We need a deeper understanding of Chinese politics

Nov 16, 2023
The Great Hall of the People during the regular yearly session of the National People's Congress in Beijing

We need a better understanding of the complexities of Chinese politics – treating it like a ‘Black Box’ will leave us poorly equipped for a world where China is the other superpower, writes Louise Edwards.

Australians generally understand how US politics works. They often know the distinctions between blue and red states and even the importance of appointments to the Supreme Court. They are reminded of the powerful influence of lobby groups on law making after each mass shooting. Some Australians will even know the voting patterns of individual US senators and be able to describe factional differences with political parties. Even if they are merely shaking their heads at the seemingly protracted election cycle, most Australians appreciate the complexity of US politics and its competition for power, money and fame. In contrast, we struggle to move beyond even the most superficial impressions of the Chinese political system.

Simplistic stereotypes of Chinese politicians prevail. The focus remains on the single top leader as a man who wields unlimited power and whose personal quirks and foibles are unrestricted by administrative process, rule of law, or even custom and good manners. The caricature ‘Chinese Chairman’ invokes the fictional evil mastermind, Fu Manchu, and is just as harmful. The familiar stereotypes of Oriental despots discourage us from looking deeper into the political system that produced the dictator’s rise to power. We don’t have to look deeper because, of course, apex predator dictators simply gain power because they are more ruthless and cunning than their competitor wannabe dictators. We remain ignorant about how leadership selection changes over time in response to different political, economic and social conditions.

The misguided and commonplace notion that authoritarian regimes present ruthless maniacs with untrammelled power encourages this lack of curiosity. But equally damaging is the habit of declaring that Beijing politics are an impenetrable ‘black box’ that prevents even the willing and hard-working analyst from comprehension. The inscrutable politician inside the Chinese puzzle of Communist Party politics is as unreadable today as he was in the Yellow Peril days of yesteryear.

We can do better. The domestic political processes of a global superpower—a nation that is one-quarter of the world’s population, and either the first or second largest economy in the world—demands a more nuanced appreciation of how power, money and influence is garnered.

We need to get better at appreciating the complex balancing between factions and generations in all leadership votes, budget allocations and major new policy directions within the Chinese political system. Equally, competing interests based on geography—the vast power differences between provinces and huge municipal governments—barely rates a mention.

And what of the incentives driving political aspirants in China? While we intuitively know that US politicians are motivated to ‘find campaign donors’ and to ‘win votes’ we know little about the pathways to power in the Chinese system—as if non-democratic political systems lack any processes worthy of our attention. The apex predator dictator model is all we need to know—brute force and raw power are the motivations and rewards.

The career trajectories of politicians, party cadres, and public servants as they progress from the local to the provincial, municipal, and national levels emerge after years of work and careful strategising. Explicit criteria for career success at each level drives progress to higher levels of power and prestige. Skilful negotiating and innovative policy planning are rewarded if they deliver results. Prosperity produced in your jurisdiction speeds career progress. And corruption on your watch will produce an even more rapid decline.

Yet, for most of us, China’s politics remains an undifferentiated blob with one man at the top. He drives the only change we care to hear about by purging opponents and promoting flatterers and flunkies. And besides, we know how to pronounce Xi Jinping’s name—how clever are we?

Clinging to old beliefs about the fragility of communist autocracies, we seek out dissident voices who will confirm the coming collapse of Communist Party rule. Each mass protest is heralded as evidence of the building pressure that will explode the system, blow the dictator off his top-spot, and herald a new democratic era for China. Dismissing voices from within China’s media, universities, or think-tanks as propagandists, unless they actively criticise the One-Party system, leaves us poorly informed of the real strengths and weaknesses in the political system and where the best places for leveraging our national interests might be.

If economic success underpins political and social stability, then we would do well to know how China built that wealth. Our current sloppy thinking swings between arguing that it was either despite the dictator or because of the dictator. Did Xi make everyone too scared to slack off? Or did he brainwash everyone into making yet another scientific discovery? Or maybe his spies just copied everything from the brains trust in the west?

What might we find if we consider the incentives given local political and business leaders to support innovation and industry? Or could we learn from how government policy promotes inventiveness in universities and other research institutes? There are many mistakes and blunders amidst the successes—but we can learn from those as well, if we were bothered.

The deeply entrenched stereotype of Oriental despots in an impenetrable political system is a serious block to developing Australian capacity for engaging with China as superpower. To broaden and deepen our knowledge of how the Chinese political system operates we will have to shake off some of our dictator dreams and the accompanying fixation with the fragility of autocracies. We need to give Chinese politics the same degree of scrutiny that we give the other superpower—and this knowledge won’t come with The West Wing as primer or Frank Underwood as a guide.

Failure to take Chinese politics seriously will fail to equip Australians for advancing our best interests in a world where China is the other superpower. Ignorance will not fill Australia’s coffers or feed Australian families.


First published in AsiaLink November 15, 2023

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