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Mike Bloomberg said China isn’t a dictatorship. Is he right?

The Communist Party does listen to the people — sometimes

- December 3, 2019

Earlier this fall, Mike Bloomberg said that Chinese President Xi Jinping is “not a dictator,” and that the long-ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “listens to the public.”

Now that the former mayor has entered the presidential contest, comments like this are coming back to haunt him. But does Bloomberg have a point? Here’s what you need to know.

China’s CCP does listen to the people — as long as they aren’t independent-minded

Bloomberg is right in one regard. The CCP has a big stake in learning what the Chinese public thinks and providing some of what it wants. The government encourages Chinese citizens to monitor local officials, file complaints and even provide input in policy planning. In a recent book on Chinese governance, my co-authors and I document how these limited forms of public engagement can help reduce corruption and improve compliance with regulations.

Other studies confirm that the Chinese government desires some measure of civil society, and is surprisingly receptive to public input — and even some well-intentioned criticism. In return, an abundance of research demonstrates the CCP continues to enjoy broad support and legitimacy among the Chinese public.

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At the same time, the CCP is uncomfortable with having the Chinese people think, feel or act for themselves. Pervasive government censorship and targeted repression are symptoms of the leadership’s deep-seated insecurity. Naturally, it is harder for the regime to engage and understand the public if it limits what the public can say.

But Beijing is getting better at figuring out what the Chinese people are saying and thinking. In a current book manuscript, I show how technology helps the government see and understand what the Chinese public wants — in a controlled manner. While the system underpinning this technology is dystopian, it helps the regime harness and optimize competing public interests when making policy.

This capacity to listen, process and respond is perhaps what Bloomberg is alluding to. The Chinese public, for instance, wants cleaner air without compromising economic opportunity. The CCP and its leader are working to make that happen, even if it means blowing up dirty factories and relocating entire communities. Xi Jinping and the CCP are delivering a paternalistic version of “soft authoritarianism,” whereby collective well-being is more important than individual liberties, and national development is more important than political rights.

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China is still a dictatorship

Here’s where Bloomberg gets things wrong: Yes, Xi Jinping is a dictator. The CCP is generally popular, the governing system is often effective, and Xi Jinping does (as Bloomberg points out) have “constituents.” But a popular dictatorship is still a dictatorship. Even political scientists who disagree over whether the contrast between dictatorship and democracy is a spectrum, taxonomy or dichotomy, would rank China as a dictatorship.

Given the CCP’s popularity, it is tempting to describe China as a “democracy with Chinese characteristics,” or at least an “autocracy with democratic characteristics.” But these kinds of qualifications aren’t helpful. Democracy is not about the will or even the good of the people; sometimes dictatorship is precisely what the people want.

Instead, liberal democracy is about allowing the people to make important political decisions for themselves and contest their differences in an open forum. Ideally, a democratic system generates positive returns for those involved, but good outcomes are not guaranteed.

And China is likely to remain a dictatorship

Even if the CCP refined its technology of public inclusion to the point where it could rationalize the collective preference of the public and respond to it, China would remain a dictatorship. As historian Yuval Harari puts it, democracy is more about “feelings” than rational preferences and the democratic enterprise is based on trusting those feelings, even when they might be wrong, inefficient or outdated.

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Dictatorships like the CCP have opted for meticulous control over brute violence, but they still don’t trust their people to choose for themselves. This is why Beijing remains unwilling to let the people of Hong Kong elect their executives, and why citizens across China are not free to form independent organizations, whether they be civil, religious, professional or otherwise. It is not that CCP leaders are averse to the notion of public participation — China’s leadership simply wants any such moves to happen in a controlled manner. When authoritarian systems falter and when members of the public try to circumvent the controls, reverting to tyranny is the most likely course of action.

Today, about half the world’s population (nearly 4 billion people) lives under some form of dictatorship. For many, the main concern is food, shelter and opportunity for themselves and for their children. Dictators understand this — and they are getting better at delivering what the people want.

But democracy is not the same thing as providing for the population’s needs. As Bloomberg points out, the CCP listens to the Chinese public carefully. Yet the CCP will never commit to trusting the public over its own political interests. It will resort to force when necessary, as it has in the past, and this use of force is the very essence of dictatorship.

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Dimitar Gueorguiev is an assistant professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University. He is the co-author (with Jonathan Stromseth and Edmund Malesky) of “China’s Governance Puzzle.” His current book manuscript, “Retrofitting Leninism,” concerns the complementarities between Leninist organization structures and information technology in China.