the state – when administration or public service fails to provide satisfactory services, having some separation between the party and the state is advantageous. The second important feature is the organizational structure of a Leninist state: it is very fragmented, compartmentalized, and brimmed with redundancies in place. That meticulous level of organizing people into sectors, interest groups, and jurisdiction – very few other political ideologies get into that much detail. The third, obviously for the book, is the preoccupation with involving the public in policymaking and policy implementation, whether voluntarily or by polite coercion. These three aspects of Leninism are unique in political theory and comparative political institutions. As I argue in the book, they set the foundation for states to develop a sophisticated system of controlled and segregated mass inclusion in the governing, administrative, and policymaking process.
It is worth noting that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was, at its origin, a revolutionary party and a proletariat party that espoused mass inclusion. But the early works of Lenin are not very revolutionary, especially the earlier articulation of what government should do and how it should be organized. On the contrary, it was rather conservative, and mass inclusion was promoted because it is conducive to regime capacity, not because it was the right thing to do.
Q: Do you see the three elements of Leninism in CCP’s institutional makeup?
A: Yes, the institution wax and wane in different directions, but throughout the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s history, there has been a coherent party structure and a state structure. It sometimes melts a little closer together or separates a little more – we might be at a fusion point now. In addition, there is ample evidence of fragmentation, atomization, and compartmentalization of the political space. Of course, there is only one party, but it contains multiple distinctive cells within the umbrella party. The economy is very sequestered, both sectorally and geographically; society is also very curated: people are assigned to districts and groups of affiliations horizontally and vertically – the Chinese case embodies these three aspects of Leninism quite well.
Q: What is the historical rationale behind adopting the current Leninist party-state system? Some scholars argue that the design was proven to be effective since both adoptees, China and Vietnam, survived the collapse of the Soviet Union. Do you agree with their view?
A: No, China and Vietnam are not the only two Leninist states, and many others have collapsed, so it cannot be that. On the contrary, I believe that the fragmentation and the redundancy of political and administrative representatives are by definition inefficient. The Leninist architecture is more about insecurity and a lack of trust than efficiency. The party does not want to get entangled in the administrative details, and a lack of trust pervades the system, whereby having two sets of leaders and posts means that leaders might be able to get at least one of them to keep an eye out on the other. As for why China and Vietnam survived, I believe that is a different question, but I would not pin it on Leninism. Indeed, though supposedly anti-bureaucratic, the Leninist system is bureaucratic to the core, and we know that overly-bureaucratic systems find it hard to adapt and make changes. That further raises the question: how were China and Vietnam able to mold the Leninist system without abandoning it.
Q: Let’s talk about a core concept in your book, “controlled inclusion”. Why is there a need for “control”, “inclusion”, and “controlled inclusion” in an authoritarian regime? Furthermore, some might argue that there is a fundamental tradeoff between “control” and “inclusion”. Do you agree with that view?
A: Control is the common denominator across all authoritarian systems: it is the desire to dictate the terms and course of politics as well as to influence the outcome. I believe it comes from the unwillingness to tolerate uncertainty. Democracy, if anything, demands an enormous amount of faith in the process – even if people end up voting for the wrong candidate, that is still part of the process. In an authoritarian regime, the desire to control and dictate outcomes makes uncertainty an impossible proposition. Control is not necessarily a nefarious ambition. We have spent the last two and half years talking about controls in the pandemic as a desirable capability. But in the political space, I am referring to excessive control: control over how society organizes and interacts with itself and controls over how economic investment is positioned. There could be benevolent, good-willed intentions behind that, but the intolerance to let things fail or evolve naturally is what I mean when I talk about control.
Inclusion involves somebody not already a part of the decision-making process: they are, either formally or informally, not enfranchised within a political or administrative group. Controlled inclusion involves people who don’t need to be involved already in a constrained way. There is a limit to their involvement, there is an agenda on which they can have opinions and attribute to (but not outside that agenda), and there are limits to those involved on how they can coordinate with one another. All of these controls are intended to direct the amount of involvement.
You are correct in saying that there is a contradiction between control and inclusion. Some issues will never have popular inclusion or mass involvement, for example, decisions over leaders. But it is excessive to say that there are no other affairs that can involve public participation, especially if the terms of inclusion can be structured safely and appropriately to the regime. When I am talking about controlled inclusion, I am talking about arenas created by the CCP for the public to provide opinions and information, express grievances, and disagree within these bounded terms.
I think control and inclusion can be complementary in some settings because uncontrolled information flow is not necessarily productive – we have a clear example from the social media platforms. One example that I explored in the book is consultation campaigns on specific policy issues with a set of options that structure an acceptable range for debate but no further. Some people can express their concerns for one option over the other, but they are not voicing preferences beyond the official agenda.
Q: As a quick follow-up, if you were to respond to the school of thought revolving around the selectorate theory, which maintains that authoritarian leaders only need to return the favor to a clique of political elites to keep themselves in power, why is China practicing controlled inclusion? Can’t the top leaders live without this kind of inclusion?
A: Yes, I think they can live without it, and we don’t need to look much further than North Korea: you can have a resilient authoritarian regime that is composed of an exclusive and small group of political elites that operates at a distance from the rest of society and do so relatively safely and prosperously. But that kind of polity will be handicapped. If a state ever wants to expand its political economy, move up the production ladder and innovate, it will have to move beyond that small group of people. The problem becomes: can you include more and more people in the decision-making process without losing control over them?
The proposition I am making is that the regime can certainly do that, but it requires a significant investment at the local level. Few authoritarian regimes have made that investment, but CCP is one of them, mainly due to its origin as a guerrilla force fighting two wars simultaneously: one against the occupier and another against the Kuomintang. The amount of investment the CCP has made at the local level is not something you see comparatively in other places, Vietnam perhaps being one exception. It is not surprising that the regimes in Vietnam and China, both of which had formative years during active warfare against domestic and foreign entities, have effectively established robust connections with the mass public. In other words, the amount of investment that a regime makes in control is complementary to the amount of investment that can be made in inclusion. If you have adequate control in place, you can allow for more public involvement. The Chinese internet space is a good example: there is very intricate and sophisticated control on the Chinese internet that creates firewalls – not the great firewall, but smaller ones that can allow open discussion on certain topics that are evolving for a certain time before they are closed off. In the absence of those controls, the CCP might have to shut the whole thing down at once.
Q: What do you mean by retrofitting? How does the emergence of technology affect how the CCP governs China?
A: Retrofitting implies the underlying architecture has not changed — the chassis of Leninism has not changed; the idea of meticulously organizing groupings of people, interests, and resources and keeping them sequestered has not changed; and the desire to involve the public in policy campaigns has not changed. In other contexts, retrofitting means taking something old and slapping new components onto it, but the underlying architecture remains intact. That is the type of image that I am trying to provoke with the title: the core of Leninism has not changed, but it has got all these new additions, many of which are technological ones.
It goes back to an earlier question of whether China and Vietnam survived because they adopted Leninism. The short answer is “no” because, in most cases, Leninist regimes mostly collapsed. After all, they could not adapt, evolve, or manage a more sophisticated political economy. The Soviet Union collapsed, in part, because liberalization of the economy suddenly created a much more complex control challenge, and the system buckled.
In the case of China, for several reasons, some coincidental, the time at which the control challenges started to increase dramatically happened to be around a time when technological solutions emerged. Rather than relying on these layers and layers of bureaucracies to propagate the information up and down the system, now you have telecommunication networks that can transmit information rapidly and bypass potential bottlenecks. Rather than relying on agents to implement an economic policy or campaigns, now you have technologies that allow you to disperse funds, monitor, and trace their usage electronically. So technology is both a game-changer and a lifeline for Leninism. In its analog form, Leninism is incompatible with a dynamic economy – it is simply unsustainable. But, with these telecommunication add-ons, it suddenly becomes more feasible to collect a large amount of information and process it with the help of computer-assisted programs to sort out the noise in the ocean of information.
Q: Drawing on your rich fieldwork experience in China, can you discuss the empirical evidence that supports your conceptualization?
A: I put at least six empirical chapters in my book, and each of them tries to get at the empirical question in a slightly different way. One of the most obvious questions is: “fine, people share information with the state, but is there any evidence that this information is being acted on?” Several empirical chapters respond to this question by exploring whistleblower complaints concerning corruption. Official reports state that the average citizens’ complaints are being read and investigated. If so, that is pretty remarkable. But, do we believe this description? Do we think that people can file a complaint about a corrupt local official and, consequently, trigger serious disciplinary investigations that could lead to the downfall of the corrupt official? If so, how could one observe that process empirically?
I collected two sets of data, one on the tip-offs from the public and another on investigation and disciplinary actions. Right away, one can show the correlation: these two factors move together, but that is insufficient. You can imagine a politically driven anti-corruption campaign occurring, and people who read about it on paper could be seizing the window of opportunity to file complaints, but there is no causal connection between the public complaints and the number of disciplinary actions. To address this, I predicted the number of complaints filed by the public by assessing their capacity to file the complaints. Specifically, I look at the telecommunication infrastructure networks in China to predict the rate of complaints and use this prediction to see whether it can explain trends in corruption, investigation, and disciplinary actions.
Participation also impacts policy planning in two different ways. One kind of planning is to anticipate incoming challenges. One procedure that China practices very consistently now — there are regulations requiring new regulatory or legal provisions to go through a public comment period. Ideally, that public comment period allows people to point out problems and express concerns, anxieties, and anger towards the proposed policy. And then, as the planner, you have that information in hand, deciding whether to adopt, revise, or delay the proposed policy move. A case in point is the property tax policies in China: there have been several rounds of public consultations, and it keeps getting delayed. We do not know why, but it is likely that the public consultations reveal a lack of popular support.
Another way, perhaps more Machiavellian use of public input in the planning process, is that policymakers can exploit it to reframe potentially controversial policies. One example I talk about in the book is labor contract law, a very contentious piece of legislation with enormous consequences for employers and employees, but those two groups had divergent preferences about how they wanted the legislation to pan out. Rather than having the state declare a directive that triggers pushbacks from one side (the state cannot satisfy both sides simultaneously), it can organize a structured debate where each side can voice their concerns. The state could then point to those competing positions and say: “Look, there are a lot of disagreements here, and nobody will be happy, so we will try to study it and figure out what is the best option, and here is the benevolent compromise that tries to square the circle.” I show in the book that, if you compare the nearly identical policies adopted by different localities – some adopted through the open mechanism of public comment, others by local decree without any discussion – open policies are much less likely to be repealed or amended.
Q: Some observers commented on a trend that China is closing up and becoming more conservative. How do you explain this trend from the framework you’ve proposed in your book?
A: I am not sure there is a direct link there, but there could be some common drivers. Maybe it is unique to the personality of Xi Jinping, who tends to be somewhat pessimistic about the future. There are good reasons for that: the relationship with the US has been rockier now than it has been in recent memory. Closing off in some areas is perhaps a reaction to the overall environment. I do not think that China is closing off entirely. It is moving in a different direction, and it is moving toward more direct investments in preferred areas rather than allowing market mechanisms to move independently. It comes back to control: what a Leninist regime is interested in is refining control, and maybe that is what we are seeing now.
Increasingly, we see that the Chinese public is proud of the governance improvement taking place in China. Excluding the last couple of months, it was a point of confidence about how effective China has been in the public health emergency. I think there is quite a bit of faith within the Chinese polity in these mechanisms of controlled inclusion. People perhaps do not trust local officials, but they trust the system to clean itself up and ultimately arrive at an optimal policy direction. That is something we do not have here in the United States. If government officials ask people to use an app to report their health statistics in the US, there would be tremendous resistance. Yet, in the Chinese case, people have often participated voluntarily, perhaps because they see it as acceptable to gather information and use it for administrative goals such as public health. There is an identification with an empathetic state or a level of trust in the broader institution that is higher in China and Vietnam than in more open societies. That is odd, but it is something that we should not ignore.
Q: China has been under pressure from economic slowdowns, Covid lockdowns, and fraught foreign relationships. Responding to these pressures, if you were to advise Xi Jinping, what would you recommend him to do with your analysis framework?
A: There are some obvious things one might want to say. One, in particular, is that personalization is antithetical to controlled inclusion. When one individual becomes the source of vision, the source of direction, the architect of campaigns and policies, it becomes impossible to provide objective inputs on those policies or directions without inadvertently criticizing the person, so I think personalization is counter-productive. The other thing I would say is that controlled inclusion is a well-positioned system to deal with the challenges China faces in the future. We are talking about challenges such as natural economic slowdown: once a country gets to a higher level of development, it is harder to tack on those additional growth parameters. Other challenges include demographics and climate change. These are issues that require a central structure for redistributing resources. For example, the basic income, pension funds, collecting resources into insurance, or allocating credits — all of them are redistributive. If the state keeps investing further and involving the public in these campaigns, they will probably be more effective. What we have seen recently with the ideological campaigns that come directly from the party but have not been regularized into policy, such as the restriction on gaming and education, might not have clear and meaningful effects, regardless of the intentions. These were done in a closed-door fashion. So I would say, given the type of challenges that China is facing, why are you leading a strategy that does not seem to bear fruit?
Q: Lastly, considering your career, we believe that many graduate students would love to seek advice from you concerning how they could make the best out of their academic journey. What would you do differently if you could travel back in time to the first year of your Ph.D. study?
A: I don’t know if this generalizes to the reader, but I think I made the mistake of thinking that the Ph.D. program is just inevitable pain and suffering you have to bear to get to the next career stage: being awarded the Ph.D. and getting a job, and that’s where you prove yourself. That was totally wrong! Looking back, this time when you are a student and not expected to know everything (or anything) is so precious. You are encouraged to be curious and investigate everything, and that is a pretty great spot to be in. And you have all these great resources of people who want to listen to you. So the main advice I have for current students is that if you have chosen this track, you likely have not chosen it for the money, you have not chosen it for the prestige or anything like that, because if you have, you are signing up for the wrong thing. You have chosen it because you are curious, like asking questions, and are good at answering them, hopefully. There will not be a point in your career that is perfect for doing this than when you are a graduate student, so make the best out of it and appreciate it because you will be nostalgic.
Image Source: SCMP
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Chi (Will) Gao
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